I like to pull a woman's leg once in awhile
by David Arthur Walters
I. "Woman is the Camel..."
I LIKE TO PULL A WOMAN'S LEG once in awhile to get her goat: "You know, women were traded like cattle in the old days, as a sort of basic barter or unit of exchange," I casually stated to Joanne, my favorite bartender at the Hi Life cocktail lounge on Amsterdam Avenue.
"Just goes to show you how smart those men were to know how valuable women really are," she unhesitatingly retorted.
As wise as I deemed myself to be at the time, I was suitably impressed by her sagacity. To enlighten her further, I went on to explain, in simple terms of shoeshiners exchanging shoe shines, why a dollar bill is a shoeshine debt given to shoeshine creditors who have faith in its value as an instrument of exchange: thanks for the shine; I owe you one; here's a buck; when your shoes get scuffed; you can get a shine anywhere. Joanne was awed by my intellectual prowess, or maybe she was just a good bartender and actress - she had in fact finished her first Hollywood movie but there was some doubt as to whether it would ever be released. Incidentally, her Halloween costume one year was the popular Dumber than Dumb fellow - I treasure my photograph of her disguised as same.
In retrospect I knew how rude I had been on that evening, likening women to cattle, then assaulting her with crude economics! Which gave me cause to wonder, What sort of creatures are men?
I thought of Joanne while I was reading The Sabres of Paradise by Lesley Blanch many years later - last night - wherein women are likened to camels. As we know, camels are so highly valued by nomads that camels have served as exchange barter. For instance, a male slave was once valued at 10 camels, while a female slave was worth 20 camels; a dowry would cost the bridegroom at least 50 camels. Furthermore, camels have been used to settle blood feuds as follows: a death is paid for with 100 camels; testicle injuries were also once avenged with 100 camels; a broken arm or leg was valued at 25 camels, whereas a broken finger was worth only 10 and a broken molar maybe 8 - the incisor was worth only 5 camels.
Of course camels are more valuable than dollars since a dollar may get you nowhere when inflated - still, a camel can be like a white elephant to a humble city dweller who cannot maintain her even in the sparse manner she was accustomed to.
"Paradise is under the shadow of swords," sayeth the prophet. Lesley Blanch's book is about the jihad carried out by the fierce warriors of Dagestan and Chechnya against the Russian "civilizers" in the Caucasus. The old conflict in that region between mountaineers and would-be "civilizers" goes on to this very day. The early eighteenth-century jihad was organized by Sufi fundamentalists of the Naqshbandi order. I was reading Lesley's romantic portrait of the great hero Shamyl, third Imam of Dagestan, who had been gravely wounded in battle. He was recuperating in the mountains, where he was visited by his slim and graceful wife Fatimat.
"Like all Caucasian women, Fatimat was very slim and graceful...It was the custom for Caucasian girls to be laced into a tight corselets of deerskin which constricted and formed their narrow bodies... The corselet was put on, with ceremony, around the age of eight, and it was never removed until their marriage, generally at the age of fourteen, or thereabouts, when it was the bridegroom's privilege to rip open the seams with his kindjal." Or, he might ceremoniously untie knot after knot, and be ridiculed for any apparent impatience.
Now Fatimat's husband Shamyl was a preacher of Shariat, strict Muslim law, which was the Islamic demonstration of Caucasian unity against the Russian infidels. As a Sufi shaykh, Shamyl was committed to the disciplined ascetic life which fits in rather nicely with the life of a ghazi, warrior for the Faith. While he was nursing his wounds in the shepherd's hut, his sister visited him adorned with jewelry, treasure salvaged from the destroyed village where he was wounded; the sight of opulence caused his wounds to burst open. A few authors attribute the outrageous reaction to an old superstition among the mountain folk, that precious stones prevent wounds from healing, but Lesley tells the more popular story, that is, the politically correct one most probably insisted on by Shamyl himself:
"Later (after he he suffered his relapse), when Shamyl insisted on miraculous powers and divine support, he used to declare his wounds had reopened in a protest directed by Allah against his sister's jewels, against her wanton display of earthly treasures wholly unacceptable to the Lord. And there was no one who cared to dispute it."
But apparently Shamyl was not altogether opposed to a modicum of luxury or lust where his beloved wife was concerned. Lesley says no doubt he loved to visit Fatimat between his campaigns. She was a Daghestani gentlewoman: her customary attire was rather elegant: "...loose, flowered silk trousers, almost hidden by a full-skirted, tight-wasted surcoat with wide, flowing sleeves and elaborate silver-braided fastenings. A great many gold and silver coins hung from the end of the long black braids... Fine muslin veils and coloured silk kerchiefs were wound round her head and across her face when she left the privacy of her quarters; and on gala occasions she wore a tall pointed cap or head-dress, from which more veils flowed. In summer, she went barefooted; in winter her slippers were protected from the mud and snow by high wooden clogs or pattens. Instead of the bourka which men wore against the piercing Caucasian winters, she was wrapped in an embroidered felt cloak lined with fox skins, or sables even."
I believe Fatimat's appearance at Shamyl's rude mountain hospital must have had a more beneficial effect on his wounds than that resulting from his sister's visit. Our author supposes that the respite the couple had together was a virtual paradise despite their spartan quarters: a hut made of rough stones piled together on the stark, barren mountain side, unchinked gaps open to the weather, with a thatched roof of twigs and boughs dragged up from a lower, vegetated elevation; upon the roof are cheeses patted into rounds, and bricks of dung used for cooking which impart to food its delicious Caucasian flavor.
Before Fatimat arrived at the hut, she was believed to have wandered around the mountains looking for her wounded husband, and to have been captured or killed by the Russians.
"After a while Fatimat was forgotten," Blanch continues. "Women were of little consequence, to the Faithful. They were chattels, scarcely held to have souls. Yet Shamyl loved his wife with so consuming a passion that once, during a battle, learning she lay at death's door, he abandoned everything to go to her."
Now we should know that a man does not have to be a Muslim to consider women and even men for that matter as chattels. In fact, if we pay close attention to the early history of Islam, we shall see Muslim women were actually treated relatively better than than they were previously handled according to Arab tribal law. Of course their status eventually deteriorated to virtual enslavement when men became frightened by their own desires, blaming women for their own lust and jealousy: the double standard certainly came in handy while elaborating stringent laws regarding adultery, polygamy, concubines and instant divorce for men. Unsold single women or those who had not been given away were by law relatively free, perhaps to starve or to be kidnapped pursuant to the ancient custom of wife-snatching.
Even the pre-Islamic Persian veil became ignoble evidence of male jealousy and fear of women's power rather than a sign of noble decency or at least discreet indecency. The veil once screened the decent gentlewoman or discreet concubine who did not have to work like a bare slave or a poor woman. Even today the head-to-toe purdah is fashionable in some quarters where women prefer to be judged as equals rather than as sex objects. For example, before the men of Afghanistan were recently frightened into fundamental totalitarian unity to save their identity, women wore purdahs over their miniskirts and high heels - one never knows when an atavistic warrior might ride by. Yet when all women became slaves to fearful fundamentalism, the purdah becomes mandatory garb everywhere, even for slaves laboring in the field. As for the concubines of the rich man's harem ("sacrosanct") which he secluded behind a tall curtain or wall (purdah) instead of sharing them at the central temple as was the custom elsewhere, he could treat them as well as his four wives differently according to divine revelations.
But never mind, after reading what Gandhi once referred to as a "sewer inspector's report" of particular short-comings, we should also keep in mind that men in general have always loved women more than they have hated them. Moreover, men seem to wind up in the long run as slaves of their slaves.
As for Shaykh Shamyl's piety, Lesley Blanch does not believe he was a fanatic about Sufi renunciation when it came to enjoying his wife; after all, the Koran states: "Woman is thy field, go then to thy field and till it." On the other hand, Lesley does not appreciate the following quote as much as the first one:
"Woman is the camel to help man though the desert of existence."
II. First Things First
I PREFER THE SECOND FIGURE of speech over the first one, and I know my favorite bartender at the Hi Life cocktail lounge would approve of my evaluation. Mind you, I do not believe the fertile ground of existence is any less important than the camel thriving on it, but a nomad must get to it over barren desert and bleak mountain trails. For that purpose his camel is indispensable, and, when he gets to where he is going, he looks forward to leaving.
Furthermore, I take the fundamental dirt for granted, at least more so than I do the romantic camel. In my romantic mood I have good company. Inspired by the camel, Lawrence of Arabia shifted from prose to waxing poetic, giving the lie to the notion that heroes love their horses but have no similar affectionate bond with their camels. 'Camel' is rightfully a term of endearment for ordinarily docile creatures who will, in season, fly into fits of rage and spit in your face if their love is impeded - the males enjoy legendary notoriety for such fits: Aristotle said an enraged camel bit a man's head off. By the way, for those who are interested in courting, female camels flirt then resist, sometimes getting banged up pretty bad in the process.
Muhammad enjoined men to treat camels well: "Behold this she-camel. She hath the right to drink at the well and ye have the right to drink each on an appointed day; and touch her not ill lest there come on you retribution. But they hamstrung her, and then were penitent."
It is wrong to mistreat any animal including the human animal, but it certainly is no insult to camel or to woman to favorably compare woman with the camel, a creature even more sacred than the holy cow. The life of Arabs living in the desert steppes once depended on her milk as their primary food source: the scientific student shall find higher concentrations of intestinal lactase in Arabians whose ancestors relied on milk for generations. Muhammad himself had 20 milch camels acquired in a raid; he prized them for their daily production: two large skins of milk - the yield per milch camel ranges from 1 to 7 litres per day. In drought-stricken environments other animals bred for meat and milk die, but the camel survives and continues to produce calves and milk. Now taking into account the millions of people who starve annually, the camel is in fact capable of carrying man across the existential desert in more ways than one.
With that in mind, It certainly behooves us to briefly extend our cursory examination of the camel - time and space do not permit a thorough discussion of the camel's 40,000,000 years on Earth.
The attentive reader may notice I occasionally refer to the camel in general as a "her." I do so not only because I am weary of using "he" for humans, but because she is the mother ship, the "ship of the desert", the "land ship"; like all ships, the camel deserves a feminine pronoun. Of course man and woman share most qualities; there are distinctions to be made; the male/female division is arbitrary to a degree, yet we enjoy sex too much to dispense with it on the whole. In any event, please do keep the affinity of the sexes in mind instead of their battle when examining my camel, knowing full well no blatant sexism inheres in my descriptions. After all, Muslims say "Muhammed was a camel, loved the camel, and praised the camel." Furthermore, before proceeding with our little sketch, we should note that camels have not had their French Revolution, hence male camels have permission to dress just as gorgeously as females. That being said, we continue apace.
Camels originated in North America. Knowing that mankind would eventually need them in Asia, they embarked on the Great Camel Exodus across Alaska - completed nearly a million years ago - and familiarized themselves with the desert and mountain terrain of Asia. Their smaller kin - llamas, alpacas, guanacos, vicunas - headed south on missions to South America. Camels did not return to North America until just before the Civil War, to join the U.S. Camel Corps - camels were also introduced to Australia where 15,000 now run wild. Alas, despite their virtues and credentials including military service under the likes of Cyrus the Great, Hadrian and Napolean, certain exigencies and the development of the railroad caused the U.S. Army to desert them; a few ran wild in Arizona until 1910; domesticated camels now living in Texas will be glad to entertain your family.
The prehistoric Bactrian camel populated Turkistan; one was eventually sighted there drinking water from the river Bactrus in Bactria, an ancient area roughly corresponding to the province of Balkh in northern Afghanistan where Zarathustra (Golden Camel) eventually settled. The Bactrian camel developed two humps in anticipation of Zarathustra's religious Dualism, the Good and Evil Twins especially celebrated by Zoroastrians who love mountainous regions and pure Fire.
The Arabian or dromedary (dromus = running) camel developed a single hump for desert dwellers who prefer the one and only god. Of course the Arabian camel settled in Arabia and awaited man's convenience; ancient dumps reveal man was eating wild camels in southern Arabia around 3,000 B.C., where the transition from hunting to taming camels is believed to have occurred. No less an Asian despot than Solomon was once said to have fully domesticated the camel to expand trade and therefore advance civilization East and West. But Solomon, if priests told the true story, has rivals: Abraham, the father of Jews and Christians, allegedly traded his lovely wife Sarah to Pharaoh for some camels amongst other goods. Well, no doubt Solomon exploited the amazing prehistoric creature who was already becoming according to God's providence man's nourisher, means of transportation and medium of exchange.
Recall how the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon with treasure-laden camels to find out if he was as great as he was reputed to be, whereupon they held a royal potlatch to see who could outgive the other. Solomon apparently won: Sheba left with more than she arrived with - the gold she came with was alone worth millions of current dollars. Her legendary camel-riding career is certainly not to be ignored in any good camel essay. She was claimed by Ethiopa and, based on the rumor that she had a son with Solomon, whom Solomon made King of Africa, the emperors of Ethiopia from 1270 B.C. to 1975 A.D. have claimed descent from Solomon's father, David - curiously, the genuine Ark was supposedly secreted out of Jerusalem and taken to Ethiopia. Nigerians also lay claim to the Queen and her famous camels. Yet now it appears from excavations of the 3,000 year-old Mahran Bilqis (Temple of the Moon) in southern Arabia that the famous queen of Bible, Talmud and Koran presided over the cradle of Arab civilization, its capital being Marib in Yemen, on the main caravan route beside the Red Sea.
Still, only camels know for sure who the Queen of Sheba was or who was first to domesticate them - and do forgive me for virtually ignoring the Bactrian camel here, as I do so not from racial prejudice but from ignorance. Anyway, for Solomon's sake, suffice it to say the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet is gimel, representing the three-fold or holy mount. Yes, another letter of the alphabet symbolizes the bull - but never mind that, or the defamed ones who invented the alphabet.
As we know, nomadic Arabs depended on the camel for their existence. They also knew she would come in handy in the afterlife. It was customary to tie a camel to a man's grave - but not for long, since she might be stolen. The camel is one of the Prophet's ten animals in Paradise.
Allah was Muhammad's most important spiritual concern; however, according to one allegation, there was only one thing on Earth more valuable to Muhammad than a fine camel: the head of his worst enemy. A man must put first things first; for example, one must first live in order to love, and when his worst enemy is hiring assassins to interrupt his loving, he must attend to the priority. At the time of the Prophet's First Jihad, one of his worst enemies, Abu Jahl, was immediately available for execution at the battle at Badr.
According to Ibn Ishaq (85-151) who recorded the early allegations about the Prophet's life, on Friday morning, the 17th day of Ramadan (624), in the valley of Badr, the Apostle ordered his companions to attack, and retired to his hut. After two Muslims were killed, he came forth from his humble headquarters to encourage his men, promising Paradise for martyrs.
As the warriors on both sides advanced, Abu Jahl was hear to cry: "O God, destroy this morning him (Muhammad) than more than any of us hath cut the ties of kinship and wrought that which is not approved." Furthermore, as Abu fought that day, he was heard to say:
"What has fierce war to dislike about me,
A young he-camel with razor like teeth?
For this very purpose did my mother bear me."
Muhammad was overheard praying: "O God, don't let him escape me!"
Towards the end of the battle, the Prophet ordered his men to search for Abu among the slain. Some time prior, Muadh had fought Abu and cut off his leg. Then Abu's son nearly cut off Muadh's arm, but he went on fighting, dragging his arm behind him until he eventually stood on it with one foot and tore it off - he survived the battle. Another Muslim, Muawwidh, smote Abu and left him for dead - Muawwidh was then slain. Yet another Companion, Abdullah, complying with the Prophet's order to find Abu's body, found Abu nearly dead, cut off his head, and presented it to Muhammad:
"This is the head of the enemy of God, Abu Jahl," said Abdullah.
"By God than Whom there is no other, is it?"
"Yes," affirmed Abdullah, and threw Abu's head before Muhammad, who then gave thanks to God.
Now, then, where is the camel in this story? It is in another version of the story related by R.F. Dibble in his 1926 book MOHAMMED (Viking) and by several others such as Sir William Muir. Exulting over the victory, Muhhamad saw Abdullah approaching with Abu's head, and exclaimed:
"The head of the enemy of God! God! there is none other God!"
"There is none other!" agreed Abdallah, dropping his gory prize before Mohammed's feet; and Abdallah almost fainted from bliss when the Prophet continued, "It is more acceptable to me than the choicest camel in all Arabia!"
Thus has the legend been elaborated over the centuries. Incidentally, it is said that the first blow rendered by a Muslim on behalf of Allah was delivered during the 13 years of persecution that led up to the first jihad: infidels were throwing stones at praying Muslims; one injured man, As'd ben Abi Waqqas, seized the jaw-bone from a camel's carcass and beat his attacker with it.
III. Camel Characteristics
I AM INSPIRED TO SAY MORE about the camel's personal characteristics. Arab poets have owned her as a precious gem, the most beautiful woman of all, with silken cheeks, shapely falcon ears, and a long neck which is slender as a minaret. She has long, slender legs to boot - she rocks smoothly from side to side when she strides, making inexperienced men feel quite giddy. She admittedly enhances her stature with an illusion: she is not as tall as she looks. She has great lips and a large mouth full of teeth, hence Chesebrough Ponds might sign her for a Pepsodent commercial; be careful, camels bite! By the way, the camel's eyebrows are a bit bushy and her ears are cute and fuzzy.
Oh, yes, when she is really thirsty, Camel Woman can drink people under the table; although she is sure-footed, she has not been seen dancing on one - much to her credit in conservative lands. She is docile, but as we have seen, despite the legend that camels keep their affairs secret, she and her partners act up when feeling salacious.
Furthermore, she might eat you out of house and home, devouring both your blanket and your tent if you don't eat her first - only a fool would abuse a camel. She has keen vision and can spot a man at a distance; she can be skittish of men or pigs if she has not seen one for a long time or if a strange one approaches - a camel does tend to wander off in search of her original home -; nonetheless, she has remained calm under gunfire and beside speeding locomotives and automobiles even when she has not seen or heard them before.
In fact, her hearing is acute, although she tends to ignore commands. She is a very hard worker half the time. If worked over six months, she might have a breakdown. Every man gives different figures for how much weight she can carry and how far she can carry it in a day - I use "she" for all camels, so speak to a nomad before loading up your camels equally - say, to be safe, 330 lbs. for 8 hrs. at 3 mph; others say more. When the load is heavy, she will complain, groan and bawl when getting up to go to work; if she had her druthers, she would rather not work up a sweat, and would instead like to lay around in the shade.
This might surprise you: she always needs a new fur coat each winter. Kings and Penitents wear her old coats in sheer admiration of her royal and dignified bearing. St. John the Baptist wore with distinction his camel-hair dress. Long before the appearance of Jesus, those in the know knew the camel is the Ark of Civilization who carries the Seed from Oasis to Oasis. Occultists know her as the Desert Dragoness, the Eternal Chariot and Throne who bears the Sun Dragon from occlusion to occlusion across the desert of existence.
IV. Noble Camel Nomads
CAMELS ARE THE PRIDE AND JOY of the distinguished nomad. The noble nomad is fiercely independent and is free of urban foibles because of his confidence in God's greatest gift, the camel, a divine creature whose vigorous endurance is unmatched by any other creature; a creature not only beautiful but who, in accord with the old maxim "Handsome is as handsome does", went so far under heavy loads in desert and mountain terrain as to replaced the wheel, man's foremost progressive invention. For instance, by the seventh century A.D. carts and wagons were almost completely replace by the camel in North Africa. Not to mention that the Arabs would not have been able to save the world from the Dark Ages without the utilitarian camel.
In any case, if the nomad follows the camel's natural inclination to preserve the ecological balance by cooperating with it, he shall survive along with her. Of course the Iron Rod of Allah is not suspended, a case in point being the fate of the Lost Caravan of 1805: nearly two thousand people and a like number of camels missed the route between Timbuktu and Taoudent - they perished of thirst. Of course romantic people love a challenge, hence it is no wonder the shiek progeny of nomads who settled down for capitalism and its laborious divisions still have camels kept; they love to drive to their summer tents in a Mercedez; some keep a nice tent next to or on the roof of their palaces. Unfortunately, as eloquently revealed by the professor of jurisprudence Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) in his authoritative introduction to history, THE MUQADDIMAH:
"...Sedentary life constitutes the last stage of civilization ... the last stage of evil and remoteness from goodness ... Bedouins are closer to being good than sedentary people (who are) ... accustomed to luxury and success in worldly occupations and to indulgence in worldly desires. Therefore, their souls are colored with all kinds of blameworthy and evil qualities..."
We know sedentary men would walk a mile in expensive boots over burning sands for a camel. They would go much farther than that in the good life if they were not chained down to jobs and were not so short of breath from chain smoking - something Muhammad never did. But a hardy nomad who emulates his camel will upon occasion walk about for three months searching for his beloved camels, taking with him nothing more than a skin of water and faith in God's providence.
Alas, again I have given short shift to the two-humped Bactrian camel, perhaps because of my one-humped monotheistic conditioning - I shall do penance elsewhere and at length. Before closing, I must address a sensitive "issue" (i.e. a problem) of concern to camels in general, one that is problematic to the politically correct; namely, the camel's alleged stupidity.
V. Camels Ain't Stupid
HORSEMEN PREFER HORSES and insist their steeds are far more worthy, both as friends on the trail and in battle, than camels, whom they call - and it pains me to say this - "unresponsive and stupid." Yet the pride and prestige of "people of the camel" far exceeds that of horsemen. A few words of caution here: one must be careful about speaking highly of horses around camels, for camels hold grudges; a camel owner might throw down his shirt for the camel to trample on first so normal relations can be resumed.
To each his own prejudices and species. Still, I believe the objective man, taking everything into consideration, would favor the camel over the horse. I know some men who actually favor camels over women; they say they do so because women are more intelligent than camels, hence a discriminating man must take his camel and leave his wives and concubines at home - if he can afford their upkeep. You see, he discriminates between intelligence and wisdom, giving a greater weight to a camel's native wisdom than to a woman's cultivated intelligence - he does not deny intelligent women have some camel wisdom, a sort of homing instinct associated with Water.
Camels travel to return to the original Well, the Font of wisdom and Source of life across the existential desert. Herds will run towards distant rains. More mysteriously, the Arabs say a foal knows the well its mother drank from before it was born - camels will take off and show up where they were foaled, say, 30 miles or more away; nay, camels have been known to somehow arrive at their point of origin 1,000 miles away.
Our Ship of the Desert is a celestial vehicle as well, a flying camel no less adept than Airvarta, the Hindu god's flying white elephant. She is the sign of God's creative power. Sure-footed and calm in the valleys of death and on the mountain sides, she carries the spiritual seeker to his goal, the Divine Presence. If a pious Muslim builds a mosque, then, after he dies the mosque will transform into a white camel to carry him across the Bridge over Hell.
Finally, a story about Muhammad's favorite camel aptly illustrates the spiritual significance of the camel. I believe the foregoing along with the evidence hereafter shall finally prove it is no insult to compare woman with a camel and to say:
"Woman is man's camel across the desert of existence."
The Prophet had managed to escape from Mecca. A posse was on his tail: the Quraish had issued a Wanted Dead or Alive warrant with 100 camels as bounty. After hiding in the cave where he and his companion Abu Bakr were saved by a spider and a dove, they continued their Flight to Medina. Once Muhammad had arrived in Medina and rested, he mounted his white camel Al Kaswa and let go of the reins. Al Kaswa wandered about the streets as the crowd cheered Muhammad's safe return. Al Kaswa stopped and knelt under some date palms over an old burial ground, indicating the place where Muhammad built Islam's first mosque.