By Ghada Almuhanna Abalkhail
Yet I have means to fly from grief, when such pursues me, on a lean high beast which paces swiftly by day and night.
A camel sure of foot, firm and thin as the planks of a bier, whom I guide surely over the trodden ways, ways etches in earth as texture is in cloth
A she-camel, rival of the best, swift as an ostrich. When she trots, her hind feet fall in the marks of her forefeet on the beaten road
– Tarafah ibn al-Abd
When one thinks of an Arabian dweller, one cannot help but think of their elegant companion standing right by its side – the camel. The relationship between the two is one that transcends all other connections man might have with an animal. It is one that can be traced back thousands of years and is so deeply engraved into our ancestors’ memories that it has become immortal.
It is a unique love that began thousands of years ago in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula – a bond that grew from the scorching heat of the sun and the vastness of the desert, where the two species, man and camel, suffer and exult as one from it.
Each depended on the other in different ways. Camels provided transport across lands for the dweller and carried much of their load. They fed them through their milk and provided dwellers shelter from their hair, which would be woven into blankets and tents. And as dwellers’ lives centered on movement, land held no value to them, but camels became a measure of wealth. In return, the dwellers took care of the camels by feeding them and nursing their young, by sticking to their side throughout their lives and providing them with the attention they deserved.
A fascinating kind of relationship, they both express it in their own ways. For a camel that loves its owner will remember their voice, even if many years passed and will rush to their side once they see them, rubbing their heads on their body as an expression of love. Whereas a dweller will express his love for the animal through actions and more importantly through words, as did the poet Labid in his ode, in which an old man praises his elderly camel:
Break … with a lean camel to ride on, that many journeyings
have fined to a bare thinness of spine and shrunken hump,
one that, when her flesh is fallen away and her strength is spent
and her ankle-thongs are worn to ribbons of long fatigue,
yet rejoices in her bridle, and runs still as if she were
a roseate cloud, rain-emptied, that ﬂies with the south wind
And camels cannot be praised enough, as their existence is deeply rooted in the Arabian life and soul in every way imaginable. For a camel is so loyal to its person that it would fiercely defend them in times of war by harming those who harmed their owner. And this did not go unnoticed, because camels became a tool poets used to describe their deepest emotions and were used as metaphorical examples. As al-Khansa wrote, describing herself as a camel who had lost her child while she was grieving her brother:
A bereft camel is circling her little one
Two yearnings she has, revealed and hidden
She grazes and gazes until she remembers hers
Then starts longing as she comes and goes
It can truly be said that the bond is of utmost importance to Arabian identity that no stage in a camel’s life, no moment of growth, escaped attention. A whole vocabulary of distinctions arose to describe them. For example red camels are called al-Asayel and darker ones are called al-Majahim. A female camel whose fowl has died and yearns for it is called al-Khuluj, and a female that is superior to all others in all things is called al-Fahiya. No other animal has received such attention as the camel, for its most precious name is Ata’ Allah ( Gift from Allah).
And so when one thinks of this relationship and how it transferred from one generation to another, one wonders about how it will grow further and prosper in the future. It must be admitted that times have changed and nomad life as we all know has become an exception. However, it must be said this beautiful ancient bond between man and camel that used to transcend all aspects of life cannot be forgotten nor should it be broken.
For it is what is owed to these majestic animals that have been by our ancestors’ side for centuries, living through every joyous and sad moment, eventually becoming an inseparable part of our identity and history.
Ghada Almuhanna Abalkhail is a Saudi media and policy professional with a background in law. She currently lives in Berlin, Germany.
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