Abraham met us with a wide smile and two towering beasts clad in rug saddles of orange, yellow, and pink. Set against the backdrop of a monochromatic no-man’s-land, they looked like a pair of flowering cactus. Abraham, our camel trekker, was colorful too, with his white gandora and indigo headscarf. But no bouquet of color could compete with the cinematic scope of nothingness that went on and on in every direction. It was as if we’d been dropped onto the set of The Sheltering Sky. Except this wasn’t the Sahara. The Sahara, we were told, could easily kill a tourist this time of year. Which is why we were here, in the stony desert, where conditions, they said, would be tolerable.
But tolerable, like tolerance, is one of those words that means different things to different people.
“Meet Ma-al-la-latta and Ah-li-lo-agga-ta,” Abraham said. Or something like that. I couldn’t make out the names, so I just called them Ali and Molly. Not that it matters. Moroccans don’t really tend to name their camels. Or their donkeys either, for that matter. Doing so would be like naming your car. But Abraham is clever, and he knows what his customers like. “Do you want to take a picture?” he asked.
On command, Ali attempted to sit down, pulling Molly with him. The neck strap of Molly was bound fast to the saddle of Ali, making the whole ordeal awkward for the both of them. Ali noted his discontent with a gurgle-growl that sounded like it had bubbled up from a steel cavern half full of water. It was as surprising as it was unnerving. And the smell was something akin to hot moldy liver.
Abraham laughed and spoke rapidly to the animal in Arabic. Ali squinted through his long eyelashes, clearly annoyed by all of us, then lumbered down onto his front knees and sat like a cat with his hooves tucked under his breastbone. Molly followed suit and plopped her chin upon Ali’s rump.
“There!” said Abraham and laughed again. “He is feeling lazy this morning. He wants to stay here.”
Who could blame him? I wasn’t so sure about the trip myself now that it was a hundred and fifteen degrees. Abraham took my hand and helped me aboard Molly, while Chris took a seat on Ali. Then, at Abraham’s command, all four of us rose up willy-nilly like stringed puppets and proceeded through the stony desert.
The way these one-humped dromedaries walk is interesting. Both legs rise and fall simultaneously on the same side, so that the rider rocks and rolls, dips and sways. With each step, the pad of the camel’s two-toed foot spreads to find purchase in the sand. Or in this case, rocks. Once you get used to it, the gait is rather lulling, and I found my mind drifting off as I gazed across the vast expanse of ancient sea floor, all the way to the horizon.
I thought of the nomads who would have come this way over the past thousand years, even two thousand years, back to biblical times. Even though they wouldn’t have been in this country—or even on this continent—I also envisioned how Mary and Joseph might have traversed a similar landscape while looking for a B&B on the very first Christmas Eve. It was hard not to. The imagery was powerfully evocative of the children’s Bible stories I’d seen at the only summer camp I’d ever been to. Even Abraham looked like one of the characters.
No one at that West Texas Bible camp ever mentioned Mohammed or Muslims. Their focus was really all about Jesus as a kid’s only hope. At thirteen, I didn’t know much about other cultures or the stories of their gods and prophets, angels and devils. Other interpretations about creation weren’t discussed. Period. And I didn’t inquire. I was having a hard enough time as it was trying not to make our god mad at me. It seemed many of the adults in my life had an opinion about what would and would not land me in hell forevermore. Including Mema, who was always quick with a reminder that our god would “git” me if I didn’t do right.
As I pondered the power of fear as a wonderfully efficient means of control for lots of folks, from proselytizers to politicians to parents, Molly twisted her head around and gave me a look. Was I sitting on her wrong, or had she somehow divined my profane thoughts, I wondered. I shimmied down a few inches from the top of her hump then gave her an apologetic pat, which I soon realized was pointless. Her hide was so tough and her fur so dense she didn’t feel a thing. Besides, she didn’t seem like the forgiving sort.
In the process, though, I did notice a bottle of water Abraham had stowed for me in the side pocket of the saddle. I debated about whether or not to crack it open. I felt guilty for slaking my thirst when neither Abraham nor the camels could. Of course, the camels couldn’t have any water because there was none for them to have out here. But Abraham couldn’t have any because it was Ramadan, and unless a doctor had declared him too sick to participate, he was bound by his faith and the expectations of his community not to take a sip until given the OK by the local imam at sundown. In this way he could demonstrate his spiritual devotion.
As for me, I could have all the water I wanted. It was there for me like a juicy apple on a tree. Most Moroccans are tolerant toward non-Muslim tourists during Ramadan and any other time. But, still, it just felt wimpy, and, well, downright inconsiderate to chug water in front of a man sacrificing his satiation for his faith.
On the other hand, the sun’s relentless rays and Molly’s dip and sway had already lured me into an altered state of consciousness. Now that I knew about the bottle of water, I couldn’t not think about it. I needed a drink in the worst way. Just a little sip, I told myself. It’s not like Abraham would see me. He’s two camels ahead with his back to me. I slipped the bottle of water out of the pocket and twisted the top quietly. Then I drank as fast as I could, letting the liquid blow the banks of my mouth and dribble down onto my headscarf.
I suppose it was inevitable what happened next. In fact, it might even happen to you, too, in the same situation. At the first tingle of relief, my mind began to sing. In the beginning it was just a few notes. Then it was a few lines of lyrics that weren’t in the right order. And then, like a Saharan viper, the whole song slithered inside my mind, where it’s still coiled now, punishing me with its incessancy. I hear it in my head while I wash the dishes, fold fresh-dried shirts, and take long walks to the mailbox. It’s a tune by the band America, and if you’re of a certain age, you know which one it is. I’m sure this mind-pinching redundancy is my penance for sneaking that sip–and a multitude of other transgressions I don’t even know.
Like Mema said, “God’ll git you, yes he will.”