In Cairo's chaotic streets, Sukara's agonised wails drowned in the blare of car horns.
Abandoned in a pile of household garbage within sight of a mosque and a cafe, it was three days before anyone in the working class neighbourhood offered help. When local accountant Mohamed Mostafa eventually took pity on the stricken donkey — giving her some drinking water and arranging for a place in an animal shelter — it was already too late.
“She was one of the worst cases I've ever seen. She was crying and wailing like a human being,” recalls Salwa Abdoh, a volunteer at the Egypt Horse Project, a non-governmental organisation based in Giza. The torment didn't last much longer. Sukara, as they'd named her, died two days later.
Donkeys are as much a part of Egypt as the pyramids, a living, braying link between the agricultural heartlands and its choked metropolis. Whether carting produce, building materials and garbage in Cairo or tilling the fields of the Delta, it's hard to imagine the country without them.
Familiarity, though, has bred contempt. The most mistreated of all Egypt's animals, their name is a byword for laziness and stupidity in the local slang. Some farmers call donkeys “mute birds” — beasts of burden that take the stiffest punishment without a whine of complaint.
“We don't have the concept of compassion towards animals in Egypt,” says Abdoh. “I've seen many animals abused in Egypt — dogs, cats, horses, you name it. But nothing compares to the abuse that donkeys in Egypt go through.”
Built on a donkey's back
On a scorching day in early summer, veterinarian Shaaban Fayez is driving east along the four-lane highway to El-Saf, an area in Giza, which is home to hundreds of informal stone factories where animals still do much of the labour.
Fayez looks out the window of the car and gestures to the apartment blocks lining the road. “Look around you. All these were built using a donkey's back,” he says with a sad smile. “You could say that donkeys built this country. Just look how they're treated.”
In one of El-Saf's ramshackle outdoors factories, about 100 workers, some of them children as young as seven, are carting piles of stones to the furnaces that bake the bricks that made the apartments. Working alongside them for at least eight hours a day are about a dozen donkeys, each of them bearing deep lacerations across their backs and shoulders. Abdullah, a 17-year-old, says the whip in his right hand is vital to his success. “I always whip the donkey in the same place — when you hit them on the wound, it really hurts and they move faster,” he says.
One of his colleagues, Ahmed, 14, has worked in the factory for three years.
“They tell me it's sinful to hit the donkey, but there's a lot of pressure on me too, so I end up beating him,” he says with a shrug. “It's a vicious circle. Our life is tough too.”
This is where Fayez tries to make a difference. He works with the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys (SPWDME), a partner of the international Donkey Sanctuary, which offers free veterinary services to donkey owners in Egypt and runs mobile clinics in the capital and the Delta province of Qalyoubeya. When he visits El-Saf, he treats the donkeys' wounds and urges the workers not to mistreat or overload them.
Since the organisation began its programme, most of the factories now allow the animals to exercise and feed in outdoor yards, Fayez says, both making them healthier and more productive. They've also encouraged workers to use proper harnesses on the donkeys, rather than makeshift reins and tack that can injure them.
However, harnasses are not the only problem. Many donkey owners put wires on the donkey’s nose, to cut the area and control them more. Other owners put sharp irons in the donkey’s mouth which end up hurting their tongues and jaws.
“Of course, after 10 years of hard work, their body begins to deteriorate and their joints break down,” says Farid Shawky, the society’s Harnass Project officer.
According to the society, Egyptian donkeys tend to live for 15 years only, whereas the life expectancy of donkeys should be 25 years.
The crack of the whip
Donkeys first appeared in Ancient Egyptian decorations around 3,150 BC, but debate persists over when exactly they were domesticated. The most common theory holds they were brought to Egypt in about 6,000-5,000 BC from the Near East, according to Salima Ekram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. Another school of thought suggests they were domesticated within Egypt from African stock.
“Until about 1,600 or 1,550 BC, donkeys were the only equines in Egypt,” says Ekram. “The horses were introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos, but donkeys were the main beasts of burden and sometimes people would ride on them, either straight, or with a chair on the donkey.”
Donkeys were also slightly associated with the God Seth, which Ekram says was the God of "chaos, liminal spaces, the desert and wild unclaimed places."
“Donkeys managed to get Egyptians up and down the Nile Valley and through the Eastern and Western Desert, and they were a key component for Egypt being able to communicate with Africa and the Near East,” Ekram says. Their importance to trade made them second in value only to cows.
Their place in society was enshrined in Ancient Egyptian fables, like that of the so-called eloquent peasant, dating from the Middle Kingdom, about a donkey owned by a Wadi Natroun farmer which eats the crops from someone's field and causes upset.
The donkey that led to Egypt’s occupation
Abdel Moneim El-Gemeiy, an historian who penned 80 books about Egypt, says that in 1882 a donkey led to what is now known as the “Alexandria riots.”
The incident began on 11 June at 2pm, when a Maltese resident of Alexandria borrowed a donkey from an Egyptian “Makkary,” the term coined at the time for donkey owners.
However, the Maltese man did not return after the agreed upon hour. When he finally showed up, a fight erupted, which led the Maltese man to stab the Egyptian, wounding him. The crisis deteriorated leading Egyptian locals to begin clashing with the Maltese. Knives and daggers were drawn and European residents began shooting at pedestrians from their windows.
“At the time, many foreign communities lived in Alexandria. And they often united against Egyptians when there was a crisis,” says El-Gemiey.
The foreigners complained that Colonel Ahmed Orabi, the Egyptian nationalist and prime minister at the time, was not protecting them, leading to the British occupation of Egypt.
“So, you can say that a donkey was the reason behind Britain’s occupation of Egypt,” laughs El-Gemeiy.
Romy didn’t want to die
The situation for donkeys dramatically changed in modern day Egypt. In a country where animal welfare is considered a joke by many, donkeys get the worst of the abuse.
“Cats and dogs can run away, but the donkey is owned and tied and cannot run away from this abuse,” says Amina Abaza, founder of the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights (SPARE), which shelters many abused animals.
Abaza also owns a donkey sanctuary in the Shabramant area of Cairo, which at one point had 18 donkeys. Now only four remain, after Abaza rehomed the rest.
“Many of the donkeys we rescued died because they were badly abused,” she says. “But I tell myself that at least they had a peaceful time in the end. At least the last part of their life was good.”
One of the cases that remains in Abaza’s sanctuary is Romy, who she rescued from the street in 2004. While driving her car, Abaza saw that the donkey was limping and his owner was hitting him hard with a stick. It turned out that Romy's owner was forcing him to work with a broken leg for one year.
Abaza convinced the farmer to sell the donkey to her for LE70, bought a truck and took him to the shelter. The vet took one look at him and told Abaza that he would not survive.
“No way, I have to euthanise him,” he told her. “Give him three days of happiness and good food and I will come and put him down after that.”
Abaza brought him carrots and she and her family made “cuddling” shifts, where they stroked, hugged and kissed the donkey. When the vet came three days later, he was surprised at how well he is doing, and the euthanasia was cancelled.
“So, love and some clover resuscitated him,” she says, smiling at the memory. Through the years, Abaza has helped many donkeys. There were times when the donkeys were in such bad condition their owners did not even bother to sell them to her.
Experts in cruelty
“When it comes to cruelty, we have quite an imagination,” Abaza says. “They hit them on their sores to make them run faster. I have seen donkeys burned with cigarettes.”
Abaza also points out that in Egypt many donkey owners scald their donkeys with a hot iron, thinking that this is a traditional cure for all ailments.
Last year, a couple of veterinary students sent Abaza photos of a baby donkey being electrocuted alive in the Cairo Faculty of Veterinary Sciences.
“They cut them alive and electrocute them because they don’t have euthanising compounds,” says Abaza. “Sometimes, they allow 40 students to put 40 needles in the same place in the same donkey to teach them how to inject animals.”
Many foreigners who come to Egypt struggle to understand the abuse heaped on donkeys.
Australian Ashleigh Lotherington developed a passion for Egyptian donkeys and established The Egypt Horse Project on 14 November 2012, after a two week trip to Egypt. Lotherington’s shelter deals with horses and donkeys as well as small animals such as cats and dogs.
The project now has 12 donkeys under its care, many of them orphans, abandoned after their mothers died or were no longer able to nurse them.
Mr Donkey, one of the rescues in the shelter, was injured in a car accident and had motor oil thrown all over him. Lotherington discovered that he had a broken leg and treated him.
“Mr Donkey has a owner who checks on him regularly, but he will never leave our care and he will never have to work another day in his life,” says Lotherington.
To this day, Lotherington is baffled at the abuse heaped on donkeys in Egypt.
“Donkeys are very friendly, and cheeky, and like to be around humans if they have been raised correctly. They also like to play together and groom each other,” she says. “Donkeys enjoy the company of other donkeys, dogs, humans and horses.”
The problem is that donkeys find it hard to convey their pain when abused.
“A dog or the horse, can express their agony. But donkeys can’t,” says Shawky. “When people hit them, they can’t express their pain, so people think they are just stupid.”
But donkeys are not stupid, Shawky says. They are intelligent animals who are able to return home alone without their owner and have a very good memory.
“Donkeys ruffle their hair when a tiny fly is on their body. So if they can feel a tiny fly, can you imagine how much they feel from the beatings?”
Clash of civilisations
There are many reasons why donkeys are abused in Egypt. In modern Egypt, negative attitudes are often associated with animals. That’s why the word donkey, or “7omar” in Arabic, is one of the most common insults in Egypt.
In fact, in April 2014, an Egyptian farmer was jailed after he called his donkey Sisi, after President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who at the time was Egypt’s minister of defence — a man considered by many to be a national hero. In 2012, Egyptian MP Ziyad El-Elemy almost had his parliamentary immunity lifted after he likened former military ruler Mohamed Tantawi to a donkey. These are the more public spats, but the word “donkey” is used every day as an insult by Egyptians.
“In modern day Egypt, there is a tendency to associate negatively anything related to animals,” explains Egyptian scholar Adel Iskandar. “The idea that humans are much more evolved creatures is something that is very entrenched in our culture. All animals are seen as negative, with the exception, maybe, of the lion.”
However, he points out that the reason why donkeys are seen as negative have a lot to do with the rural-urban divide in Egypt. A few decades ago, many rural Egyptians began to move to the city, much to the chagrin of Egyptian urbanites.
“The urban Egyptian elite, even the middle class, disavowed folkloric cultural roots. Everything to do with that environment was seen as anti-development and anti-modern.,” says Iskandar. “Yes, the word donkey is used as an insult because it means that the person is stupid. But behind the scenes it is a critique of the agricultural life and its simplicity.”
He adds that many Egyptians since then have become used to calling people who work for them, like the maid or bawab (doorman), who often came from the countryside, “donkeys.”
This is seen in stories about the fictional “wise fool” Guha, who is accompanied by a donkey. Stories about Guha are often told to Egyptian children to teach them moral lessons.
“Guha is someone who is seen as a buffoon, dumb and simpleminded,” explains Iskandar.
One of the most popular Guha anecdotes has him riding the donkey the wrong way.
“The donkey is facing in one direction and he is facing the other,” says Iskander. “It is implied that the stupidity and simplemindedness is associated with the donkey.”
Even when the word donkey is used in a positive light, it often has negative connotations. For example, in Egypt it is common to liken hardworking people to donkeys, as in “he works like a donkey.”
“It means that if you want to exploit someone, you will work him hard and pay him little — just like a donkey,” says Iskandar.
But the situation is different with Egyptian farmers.
“There is an actual connection with Egyptian farmers and their donkey is a real connection, it is a very warm one,” explains Iskandar. “It’s very much a rural-urban divide.”
A servant to all
Indeed, in the small village of Tokh, the relationship between donkeys and farmers is a very strong one. Whereas city dwellers have a “business” relationship with a donkey, farmers have a more emotional attachment to the animal.
“When I was born, there was a donkey in our house. I used to play with him,” says farmer Mohamed Rageh.
Rageh, who plants wheat on his land, like many other farmers, uses his three donkeys to navigate through the fields and transport his produce. For most farmers, a cow, which costs around LE10,000-15,000 is the most precious animal. Donkeys in Egypt usually cost anything from LE200 to LE1,500.
“Any farmer who owns a cow, will have to have a donkey,” says Rageh. “We use them to clean under the cows and other things. Yes, donkeys serve both humans and animals.”
For the older villagers, the donkey is also used for transportation.
“I use him to go to weddings and funerals and to travel to other towns,” says 73-year-old Mohamed Aty. “But the younger generation prefer to whiz around on tuktuks and motorcycles.”
Nonetheless, there is no chance that donkeys will be outdated.
“Tuktuks will never be able to walk through the narrow pathways in a field,” he says. “Farmers will never be able to give up donkeys.”
Many farmers, though, feel resentment at how Egyptian urbanites perceive them.
“A lot of the so-called effendis (a reference used for the urban, merchant class) are embarrassed from the farmers,” says Ibrahim Khail, who himself works on the land. “They think they're superior to us and that’s why they make fun of the donkey.”
The donkey symphony
The fact that Egypt’s farmers get more sidelined everyday by city dwellers inspired one Cairo-based artist to create the Donkey Symphony, a slow mournful piece of music in which donkey brays were mixed with classical instruments.
“The sound of a donkey braying has always broken the silence of the Egyptian countryside,” says Lara Baladi, originally Lebanese. “And now it breaks through the noise of the Red City in an agonising cry.”
The “Red City,” is name given by architects to the ashwiyat, or slums, that make up 40 percent of the capital. These ashwiyat have expanded in the past few decades, eating more and more of the countryside, based on false hope for a better life. The donkey, says Baladi, has made the transition along with the Fallahin (peasants) from the countryside to the ashwiyat.
“In the song, the donkey brays are a cry for help,” says Baladi.
Baladi is not the only artist to be inspired by donkeys. Painter Miriam Hathout sees so much beauty in these abused beasts that she opened a gallery made up only of donkey paintings.
“I had about 50 paintings of different donkeys,” says Hathout. “A lot of people laughed at me. They asked me, why donkeys? I don’t like that question. I just think they are beautiful. I love their outline. And their paintings sell.”
The end of the journey
Many animal activists express concern on how donkeys meet their end. Fayez explains that it would cost LE150 to put down a 150 kilogramme donkey. As a result, donkeys are often passed from one owner to another until they die.
Abaza points out that in other cases donkeys are simply abandoned.
“When the donkey gets sick and old, they just leave him in the desert so he can die alone,” she says.
In some cases, they face an even worse fate.
“Do you know that old donkeys, after helping and serving people, are sold to the zoo to be fed to the lions and tigers?” asks Abaza. “They put them in a long queue and make them wait to be slaughtered. They kill them one in front of the other, using small knives, and it takes them a long time to die. This is the thanks we give them for serving us. They live in humiliation, starvation and abuse, and this is the end for them.”