He was a racing camel
“Tom Marley is a racing camel,” Ahmed said. “The fastest in all of the Sinai.”
“Tom Marley?” I asked. “Not Bob?”
Ahmed appeared somewhat surprised by my ignorance, but the stupidity of tourists is known the world over.
Ahmed patiently explained that Tom Marley, the racing camel, was named after Tom Marley, the world-famous country and western singer from America.
America, Ahmed pointed out, was my country.
He stopped short of accusing me of ignorance, but the implication hovered between us in the desert air.
I looked at my girlfriend, Bev. She shrugged.
I sipped my tea and pondered the situation.
The imminent arrival of Tom Marley
It was 1999. There existed no easy way to support my version of reality. Google, the company, had been founded, but most of the world still used Yahoo! to search the internet.
Smartphones were barely a thing.
Bev and I were in Dahab, a small town located two-thirds of the way down Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Wedged between desert and cliff on one side and the Red Sea on the other, Dahab is a long way from everything.
Neither of us carried a cell phone. Nor did we want to.
We were in Dahab to scuba dive. The warm, clear waters of the Red Sea hosted a dazzling array of marine life swirling in kaleidoscopic display over wildly colorful corals.
Ahmed would brew tea in a battered kettle and the four of us would sit on woven mats and talk late into the night while the stars wheeled in the sky above us.
When the day’s diving was done, we ate kebabs, drank tea, and smoked hookahs while reclining in open-air restaurants yards from the murmuring waves.
Bev and I had rented a room in a house inside the same walled compound as Ahmed’s house, where he lived with his brother Sala, for something like $5 a week.
Every night, after the heat of the day dissipated, we’d gather around a small fire built in the middle of the courtyard. Ahmed would brew tea in a battered kettle and the four of us would sit on woven mats and talk late into the night while the stars wheeled in the sky above us.
On the night in question, the talk had turned to a racing camel named Tom Marley.
Three failed corrections
After sipping my tea, I found I wasn’t ready to concede the point about Mr. Marley’s first name, country of origin, and musical genre.
I attempted three corrections — Bob, Jamaican, reggae — and got precisely nowhere.
We had been speaking English, Ahmed and Sala’s third language, after Arabic and Hebrew. Bev spoke Hebrew fluently, so she translated.
Between body language and the few words I understood, I saw the difference of opinion was not due to a language barrier.
Neither Ahmed nor his brother Sala would be swayed. The man’s name was Tom, he was an American, and his music was country.
Maybe, I thought, by some very slim chance, we were talking about a different singer. I warbled a few lines of Redemption Song. Ahmed and Sala smiled, nodded.
No doubt about it. We were talking about the same person.
“Bob Marley,” I said. “From Jamaica.”
The smiles vanished. Sala shook his head. Conversation lapsed.
Leaning forward to pour more tea, Ahmed told us that Tom Marley would be arriving the next morning.
No Camel No Cry
Someone is disemboweling a wookie, was my first waking thought. I stumbled to the window and opened the shutter. Squinting against the sunlight flooding my retinas, I saw that Tom Marley had arrived.
I saw, too, that he was not happy about it.
The camel stood, un-tethered and entirely unmolested, in a shaded corner of the compound. A short lead rope dangled from his halter.
There was no one near him.
Nonetheless, he continued to emit piteous groans of camelid displeasure.
Tom Marley complained throughout the day. He bellowed long and loud whenever human hands reached toward his lead rope.
The volume and fury of his protests increased when the rope was pulled and achieved an astonishing, ear-splitting, face-collapsing roar when he was asked to kneel so a rider could mount.
Once the rider was in the saddle, however, Tom Marley became silent, almost serene.
Would I be right or be happy?
That night, new faces gathered around the fire. The conversation was mostly in Arabic. Bev and I sat and listened and enjoyed the atmosphere.
Sala leaned over at one point to tell us that the newcomers would be transporting Tom Marley further south, closer to where the races would be held, later that night.
Bev and I exchanged a grateful look. We would be able to sleep. After a while, thinking we would leave the cameleers to enjoy the fire and talk freely, Bev and I made to leave.
Sala stopped us. “You wait,” he said, smiling.
Ahmed addressed the group assembled around the fire. While I didn’t understand his words, I suspected they were Arabic for, “Get a load of this shit.”
Even camels were sufficiently intelligent to know there was no such singer as Bob Marley.
My suspicion grew stronger as chuckles began to spread around the fire and glances began coming my way.
Suspicion turned to certainty when I heard the words “Bob Marley.” Chuckles turned into outright laughter.
Tom Marley had been uncharacteristically quiet up to that point in the discussion.
Now, disturbed by the noise from the campfire, he began to groan.
This caused the laughter around the campfire to grow louder, and the camel’s complaints to intensify.
A comment from Abdullah, the leader of the transport crew, caused an eruption of laughter. Ahmed leaned over to translate.
Abdullah had said that Tom Marley agreed I was very funny for suggesting he was not named after the American country singer.
In other words, Abdullah was saying that even camels were sufficiently intelligent to know there was no such singer as Bob Marley.
It was at this point that I remembered a piece of relationship advice a friend had given me years before, in the form of a question:
Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?
Sitting around the campfire, listening to human laughter and camelid groans, I decided I wanted to be happy.
I immediately abandoned my view of the alleged facts of the matter and joined in the general hilarity. (No offense, Bob.)
Eventually, the laughter subsided, Tom Marley quieted, and conversation resumed, still mostly in Arabic.
We sipped my tea and looked at the stars.
A short while later Abdullah, finished his tea and stood. He was getting ready to take his leave. Tom Marley’s journey was about to continue. Abduallah addressed me in Arabic.
Ahmed translated: “He says you are a very funny man. He will enjoy telling this story for many years.”
“Shookran, habibi,” I said to Abdullah with a slight bow. Thank you, my friend.
I turned to Ahmed and grinned. I shrugged my shoulders, telling him and the others with body language that I’d been fooling around the whole time.
Of course I knew Tom Marley sang country.
Everybody knew that.
© Copyright 2021 by Jim Latham