The Non-metaphorical Camel

Driving to work in the small Arabian town where I live, I once saw a big chicken by the road ahead of me. As I came closer, I thought: that is one big chicken. I got closer and thought: that is the biggest chicken I have ever seen. When I passed it I realized it was a peacock, just hanging out by the side of the road. And the funny thing is I know that peacock, he lives in a small palm grove next to the Engineering building. When I am in the monthly meeting chaired by the dean of engineering, I can hear the peacock calling.

It’s like that when you live in a small town. I was reading outside in my garden one evening and felt something tugging and chewing on my shirt. Looked down to find two goats snacking on my L.L. Bean oxford. Turns out my neighbor had bought three goats to fatten up for Eid, the Muslim holiday. He let them out of his garden every day at 5 pm to let them forage. I would come outside to find them munching my flowers. A few times when I was bringing groceries in from the car, I would find them in my car, nosing through the plastic bags. This was cute and amusing until you have to clean hoof prints off the back seat.

Always on the lookout for texts to give to my students, I read a few anthologies of Arab-American poetry. One introduction stated that there would be “no poems on camels” in a ‘we are all beyond that cliché’ tone of voice but camels aren’t a trope for me – they are here around me.

I came home once to find about 20 camels tearing at the branches of one trees which hung over my garden wall. I got out of my car and walked across the street to watch them. After a few minutes, an old Toyota pick-up came screeching around the corner and a spry older gentleman hopped out and walked over to the herd yelling.

One of the neighborhood kids was standing with me and I asked him to tell the man to leave the camels alone. The tree was big enough, and had enough branches inside the wall that the camels could not kill it. They were doing me a favor by trimming it back. The boy called over to the man who shrugged, got back in his pick-up and waiting for them to finish their lunch. Then he moved them down the street.

All camels in Oman are owned by someone – but many are simply let loose during the day. As camels stick together and will not travel too far, if someone is not sent to stay with them all day, you can send someone out about 4pm to find them or they will come home by themselves, walking along the road nose to tail. Mothers have their teats tied up in a bag so babies can’t nurse; this (and the idea of extra food, water and safety) keeps camels returning home every night.

As the roads outside of town are all set level with the sand, it is perilously easy to hit one at night. And as camels are much bigger and taller than deer, the conclusion is a for-gone deadly conclusion. Some men modify their car seats to install a ‘quick-release’ lever: with one touch the driver and passenger seats recline all the way back. Camels have long legs so the body will hit the hood of the car and come straight through the windshield; you need to get your head and upper chest as far back as possible.

To prevent accidents, it is your duty to signal on-coming traffic when you pass camels near the road; the protocol is to turn on the hazards to warn drivers. I now call hazards ‘camel-lights’ because the only time you use them is to signal ‘camels ahead.’ Older camels walking in line are normally safe, they will not pay attention to traffic even if cars pass close to them at great speeds, but you never know when one might scare.

In the Khareef (summer monsoon) season, the camels which live in the mountain must be herded on roads down to the plains. Camel feet are smooth; they have no traction on slippery wet grass and will easily fall and break their legs so they need to be brought to the flat area between the mountains and the ocean.

Their owners gather together and decide on a day and time to bring them to the plains in groups. It’s sort of fun if you pass one of the large herds: first there is pickup with an old guy who drives ahead with his blinkers on  to warn oncoming traffic, then a few more pick-ups, interspersed with younger men with thin sticks calling to encourage the dozens of camels along. Camels walking are normally quiet and steady but in the large groups some of the younger camels spook and mothers lose babies so they will bellow, stop, turn around, and go back the way they came. At the end of the herd is another pickup or two. All this on a steep, two-lane road with no shoulder so you have to drive in amongst them. It is common to drive on the wrong side of the road with camels on all sides – nerve-wracking!

(photo M. A. Al Awaid)