Hate is a very strong word, it’s one of those words that you use and you don’t come back from: a bridge burning out of control in the blackest part of night; the last period at the end of a book, a death sentence to any future words.
I don’t hate a lot of things, but that which I hate, I do with a passion, such as: Nazis, Jim Morrison, people who are mean for the sake of it, Goldschläger… There are other things too, naturally, but really they don’t warrant mentioning, because they all pale when put in contrast to the gleaming gem in my crown of hate: camels. I fucking hate camels. I hate them so much I cannot even properly articulate it, but I will try.
When I was 30 years old I decided that I really needed to ride a camel, it consumed me. I did not want to ride a camel in a zoo or at a carny-ridden fairground in some Whateverville. I wanted to ride a motherfucking camel and I wanted to ride it at the Pyramids of Giza.
Once I got this in my head there was absolutely nothing that was going to get in my way. Not the deeply unstable political climate in Egypt, not the risk of traveling alone in the Middle East as a woman, and not my inability to communicate in Arabic. These were all small fish in the face of my obsession: camels.
Despite many warnings, I bought my ticket to Egypt, arriving during what would end up being the autumn of Arab Winter. Needless to say, things were, well, tense. The day my plane touched down there was a massive riot at Tahrir Square and much of the city was shut down and the streets were eerily vacant as I was driven from the airport to my hostel.
Perhaps because I lack a certain survival mechanism this state civil unrest did not phase me in the slightest. Why? Because camels. Twenty-four hours after touchdown me and my driver Kahld, a jolly man who always had a Cleopatra brand cigarette hanging out of his mouth and drove like a bat out of hell, were barreling to the Cairo suburb of Giza. As an aside, suburbs and Pyramids are not two words I ever put together, especially in the context of existing in the same literal neighborhood, but there you go. Egypt.
We got to the Pyramids and Khald taught me how to say “la shukran", which translates to "no thank you" in Arabic, and made me repeat it until he was happy with my accent and delivery- lilting words that are fun to roll off the tongue but must be delivered with a firmness. When he felt that I had it down well enough he took me to the camel and horse stables,
“Princess, do you want to ride a horse or a camel?”
“Camel,” I replied firmly, “I want to ride a pretty camel.”
“You sure you don’t want to ride a horse?”
And then I got to deliver the magnum opus of my grasp of the Arabic language to that point: “La, la shukran.”
With a shrug the man disappeared inside the barn and I waited. Soon an animal I really wasn't expecting came lurching out of the barn towards me.
“This camel is Michael Jackson.”
“Michael Jackson, he’s the prettiest camel we have. He is also not very mean.”
Now, I was taking in the Michael Jackson part and not really processing the “not very mean” part, which ended up being somewhat of a fatal flaw. Michael Jackson was glorious to behold: impossibly tall, with white fur and bedecked in blood colored rugs and pom-poms in a riot of pinks and greens and oranges. He jingled when he walked and peered at me through eyes fringed in the longest most beautiful lashes I have ever seen. Yes, yes, Michael Jackson was a very pretty camel. I was happy.
Now, riding a camel is a very weird thing. To prepare I had watched Brendan Fraiser’s “The Mummy” approximately two and a half times. Mainly the parts where they are riding camels, also the part with the bugs, and I felt ready. But once the guy hit the camel so it would get down low enough for me to climb onto the small milk crate strapped to its back, I realized that much like Jon Snow, I too knew nothing.
Camels don’t really kneel or do anything graceful, instead they just sort of collapse on themselves like those unsatisfying toys you get as a child where you push the button and the creature just crumbles in a weird plastic jumble of sharp impossible angles- camel do it the exact same way too. It is also how they stand up. And sweet baby Satan they are tall, very tall. Scary tall. So in a moment of real ride-or-die, I got on the back of Michael Jackson, to do what I came to Africa to do: ride a camel named after the dead King of American Pop around the tombs of the dead Kings of Ancient Egypt. There was a certain poetry to it that pleased me and I felt like it would be a good omen to my day that had already begun to reach lava-hot temperatures.
Before this story goes any further, I need you to understand that I love animals. I really love them very much and generally they like me too. With that said, my favorite animals tend to be both cute AND mean, but even under duress I have never physically harmed an animal, nor have I ever intended to in my life. Creeped out yet? Just wait.
So my guide that the guys at the camel barn assigned to me walked slightly ahead of me and my lackadaisical camel pointing out various sites, orienting me to the majesty and magnitude of the Pyramids. The Pyramids of Giza are what the word "awesome" was made to describe, you will never be able to see those hulking masses and then describe a hot-dog (which I love) with that same adjective ever again. I tried my best to pay attention and absorb my surroundings as I sat upon the swaying mass of my camel which felt like the world’s tallest bad idea. My guide said something interesting about the building process or something and if also surprised by this fact, Michael Jackson turned his head to look at the guide, who then proceeded to punched the camel in the face. Let me repeat this, the guide PUNCHED THE GOD DAMN CAMEL IN THE FUCKING FACE. What was I? Shocked! Scandalized! I told the guide that I did not believe in cruelty to animals and not to punch MY camel, which I was balanced so precariously on.
The guide shrugged and said “Fine, you want the camel to bite you? Fine, I won’t punch the camel.”
“Shukran.” I said, exercising my limited Arabic vocabulary in new and exciting ways.
On we plodded through glimmering seas of yellow-white sand and the long cool shadows cast by the great Pyramids themselves. I sat on my camel and marveled at the achievements and the innovation of humankind, the humbling experience of trying to comprehend these monuments to the dead, the history of… FUCK! When the fucking camel bit the shit out of my leg, not even thinking I reflexively punched it in the solar plexus, causing it to let go of my leg.
“WHAT THE FUCK?” I said, in perfect not-Arabic.
My guide looked at me and smiled and said, “Yes, they like to bite. It hurts yes?”
I smiled back at him, my leg throbbing, refusing to let a camel make me cry.
That incident lead to the next 45 minute long camel-based nightmare- so many teeth, so much animal punching. In retrospect, Egypt is pretty famous for being late on the start times, but you could have fooled me with this camel; I believe it literally tried, or succeeded, to bite me every 10 minutes with a precision known only to Swiss watchmakers.
“Do the camels ever hurt anyone, like really bad?” I asked my guide, lightly panicking in front of the Great Sphinx, which is actually much smaller than you would think.
“Well…” he said, taking a drag off of his cigarette, gazing into the throngs of tourists lining up to take a famous “kiss the Sphinx” photo, “Sometimes they do, but at our barn, if they break someone’s leg or trample them, we kill them immediately. We are very good about that.”
“Oh.” I said, “Does this happen very often?”
“Camel is delicious, have you ever eaten it?” he asked me beguilingly, avoiding my question completely.
Somehow we made it back, Michael Jackson getting in a good bite every so often, and as he crumpled to the ground I rolled off, my legs shaking.
Khald my driver was waiting for me, smoking his Cleopatra, “Did you have fun?” he asked.
I looked at Khald, “May I please have a cigarette?”
That was the first and last time I rode a camel. I met with other camels through-out my two months in Egypt and Jordan. During that time I saw camels everywhere: in an oasis in the Sahara where I was offered 15 Egyptian pounds ($2.25 USD) to jump in their pen; I saw wild camels cruising around the sides of the road; I saw camels walking down the beach; I literally walked into the side of a camel while hiking up Mt. Sinai in the dead of night guided by only the light of a small LED reading light.
Sometimes I would trick myself and the light would catch a camel just right and I would go, this one is nice, this one will be my friend, only to have hornk loudly at me and bear its enormous meth teeth at me, itchy for a bite of my flesh.
It’s funny because despite all this, all the hate and fear I have towards camels, when I look back at my photographs of my time in Egypt and Jordan, my strongest regret is not buying a velvet painting I found in a marketplace in Jordan of two camels, dressed in full pomp staring dumbly at the Pyramids, rising like the Wonders of the World that they are. When I look at the photograph of that painting, I think to myself “I could like camels” and then I flip to the next photo in the album, Michael Jackson, mouth agape and full of caramel colored teeth going for a piece of my leg…