By Daiva Markelis
Featured Art: Stroll with Balloons by Hughie Lee Smith
We came across the camels every time we picnicked that merciless autumn, huge herds grazing on sparse vegetation. Camel comes from jamal, the Arabic root word for beauty. From a distance they did look lovely, their curvy silhouettes mimicking the contours of the dunes. Up close, however, they seemed slightly ridiculous, like bad female impersonators, batting their Scarlett O’Hara lashes to keep the sand out of their eyes, their long necks sloping toward us, then coyly withdrawing.
That we saw them so near the city surprised us. We’d heard stories of naive Westerners who’d driven for hours looking for adventure—for camels—and then stopped to explore the landscape with their pitifully small water bottles, supplemented, in some cases, by flasks of 100-proof siddiqi. Some were lost in the Empty Quarter, the largest desert in the world, never to be heard from again. I wrote a friend: If I were to start a literary journal here, I’d call it The Empty Quarterly.
Sometimes we’d see a row of black tents with goats tethered to a nearby post. Once, an old Bedouin waved a gnarled hand back and forth like a weathered stick. I thought we were in trouble, trespassing on his property, but as he ambled closer all he said, in a slow, proud English, was “See my camels.” He invited my husband into the largest of the tents. I waited in the air-conditioned Mazda, fiddling with the radio. Masculine voices jabbered in endless variations of the little Arabic I knew: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah, Allah akbar, Inshalla. The sounds seemed to emanate from deep down the throat, a rush of rough and phlegmy h’s, a conspiracy of k’s.
One day while shopping at the Al-Jazeera I bought a book about camels. I spent most of that afternoon reading about their complex physiologies, gazing at their photographs as if they were movie stars. Some of the facts I’d known before—camels can survive without water for weeks, camels can close their nostrils at will. What I didn’t know was that the camel had evolved not in the Middle East but in the Americas, more than forty million years ago. Ancestors of the modern camel had migrated to Asia across the Bering Straits. Extinction was the fate of those that remained behind. I imagined the last of the American camels lying on their backs, expelling their final breaths, an endless carpet of dying dromedaries.
December approached. Temperatures dropped to the mid-forties in the evenings. Gusts of wind stirred up the particles of sand; they swirled into strange beguiling figures, cartoon genies released from a magic lamp.
I began to miss home, the brightly colored lights ribboning the boughs of neighborhood trees, the medieval carols on the classical radio station, my mother’s cranberry pudding. Christmas card trickled in from friends in the U.S., many of them featuring nativity scenes. I smugly noted how often the cards disregarded the geographical realities of camels; one revealed a single-humper
sitting beside a slant-eyed magus dressed in Chinese silk, the other showed a Bactrian, bowing its head before the baby Jesus while a turbaned wise man, ebony black, perhaps Sudanese, stood stiffly in the background.
I felt a longing to go to Advent Mass. I don’t know to what extent my desire was engendered by nostalgia or boredom or simply wanting something I couldn’t have. The closest I came to a religious experience that first Christmas was rereading Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, a poem that had touched me deeply years ago with its unsentimental depiction of the voyage to Bethlehem by the three wise men. Reading it again, I was struck by the stark juxtaposition of birth and death at the end of the poem. I also noticed the camels: “galled, sore-footed, refractory, / Lying down in the melting snow.” I wondered whether camels were refractory by nature or whether carrying all that weight—heavy-robed men and tents and jars of spices—across so many miles had made them obstinate.
But it was the galled that made me turn to the dictionary, one of the few books I’d brought from home, stymied by baggage restrictions and fear of censorship. Were his camels physically galled as in chafed, their skin abraded by their heavy burdens, or had they been made angry by the endless demands of their human keepers?
I asked Maryam, a young Palestinian woman I was tutoring in English, whether she thought that camels were stubborn.
“Only the males,” she said, smiling shyly.
The cold weather put an end to picnics in the desert. January—Safar, according to the Islamic calendar—arrived with little fanfare. Safar means void. I wolfed down plates of baklava as I watched Saudi television, English-language programs geared toward foreigners: Woody Woodpecker cartoons, Green Acres, American wrestling featuring Andre the Giant, or, as the Saudi announcer proclaimed before the show, “Andre, a giant.”
I asked my husband for a stuffed camel for my birthday.
“There are no stuffed camels in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
There are no teddy bears and there are no dolls, although Maryam’s cousin, whom I also tutored, had the largest collection of Barbies I’d seen in my life—hundreds of them in all of their various incarnations: blonde Barbies, brunette Barbies, black Barbies, Malibu Barbies. She had the Superstar Barbie and the Bob Mackie Barbie, the Nurse Barbie and the Teacher Barbie. She had hundreds of clothes for the dolls—evening gowns and wedding dresses, motorcycle jackets and pajamas, a leopard-skin coat, a karate outfit. Missing, I noted, was a floor-length black habaya and heavy black burqa.
In February, The Riyadh Daily News advertised the annual King’s Cup camel races. My husband’s colleagues touted the race as one of the most exciting occasions of the year. “The stakes are huge,” they all said, though I wondered how big they could be since gambling was illegal.
We watched on television as smudge-faced boys who couldn’t have been more than five mounted the camels, grabbing the reins with very small hands. They paraded before King Saud and his entourage, their scruffy Bedouin clothes a stark contrast to the pristine white robes of the men.
The camels took off reluctantly. Even at their fastest, they couldn’t compete with the thoroughbreds back home. One camel stopped half-way down the course, stamped its feet, and turned around. He, perhaps a she—female camels are thought to be as fast as, if not faster than, the males—loped back toward the starting line to the amusement of the crowd and the outrage of its owner. The jockey beat the camel with a thin plastic whip. The King looked on with what seemed like anxiety, not at the animal’s treatment, but at this unexpected, problematic turn in the natural order of the royal universe.
“Do you ever feel depressed living here?” I asked Maryam the next day.
“All the time.”
“What do you do when that happens?” I asked.
“I request my driver to take me to the desert. I tell him to wait, please, in the car. I walk slow in the sand. And then I run. I run and run until I can run no longer.”
Maryam told me there’s a month named after the female camel.
“Shawall. It means to raise. During this month the camel carries her young. Her tail is lifted.”
In Jumada-Al-Awwal, the cruelest month, my husband wanted to see a beheading.
“You can go too if you cover your hair,” he said.
Beheadings took place most Saturday mornings in a public plaza that the expatriates had termed Chop Chop Square. The real name was Deerah. I had been to Deerah several times during the week, when it functioned as a souk. Ropes of gold bunched together hung from hooks or dangled from the rafters of the huts; earrings as heavy as silver dollars, as delicate as spiderwebs swayed on countertop carousels. Million-dollar necklaces hovered behind heavy glass cases.
I had bought a 24-karat gold bracelet once, a week’s worth of tutoring money. The merchant had weighed the gold, which was so yellow it seemed fake, then reweighed it again at my husband’s request. “You must trust me. I get chop chop if no good,” the merchant said, then held up his right hand and sliced the empty air to show what might happen if he were caught cheating.
“I don’t want to go to Chop Chop Square,” I told my husband. “I want to see some camels.”
“It’s too cold to go to the desert.”
He came home in the early afternoon, reeking of alcohol.
I couldn’t sleep at night, disturbed by the vision of the disembodied head, of blood gushing out like water from a broken pipe.
I began to live dangerously in May—Jumada-Al-Thani—the second month of parched land, walking in the afternoons, strolling down Television Street covered with my black habaya. Some days I wore a head scarf; on others, emboldened by a glass of homemade wine—Rocket Fuel, we called it—I wandered burqa-less past concrete apartment buildings the color of sand, many of them half empty, past the local mosque that woke me up every morning at four, past little Yemeni laundries, past tall, mysterious, ugly walls. Men stared at me, at my hair, “goolden” hair as Maryam called it once, asking if she could touch it.
Once, a white Mercedes with four young Saudis stopped in front of me. “Hello,” I said, tentatively, hoping for friendliness, or at least courtesy.
One of the men whistled.
Another shouted, over and over, some strange hybrid word, a cross between houri and whore.
The driver got out of his car and started walking toward me, then stopped and bent over as if wanting to tie his shoe, although he was wearing sandals. When he stood up, I saw the stone in his hand. I started to run. I ran and ran until I could no longer run, my black habaya flapping in the wind like the wings of some strange exotic insect.
Back home, I poured myself a glass of wine, and then another. I stared at the television, a cartoon of Woody Woodpecker trapped in a rocket to the moon.
“What’s wrong?” my husband asked when he came home.
I told him what had happened.
“Idiot,” he said.
At first I thought he was talking about the Saudis in the white Mercedes.
“Idiot,” he repeated.
The lack of the pluralizing s was the beginning of the end of my marriage.
I thought of the description of male camels during mating season I’d read in the camel book: their enlarged red tongues dangle out of the sides of their mouths. They literally foam at the mouth. And I remembered how in Lawrence of Arabia, the 1962 movie based on T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the young Lawrence learns to ride a camel from his Bedouin guide. He wants to ride quickly and spurs the beast too harshly. He is thrown from the camel, a premonition, perhaps, of his death in a motorcycle accident.
I imagined my husband riding a camel. And then I pictured him turning into a camel with a tongue like a long limp red penis. I was riding him with silver spurs and a whip made of leather, driving him through the streets of Riyadh and out past the limits of the city, past the rows of Bedouin tents shaped like playing pieces from Trivial Pursuit, into the endless expanse of the Empty Quarter.
Daiva Markelis was born in Chicago to Lithuanian immigrant parents. She is professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, where she teaches creative writing and women’s memoir. Her short stories and personal essays have appeared in Cream City Review, Other Voices, Crab Orchard Review, American Literary Review, Oyez, Pank, Fourth River, and many others. Her memoir, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life, was published in 2010 by the University of Chicago Press