The cool of early spring is a restless time to travel. The camels are in heat, and it takes a strong hand to control an amorous male when he catches the scent of a female.
“A few years ago a man was killed near this mountain,” Raad says as we began our early morning walk. “His camel see the lady camel, and he want to make sex with her. The man, he don’t let him. He make his camel walk the other way. Camel jump on the man from behind, smother and bite him in the neck and head.” “Killed him?” “Yes, killed. But he was an old man. These camels, they know me. This wouldn’t happen to us. I don’t worry.” Reassurances aside, I’m encouraged to keep my wits about me when we encounter other camels.
Romance is in the air for Raad as well. From time to time, when he thinks no one is looking, I catch him gazing misty eyed at the photo of a girl, his fiancee. He’ll save the money that he earns by guiding foreigners such as us to fund the presents that will lead up to his wedding.
Bedouin marriages are arranged by the family. In a culture where boys and girls are segregated at a young age, couples seldom have a chance to get to know one another and dating is unheard of. When the son or daughter is ready, the parents seek out a suitable mate. The boy pays visits to the girl’s home, accompanied by his mother and sometimes by his sisters. Meetings are always like this; the couple is never alone. The engagement period can last a year or more while the groom saves money and buys his prospective in-laws such presents as clothing, jewellery and electronics. When the time comes for the official request to marry, the boy’s family visits the tent of the girl’s family. Cardamom spiced coffee is poured and set in front of the prospective groom, but he doesn’t touch it. If the bride’s father accepts the union he will invite the groom to drink the coffee, thus sealing the bargain. If he does not accept the union the groom’s family will be asked to leave without drinking the coffee. In this way no one is slighted and honour is preserved.
Raad stares at that photograph day after day and in the evenings he climbs rock formations in the vain hope that his cell phone will somehow pull her signal from the ether. He is desperately smitten.
Our camels are smitten too, but only intermittently. On the same day that Raad tells me the story of the man being killed by his camel, Azaran slows his pace to a crawl and looks around with sudden interest. It’s the first time that he pays attention to anything more distant than the clover at his feet. I see camels across the wadi as he begins to burble from the side of his mouth. Up ahead Sainan does the same—inflating his mouth bladder so that it slops out to hang from the side of his lip like a displaced intestine. He burbles with the sound of a long drawn-out fart, then slurps it back in, somehow managing to look stately and proud in the process. “You gotta try a new line with the ladies, Sainan,” I say. “That can’t possibly work.”
Azaran sets out toward the other camels with stubborn determination. I yank on the rope, and he pulls back strongly enough to nearly tear it from my hands. I turn him in a complete circle, shouting “Yalla! Yalla!” and whipping his hindquarters with the end of the lead, but it’s too thick to be persuasive. He keeps edging away from our caravan, swinging his head and showing me his teeth. We fight like this until Raad tosses me his camel stick. “Catch to the camel,” he says. I detect a hint of urgency in his voice. I belt Azaran in the side of the neck, forcing him to turn back, and then whip his hindquarters until he’s trotting in our original direction.
For the camel, the tape-wrapped stick gives a sting akin to being hit with a ruler. It’s unpleasant, but there’s no permanent damage. They understand the carrot and the stick, but mostly the stick. Camels are clever creatures. They’re always pushing you, testing to see how much they can get away with. From the start of the trip I had trouble convincing Azaran to couch so that I could saddle or ride him. Following Raad’s example, I pull down on the lead rope, pat him near the top of his front leg and make a vocal command that sounds like clearing one’s throat. The camel yanks back firmly and turns to shove me with his shoulder, stepping on my foot in the process. For a moment I lose my balance and he nearly pushes me over. Such behavior doesn’t go over well with me. I yank his head sideways with the rope and punch him solidly in the ribs. He grunts, stumbles back a step and sits down, looking as surprised as I’ve ever seen a camel look.
The next morning I cut a camel stick from a juniper tree and wrap it in electrical tape, as I’d seen Raad do. Within two days I establish that I’m not some timid pushover and Azaran and I get along very well. I’m able to couch him by voice command alone, to saddle and unsaddle him, to climb dunes and get him to gallop. It’s my first big step towards mastering the beast.