Flying Camels and Livestock Economies in British Mandate Palestine

As the «ship of the desert», camels were integral to the landscape of the Middle East. Adapted to hot and arid climates, camels could carry heavy loads across long waterless distances. Alongside transportation and other forms of labor, camels also provided their owners with precious provisions such as milk, meat, and hair (used as textile). These merits made camels significant to a household or tribal economy.

Under Ottoman and British rule, the evolving technologies of transportation began to challenge the visibility of camels in Middle Eastern landscapes. Gradually replaced by the motorcar and the railway, the camel, it seemed, could not compete with the wonders of technology. Some British officials and tourists celebrated this as a march into modernization, while others mourned the loss of the slow-paced camel as part of the Middle East’s original charm.

Besides imperial gazes, Jewish settlers in Palestine also adorned camels with meaning. In the 1930s, the architect of Tel Aviv’s Levant Fair created a commercial figurine to personify the economic development of Palestine. The architect designed a fictional camel flapping its wings as if to take off into the sky, suggesting that Jewish settlers drove the Middle East from underdevelopment (the camel) to economic prosperity (the sky).

By World War II, camels gained renewed attention not for what they presented but for what they offered. As the War Department calculated, camels were a form of capital with rising value, a source of meat during acute food shortages, and a «natural» transporter of goods and people when imperial railways were overworked or under attack. From an almost obsolete relic of the past, camels were officially incorporated into the modern imperial war effort. This paper will examine the changing meanings of the camel for farmers, travelers, traders, settlers, and soldiers. It will emphasize colonial and settler-colonial gazes on the role of camels within the wider livestock economy of the Middle East.