Camel journeys

Cairo – The camel appeared uninterested in me.

He was 10 years old, his name was Mickey Mouse, and to him, I was probably nothing more than just another tourist he'd have to take for a brief ride across the desert sands.

What number was I? 556? 3,072?

To me, he was Camel No. 2.

Moving in the dark
In the dark, the beast took me by surprise. I was 5 years old and increasingly suspicious about where we were and why we were there. It was very cold, and I remember probing the night with my eyes when the camel's outline emerged.

It terrified me.

But before I could protest, I was 100 feet above the ground, and the camel under me was moving. My father sat behind me, holding me tight. We began to move forward.

I had a purse with me.

It contained a smaller purse, which in turn contained an even smaller purse. The two smaller purses were elaborately decorated, with beads and gold trim. They contained treasures dear to me: a handful of Iranian coins and, I think, some marbles and fake jewelry.

As the hours dragged on, I kept thinking that my big purse was open. I zipped and unzipped it. I don't know why I thought the zipper kept reopening, but for some reason, I kept unzipping and zipping.

The two smaller purses made no noise at all when they fell out, so I had no idea I had lost everything until after the camels stopped.

I cursed in Farsi.

There was nothing I could do. Those treasures, I guess, are still somewhere between Iran and Pakistan.

Fast and bumpy
More than two decades later, Mickey Mouse straightened his gnarled knees and stood up. I caught my breath, blinked and looked down. It was not 100 feet after all, but maybe 10 or so.

The rocking sensation was simultaneously relaxing and startling. Mickey Mouse chortled as his long, wrinkled neck moved back and forth. The large saddle covering his one hump (he's a dromedary) was wide, though relatively comfortable for a 25-minute ride. A fellow tourist joined us on a camel called Charlie Brown.

As we made our way along a well-worn desert path, the other tourists shrunk in the distance. The great pyramids of Giza seemed small enough to lift. As our path continued, the three main pyramids appeared stacked one in front of the other.

“Do you want to go fast?” our guide, a 20-year-old named Zaabullah, asked. The thought of the camel running worried me, but I was too curious to resist.

So Zaabullah jumped on the saddle with me, and prodded Mickey Mouse to go faster, though not at full speed. It was bumpy, and my eyes gave away my nervousness.

“If you are with me, you don't fall,” Zaabullah promised.

The ride cost about seven U.S. dollars, and for Zaabullah, keeping the money coming and the customer base growing was important. He gave me his cell phone number, told me to tell people in the United States about his camel riding services, and to make sure to come back to Egypt some day.

Keeping quiet
I don't remember the faces or the names of the guides who took me and my family across the border into Pakistan. Though there were about a dozen of us were fleeing Iran, the 11-hour camel ride was one of the loneliest experiences I've ever had, even with my father right behind me.

My parents had told me the family was going on a vacation, but this vacation had nothing of the pleasures of our past trips. I didn't understand why they would do this to me.

It was chilly. I was hungry and tired. I began to cry.

My father begged me to stop. He said there were Iranian border agents not far off, and they would come after us if they heard my cries and take him away for good. I didn't fully understand what he meant, but I tried to stop my tears.

Later, I understood the wisdom of not telling a 5-year-old about the exact circumstances of illegally fleeing post-revolution Iran. If we'd been caught, I might have told the border patrolmen everything, not understanding the consequences.

I remember being flung off the camel as if I was a piece of luggage.

I landed in the sand, and still couldn't see anything. As others unloaded our bags, I tried to stand up. But I fell every time. The hours on the camel had taken an incredible toll on our unaccustomed bodies and I had lost all feeling in my lower body.

Using my arms, I dragged myself around in the sand, trying to avoid having bags placed on top of me.

My parents told me later that my legs were completely black and blue.

Even after we'd been in the United States for a few years, I kept asking when we would go back home to Iran. It took a long time to accept that the vacation was permanent.

Familiar pain
Mickey Mouse moved forward as if he was bored. I took pictures of him and the shadow we made on the dark yellow sand. I took pictures of Zaabullah, who wore a traditional Arab turban and robe, along with athletic sneakers. Zaabullah pulled out his cell phone and showed me a picture of a woman from America whom he had befriended. He said he had an Egyptian girlfriend, and asked if I was married.

He seemed disturbed to find out that at age 27 I was still single. I was disturbed that he was disturbed.

At least the camel doesn't care, I thought.

We made our way to one of the pyramids, where our tour guide was waiting for us.

Zaabullah helped me hop off Mickey Mouse. The ride had lasted less than a half-hour. But my legs were already in pain.

Nahal Toosi is a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where this article first appeared.

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