For the Love of Camels

Gobi camel. Mongolia, 2005.

Before Burnet laid himself down that night on his humble couch in Firouz Ali’s house the plan for his departure had been thoroughly discussed. Among the barber’s friends and agents was one Ibrahim, once a prosperous owner of camels, which he hired out to merchants or pilgrims.

Since the war, however, all his camels but two had been commandeered by the Turks; his business was ruined; and he now employed himself in picking up camels from the remoter tribes in the Arabian desert, and selling them to the army authorities at a miserable profit. He had adopted this occupation to cover his real business, which was to keep in touch with the revolted chiefs at Mecca and Medina and to act as a travelling link between them and Firouz Ali, the centre of the secret revolutionary movement in Bagdad.

Firouz Ali arranged that Burnet should become Ibrahim’s temporary assistant. Having lost no opportunity of belittling the intelligence of his new apprentice, the barber would find it easy to explain to any one who was curious enough to enquire, that the lad had shown himself hopelessly inefficient, and gone to try his luck as a camel-driver. Burnet would accompany Ibrahim to Kerbela and Meshed Ali, and thence make the best of his way to the tell of Tukulti-Ninip, in good time, he hoped, for his appointment with Captain Ellingford.

Next day he did not leave the barber’s house, but employed himself in writing a letter. Curiously enough, it was addressed to himself, and in Arabic; and though of no great length, its composition occupied several hours. The paper on which it was written was that thin sheet which he had several times laid over his map of Baghdad and the neighbourhood and marked with small dots, which formed a haphazard pattern like the stars in the firmament.

Written Arabic, as everyone knows, is a series of strokes and curves and dots, like a compacter sort of shorthand; and the reason why this simple letter was a work of long labour was that the dots already marked on the paper had to be incorporated, in the most natural way possible, with the invented message. When the letter was finished, only a very observant eye would have noticed that some of the dots were slightly heavier than the rest. No one would have suspected that only these dots were of the least importance: the letter existed for them.

It read somewhat as follows:

Camel owner at the Al-Dhafra Festival. Abu Dhabi, 2011.

“To my dear son Yusuf, greeting. My heart is sore, yearning for you, my sweet son, for a sight of your face, round as the moon, and your eyes, like raisins in a cake. I hope that you have not shed your bright blood by careless handling of your uncle’s razors, and I pray that you may become rich enough to give your sister a good dowry, and that you will attain as high a renown as my famous brother himself. Blessing and peace be with you. Written by the hand of the mullah for your father and mother.”

“That’ll do if I’m collared,” thought Burnet, as he tucked the letter into his girdle.

He then tore up the map which gave the key to this letter: there were plenty more at headquarters.

In the evening, when the shop was shut, Ibrahim the camel-driver came to the house and was introduced by Firouz Ali to his new assistant. Ibrahim had brought with him a few essential articles of clothing, and it was settled that Burnet should join him next morning at dawn.

Soon after daylight the two camel-drivers, each mounted on a rather poor specimen of the kind, rode southwards out of the city. Ibrahim had a pass, which franked them through the sentries, to whom, indeed, he was pretty well known through previous journeys in and out. Like all travellers in those desert lands he carried a rifle: Burnet, apparently unarmed, had his revolver securely tucked away.

Burnet had lived long enough in Mesopotamia to have more than a passing acquaintance with the camel, its moods and vagaries; but during the next few days he learnt more about that useful “ship of the desert” than he had known in all his previous experience. His steed tramped on hour after hour at the same steady pace, with a jolting movement that he found unpleasant and tedious. He longed for the lithe, springy, varied gait of a horse, and once ventured to express his preference to his companion. Ibrahim was up in arms at once and lectured him so roundly that he wished he had held his tongue.

“You speak out of your little knowledge, effendi,” said this champion of the camel. “The horse, indeed, starts with his heels in the air and will curvet and gallop and perform as many tricks as a tumbler. But how is it at the end of the day? The beast shambles and stumbles, and, ill-tempered from hunger, he will bite and fight, scatter his corn like a prodigal, and even paw it with his hoofs into the mire.

But the camel—behold how patiently he marches, as well at sunset as at dawn; how gently he kneels down at his journey’s end, and thankfully receives his beans, and chews the cud peacefully until the morning. He has more wits than a horse, and if he roars, it is but to say that his saddle galls him, and to plead that it may be restuffed. Better one camel than twenty horses.”

Adapted from Carry On!(1917). Photographs courtesy of Jerrold Bennett and Hewy. Published under a Creative Commons license.