Been hearing a lot about camels lately. On the radio, on TV. In the shops and on the streets. In trains and in taxis. They are on everybody's lips. Everywhere I turn around, I catch a whisper or a rant. Something to the effect of: “Bomb dem damn camel jockeys” or “Uncle Sam be nukin, dem back to the camel age.” And no matter if the person targeted by such trash talk is a fourth generation American Hindu or a particularly dark Italian girl who goes dutifully to her Catholic Church every sunday.
People who have the personality to turn the biggest American tragedy into a racist free-for-all don't really care to distinguish between countries and prefer to imagine the Middle East as one confusing and dangerous entity. A camel-riding entity. And camels are a favorite way to put down the perceived enemy as someone who is backward or primitive. They spit out the word “camel” in such contempt, as if this was supposed to be an insult of some sort.
And I must admit I used to get insulted when the odd person at school, or work, or even worse on a date, nonchalantly asked me if I rode a camel back in the motherland. Motherland was of course a vague image of deserts and sand conjured up by Lawrence of Arabia or Disney's Aladdin. So when I was younger and more naïve I always used to reply vociferously: “No! I have never seen a camel in my whole goddamned life… Neither have my parents… Neither have my grandparents… We have roads and highways better than yours, and Mercedes and Beamers shinier than yours… Oooookayyy?” I would get so enraged when they nodded their head in incredulity.
These days, it is worse. Camel this, camel that, chanted everywhere, grouping us all Middle Easterners in one big backward and primitive lump. I guess implying that if we are so savage to be riding camels in the 21st century, then we are savage enough to all be terrorists. But I think why give them the satisfaction to see I have been hurt, that the “camel” is my Achille's heel? When my older sister and her friends used to bug the hell out of me, my mom's best advice was to turn their teasing words into a whole different meaning inside my head, thus permitting me to prevent my temperature from rising and lashing out at them. She reasoned that bullies have mentality of a four-year-old child. If they keep getting a reaction, they will never tire of saying the same wise-ass cracks. But if they don't get the reaction they expect, their attention span cannot sustain such an assault and they grow bored and go away.
So I decided to follow my mom's advice, to think “outside the box” and try to figure out a new meaning for the word “camel”. I mean, why hate camels anyway? Why should they take a back seat (excuse the pun) to the Western wonder of technology, the automobile? I have to wonder in amazement. When did this litany of hate among humans come to include this most wondrous of God's creatures? For the camel, since my childhood, seemed to me the most extraordinary animal, more enduring than a horse, more exotic than a cow, more down to earth (I'm sorry I can't help myself with the puns) than a giraffe…
What did you dream about when you were a kid? Sitting behind the wheel of your brother's beat-up Peugeot in the highway's congested rush hour traffic, choking on the cloud of exhaust fumes infiltrating nature's clean air… or riding on a camel over immense dunes of golden reflections, bringing you one step closer to an Indiana Jones adventure? Those two humps (or one?) especially could tickle the imagination of numerous children such as myself as to the mysterious treasures they contained… No real kid could ever believe it carried anything as boring as water or food… No, those humps had to be filled with all the secrets of One Thousand and One Nights, with scores of jewels and gold coins and genies inside them.
So I decided to do a little research on this unfairly maligned animal. And this is what I found out. As a means of transport, the camel has for centuries been vital for trade across the arid wastelands. The camel can carry at least 200 kilos of goods and walks at five kilometers per hour in its peculiar rolling gait. In other words, it is as fast as a packhorse, and has three times the carrying capacity. Unloaded, a camel can outrun a horse. In winter it continues to work through minus-twenty-degree temperatures. (Try turning on your car in that weather, good luck!!!)
Because of the camel, the semi-deserts of the Gobi have not formed a barrier between Mongolia and the south. Even now, camels carry up to thirty percent of the cargo traffic in the Gobi. Try doing that in your latest model SUV! Not to mention a camel doesn't pollute, doesn't run on costly gasoline, and doesn't burden you with any parking tickets or fees nor valet tips. You don't have to take it to the camel wash, the camel will take care of its own dip in the closest oasis, thank you! And none of those back-breaking tasks of vacuuming the interior of the camels (including under the car seat!) nor suddenly having a flat camel-hoof.
Each camel drinks about 100-120 liters at a time (a horse drinks 40-50 liters), but it's just water, not like your monster car that gobbles up gas like a hungry J.R. Ewing. The camel can go nine days without water, 33 days without food… Ever heard of any creature, mechanical or flesh and blood who can accomplish that feat? God forbid you forget to change the oil in your car or let the water heat up… those seemingly invincible tons of steel will sooner crumble than the mighty camel…
Besides its usefulness as a beast of burden, the camel gives five to eight kilos of wool and up to 600 liters of milk per year. The milk is used for making hoormog, a kind of alcoholic tonic drink, as well as butter and different kinds of cheeses. Can the wonders of this divine animal ever cease? When is the last time your Ford Escort gave you a hang-over? Or breakfast?
Camel meat is also valued, which has led to a precipitous fall in the number of camels in recent years. Some governments have placed a ban on killing camels — I don't think there is any chance of finding anyone munching on a nice leg of fried Honda Civic anytime soon nor to find its name on a list of endangered species…
Possessing enormous stamina, being able to survive for long periods of time without water, and with the tough lining of its mouth permitting it to eat almost anything from thorn bushes to rubbish and bits of leather (instead of forcing you to shell out big buck at the Esso station), the camel (Ata-Allah — the gift of God — as the Bedouin call it) is one of the most resilient animals on earth. And does it ever bitch or moan at its surrounding conditions or beg for a trip to the Mercedes dealership for a tune-up at $5,000 a pop? Noooo… It is the most obedient and loyal of creatures. Not only can you use its body for transportation but it can act as a source of meat and milk, its manure used as fuel, its wool employed to weave rugs and tents, and its skin used to make water containers!
The camel is one of the most cherished and valued animals on earth. Today they are taken care of by special groomers who also train them for races. During a race, the camel can reach speeds of up to 20 kilometers (12 miles) per hour and can race for up to 18 hours. The winners of the races receive a large sum of money and take great pride in the performances of their pure bred camels (eat your heart out, NASCAR). Nowadays, a racing camel can be sold for a large amount of money that ranges from hundreds to about half a million dollars. Half a million dollars! Unless the used car salesman in the lot on Eighth Avenue sells me all of James Bond's gadgets along with his automobile, ain't no way in hell any car is worth that much.
So from now on, if I hear the word “camel” being bandied about in a dishonorable manner, I will smile and refuse to take it as an insult any more. Remember, a word is neutral until YOU give it a connotation. Whether that connotation is positive or negative, the power is in YOUR hands. You have to decide what insults you and what doesn't. There is nothing primitive or backward about camels, they are in fact one of the most noble creatures. And if you know that, it is easy to turn an insult back at the perpetrators of such blind ignorance and hate.