Slowly but surely, the Bedouin beverage staple is moving into the mainstream
Mariam Abo Rogaig begins each morning by milking a camel, the same way her grandmother did. She waits for the calf to begin nursing, then she massages milk out of the camel’s other teats, collecting up to two liters a day. Unlike cows, camels only produce milk when their calves are physically close to them, something Abo Rogaig learned from her grandmother.
“The connection between the baby and the mother is very strong,” she says. “The camel really has a lot of emotions.”
This is a beverage that has sustained her Bedouin culture for centuries, offering the calories, vitamins and hydration needed to survive in the desert. “There are so many health properties,” Abo Rogaig says as she takes a sip of fresh camel’s milk from a glass jar on a recent November morning. Like cow milk, camel milk is creamy and smooth, but is slightly saltier. A female camel, stands with its calf a few meters away in the village where Abo Rogaig lives on the outskirts of Tel Sheva in Israel’s Negev desert region. This is one of several camels that provide milk for Rogaig, who not only drinks the camel’s milk, but uses it to make soap and skin lotions that she exports all over the world.
“For these customers, it’s very exotic,” she says, and her business is booming, as global interest in camel’s milk—and products made from it—is growing. People worlds away from these desert Bedouin have embraced this milk for its low levels of fat, and high levels of protein and Vitamin B1, turning it into an emerging health food trend.
There are a growing number of camel milk dairies in the United States, China, and Australia. Some Whole Foods Market stores and local agricultural co-ops in the United States now carry camel’s milk. In 2014, California-based Desert Farms began selling fresh and frozen camel’s milk online. Most customers are buying the milk as a medicinal beverage, or because they are lactose intolerant and cannot digest cow’s milk, according to Desert Farm’s founder, Walid Abdul-Wahab. Popular medicinal uses, although still seen as unproven by the medical establishment, include boosting the immune system, treating intestinal system disorders like Crohn’s disease, and mitigating the symptoms of autism.
But it is beginning to have wider appeal as a gourmet item, and the start-up will soon begin carrying chocolates and ice cream made from camel’s milk, Abdul-Wahab said.
Selling camel’s milk soap is the last thing that Abo Rogaig expected to do with her life, she told me once we arrived to the office and visitor center of her company, Desert Daughter, about ten minutes’ drive on dirt roads from her camels. Inside this building, which once served as a garage, wooden tables are covered with baskets of dried herbs and hundreds of cream-colored squares of camel’s milk soap.
Until the age of 14, Abo Rogaig lived in a tent made of goat hair with her parents, 12 siblings and her grandmother. They moved their tent and herds of chickens, goats, and camels twice each year, up to the top of the hill in the summer to take advantage of the breeze, and back down to the bottom of the hill in the winter to protect themselves from the cold wind.
Her grandmother, a traditional healer, was always busy concocting elixirs and skin rubs from camel’s milk and herbs like sage, za’atar and lemon verbena, gathered from the surrounding desert.
“I thought what my grandmother was doing was very old-fashioned,” Abo Rogaig said. “It was what I never wanted to do.” As a teenager, she dreamed of becoming a businesswoman, like the kind she saw on the television her family got when they later moved to a house in Tel Sheva, one of several municipalities built in the 1970s and ‘80s to provide housing, healthcare, education and utilities like electricity for Bedouins who at the time mainly lived in tents and temporary huts scattered throughout the region.
She eventually became the first in her family to graduate from high school in Tel Sheva, then in the mid-1990s was awarded a scholarship to study business and marketing at the University of Luton in England.
She soon found herself bringing camel’s milk lotions from her summer visits to Tel Sheva back to London with her, giving them to friends who suffered from dry skin and eczema.
“I started to appreciate more where I came from,” Abo Rogaig said.
Upon returning to Tel Sheva after graduation, she began studying with her grandmother and soon began to make soaps, lotions and herbal concoctions herself, selling them locally to earn money. Now she sells the products online, and hosts groups of tourists in her visitor center, telling them about the healing properties of camel milk and desert herbs. Sometimes visitors include fellow Bedouins, especially from younger generations, who, Abo Rogaig said, are showing renewed interest in some of their culture’s forgotten past.
“I am trying to bring this knowledge back to people,” she said. “I had to go very far away to find myself and my roots, but here I am.”