Camel burgers and belly dancers in the vibrant heart of the Red Centre . . . it’s everything we’ve come to expect from the legendary Peter Russell-Clarke.
Abdul Abulbul Ameer wasn’t his proper name. But it was what the good folk from Alice Springs called the huge Turkish bloke who made a quid by cooking for the truckies and tourists passing through on their way to Darwin.
Abdul’s name was collected from a lascivious song the Diggers sang at Gallipoli, in between ditties about Churchill’s efforts to open the way to hell through the gates of the Hellespont.
Abdul didn’t object to the name. He just smiled gently and continued to mould and mix his minced meat and spices into skinless sausages. This Turkish man was as rugged and powerful as the MacDonnell Ranges. His stony face was dominated by a huge black moustache of the style that became a symbol of the Turks who fought along the Dardanelles. But the only fighting Abdul ever did was to keep afloat in the desolate countryside around the Springs, Tennant Creek, right up to Katherine and beyond.
Regardless of the UV rays, Abdul wore a soft, black Turkish skullcap and a blue Aussie singlet. His baggy black pants were hidden behind a blue striped apron.
He was married, or I supposed he was; his constant companion was a female who hid behind a voluminous, heat-gathering coverall. Except when she was belly dancing in their tent, which they pitched under ghost gums beside the highway. The tent proudly flew the Turkish flag from a pole that protruded from the centre of the pitched roof.
Inside, Abdul cooked his marvellous aromatic food. Customers had to supply their own plate to carry the food away but, as each order was prepared fresh, there was a wait while Abdul performed his magic. And that’s when Fatima, Abdul’s companion, would perform her tummy wriggle dance. Her dress was traditional, as were the bumps and grinds. More often than not customers sat in the shade and cheered Fatima to jiggle her hips into a frenzy. They threw small change, even notes, into a bowl positioned and labelled for the purpose of enhancing the Abulbuls benefit.
Abdul cooked his meat over charcoal. I presumed it was beef. But, in fact, it was camel. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with camel. Although Moses forbad the Jews to eat camel, he didn’t say a word to the Arabs. So the feet, hump, stomach and other cuts of the meat can be seen in their shops. And Moses certainly didn’t mention it to Abdul. If he did, Abdul certainly ignored him. Y’see, camels sail across the Red Centre in numbers that make the Spanish Armada look like a toy boat on a duck pond. And Abdul was adept at turning them into kebabs or dolmas made with the traditional rice, but with the addition of minced camel meat spiced with cumin.
Abdul’s mastery was, and maybe still is, his ability to serve food that westerners feel comfortable with, but with a brush of exotica. For instance, carrot dip (Yoghurtlu Havuc) is made with carrots and yoghurt spiced with cumin. But Abdul added shaved, cooked, crisp, garlic-flavoured camel. Most thought it was bacon.
He considered young male camels the best. He’d cut up and cook the meat with a couple of rabbits, throw in some yams and garlic then sprinkle with turmeric. Carefully, he’d stir in some yoghurt so it didn’t curdle, wet the lot with water and soy then serve it with toasted Turkish bread. Instead of frothed camel’s milk, he’d pull the top off an iced beer.
“Milk’s too bloody sweet for you blokes’ taste,” he’d growl, being careful not to mention that camel’s milk is more nutritious than cow’s milk. It’s lower in fat and lactose, higher in potassium, iron and vitamin C. But, just as he hid the fact that his beef was camel, he’d divert any dangerous conversation towards his dancer’s gyrating bellybutton.
I first met Abdul at Gosse Bluff in the Western Macs. I was painting in a 5km-wide crater that had been created in the Dreamtime by a comet crashing from outer space. The purple hues of the high-rise rocks there, which kaleidoscope violently in colour, frustrated me and my palette. Just as I was about to kick my easel in frustration, a shot rang out – more a loud kangaroo cough than a modern-day firearm discharge. Nevertheless, a young camel faltered and fell to its knees, then rolled in slow motion onto its side, propped up in an awkward position by its hump.
I won’t describe the procedure that followed – one that ended with Abdul stocking his freezer – other than to say that the exercise was precise and professional.
Abdul’s method of securing his meat supply was as exceptional as it was simple. From over the top of my half-finished acrylic, I witnessed a herd of wild camels being chased by Abdul and Fatima aboard a seriously large racing ship of the desert. Fatima was at the helm, while the huge Abdul clung precariously to the camel’s hump with one hand. As they drew level with the smallest of the fleeing herd, Abdul, holding the rifle in his free hand, shot the target dead with one shot. They skidded to a halt and jumped to the ground to skin and butcher their prize. I stared in utter amazement. Not at the speed with which they worked, but at Fatima. She was a man.
Fatima the beguiling belly dancer was undoubtedly a bloke.
Unobserved, I watched Abdul the agile giant cut and quarter the beast as the lithe, dexterous, shorthaired, bare-chested, male-muscled Fatima skinned and loaded the cuts into their saddle bags. Then they looked up and saw me gaping at them. Abdul frowned darkly. Fatima coyly smiled. “No-one suspects us, sweety,” he said, pointedly wiping the knife blade on his shorts. “And you will keep our secret, won’t you?”
And so I have. Until now. Because I’m told Abdul and Fatima have long since moved on from the Centre. And anyway, it’s been many years since they told me how Fatima, face covered by a veil and wearing a wig and a bra stuffed with hardboiled Spinifex pigeon eggs, wiggled his/her way onto the Centre’s centre stage to cover the time lapse of Abdul’s camel burgers cooking time.
And, in case you’re wondering, this was all well before Priscilla, Queen of the Desert became such a hit.