“Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.”
–old Muslim proverb
“If the camel once gets his nose in a tent, the body will follow.”
“Little by little, the camel goes into the couscous.”
“It is easier to make a camel jump a ditch than to make a fool listen to reason.”
“Death is a black camel that lies down at every door. Sooner or later you must ride the camel.”
“It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I got a lot (for me) of comments about how relaxed the camel in the car appears. Seeing a camel in the back of a pick-up truck is not uncommon around here; it’s a quick way to get your camel from the countryside to the city and vice versa. They are fine once in or out, but I can attest to how difficult getting them to that p is.
We’ve lived in two different houses here, both in the nicer area of town where most of the expatriates live. Our first house had a vacant lot just across from it where a small herd of camels lived. Every morning we would watch them going out for water and grazing, and every evening they’d return, trotting solemnly down the street past all the villas with 4WDs out front.
One day we watched them trying to unload a camel from a truck. The camel had no intention of getting out. They have the camels kneel and then tie a rope round their legs so they can’t stand up—it’s as if you put your hand on your shoulder and someone tied a rope round your elbow so you couldn’t extend your arm. Then, straining, a group of men and boys lift the camel and plop him into the truck; or, lift the camel and plop her down on the sand. The camel bellows horribly and whips its long neck round to bite, so they first tie its tongue down to its jaw, and then have a boy hold the end of the rope to prevent it from biting someone.
Once the camel was out of the pick-up and untied (all but the bridle), the group began trying to persuade it to stand back up. That’s easier said than done—the camel had no intention of trying to please these people, or of moving from its comfortable place on the sand. They brought out another camel to try and persuade the newcomer that the vacant lot was a nice place, the grazing was good, and please come in. Because honestly, camels are stubborn creatures, and this one had no intention of listening to anyone else, not even another one of her own kind.
Camels are prized possessions round here; in many cases, wealth is still measured in camels, and a modern university professor or government minister almost certainly owns a herd or two, kept out in the village. A friend, speaking of our local herd, told me that the owner “loves those camels; he loves them more than his own daughters.” Hmm.
I joke that, as the proverbial Eskimo with his 40 words for snow, Hassiniya Arabic has 40 words for camel. It’s got to be close. There are different words for male or female camels, for female camels of child-bearing age; the word for a group of 2 or 3 camels is different from the word for a group of 4 to 10 camels, which is again different for a larger herd. There’s a special word for a crazy camel, and another special word for a prized white she-camel.
Camels’ milk is considered a delicacy round here. You can buy it, pasteurized, in cartons at the grocery store. Also, you can buy a cheese we call “camelbert” since it is a little similar to a camembert—ok not really, but it’s a good name. Camels’ milk is high in all sorts of nutrients, which makes sense since it has kept alive for centuries a people whose diet consisted mainly of meat and milk, with very little in the way of fruit or vegetables. A lot of Westerners have a mild allergy to this thin, salty substance; if I drink it, for example, afterwards my lips tingle a bit.
Camels are a ubiquitous part of life. Donn tells of one morning when he went surfing at the beach; as he rode a wave in, he saw a herd of camels just staring at him. They are everywhere in the city and in the desert; you can drive to the outskirts of the city to purchase fresh milk to go with your evening meal. They trot solemnly down the streets with their swaying gait, on the way to a drink for the evening. They are so much in evidence here, that it will be strange to leave them behind.