The Tale of Ali the Camel Driver

By Beth Meacham

 

 

 

 

"Hey, Jolly, hi, Jolly,

 Twenty miles today by golly,

 Twenty more before the morning light.

 Hi, Jolly, hey, Jolly,

 Gotta be on my way by golly,

 Told my gal I'd be home Sunday night."

                                      --trad.

 

##

     Ali the camel driver was a poor man, the son of a poor man, the grandson of a poor man of Medina, the home of the Prophet. But though Ali was poor, he was not content to remain so.  He was ambitious.  There were those in the quarter who said that he did not know his proper place, that he was a dreamer and an unreliable heir to his father's and grandfather's trade.  But Ali tended his camels well and heeded his masters and if he spent more time in the market listening to storytellers than most men did, still he was faithful in prayer, and he gave such as he could to those more unfortunate than he.  He even made a man's journey to Mecca to pray at the sacred places, the first of his generation to do so.  True, Mecca was not so far away, and he had been hired to tend the camels of a rich man who was making his pilgrimage,  but still the journey was made, and Ali did not charge the rich man his full fee, so we may say that it was in truth a pious journey.

     Now when Ali was five and twenty years old, there appeared in the city a stranger, a Christian, a man from across the sea.  This man had gained the favor of the prince of the city, and so when he came to the noisy, teeming caravan yards seeking good riding camels to purchase, he was not shunned, but led through the crowds and the beggars and the dust to worthy beasts, and not charged more than twice their true value.  The Christian purchased twenty four camels that day.  But when the time came for the market to close for the evening prayers, the man's foreign servants were unable even to gain the beasts' attention, and could not, therefore, lead them to the Christian's house.  The camels sat placidly, gazing off into eternity, despite the rain of barbarian curses and good Muslim rocks that fell upon them.

     Ali was squatting with the other camel drivers, leaning back against the mud brick wall that was a remnant of the ancient fortifications of the city.  The others laughed behind their hands at the infidel's efforts. But Ali, who had learned something from the old tales told in the market, saw his chance, leapt to his feet and approached the foreign man.  Now, Ali was not clothed in blue trousers trimmed with red ribbons, and high, polished, black leather boots with silver ornaments at the heel.  He was not wearing a fine blue shirt with pearl buttons, or even a brave red sash about his middle.  Ali was clothed only in a dusty loin-cloth that once was white, and a turban of the same material that bound up his hair and protected his head from the sun that had blackened his skin.  Ali knelt humbly before the finely-dressed foreign man, and with gestures and the aid of a servant who spoke the barbarian tongue, gained employment.  He would drive the Christian's camels out of the marketplace.

     And so it was that Ali the camel driver of Medina, faithful son of the Prophet, became a member of the United States Army Camel Corps.

# #

     When at last Ali and his camels, seventy five of them in all, had crossed the sea, and arrived at the shores of America, he had gained a fair command of the barbarian tongue, at least enough to learn that the camels had been bought for soldiers to ride across the arid country that made fully a quarter of this foreign land.  Ali was unable to understand why the infidel caliph would wish to patrol a land so inhospitable that their horses could not thrive, until he learned that there was gold and silver in the mountains that rose up out of the desert floor.  Much gold and silver, it seemed, there for the taking by any man clever enough to find it and keep it.  Ali had learned also of the nomads of this foreign desert, savages who cared nothing for gold but who would attack any Christian who entered their territory.  To Ali they sounded as mad as the Bedouin of his own country, who wandered the desert sands, preying on caravans, and refusing to enter the cities and deal in the manner of civilized men.  The chief servant of Ali's new master, who was called Sarge,  said that one day all the Apache, for such were the nomads named, would be tamed or killed.  Privately, Ali thought of the thousands of years of war between the men of the cities and the Bedouin, and suspected that the Christians would do better to learn to trade with the Apache than try to kill them all.

# #

     And so Ali fell into a life new and strange to him, though he remained faithful to the true religion despite the provocations of the Christian soldiers he lived among.  The company traveled in caravan for months,  westward across lands twisted and carved by forces Ali could not comprehend.  Tall mountains rose from flat desert floors, great peaks were shaped into towers and palaces, rivers ran in great chasms.  The sun beat down by day, and the cold wind blew by night, and one by one the foreigners' horses failed, but Ali's camels went on and on.  He gained position and honor.  He was the only man among them, at first, who could make the beasts obey, but one by one the soldiers saw the worth of the beasts, and came to him to learn.

     One day months later, the Camel Corps was traveling back eastward, across lands far to the south.  They traveled by night, for it was high summer and the days were an inferno.  Ali had slept through the heat, and then had taken three new recruits out to teach them how to speak to the camels, and ride the camels, and cause the camels to run like the desert wind itself.  Ali had raced ahead of his students, around an outcropping of reddish rock studded with thorny bushes and the tall cactus of the region.  He nearly pitched forward over his camel's nose when the beast came to a sudden halt.  There before him stood half a dozen of the savage Apache, clad in skins and stolen Army uniforms, carrying rifles, looking as if they would like nothing better than to carve his hide with the great knives strapped to their waists.

     Ali opened his mouth to cry aloud that there was no god but Allah, in hope that his companions would hear his brave dying words and come to his aid, or at least of going to heaven after his death.  But suddenly one of the Apache shrieked, and pointed behind Ali, off across the rocky waste.  The others looked, and then all six of them fell on their faces, cowering among the great stones.  One of the savages cried "Ch'indi!  Ch'indi," and gestured to Ali to hide himself beside them.

     Even more alarmed, but curious as to what might so terrify the desert dwellers that they would offer shelter even to one intended for their victim, Ali turned.  He stared for one moment, and then dropped to the ground behind the nearest rock, oblivious to the cactus that had already found this sheltering place.

     For there before him, racing across the playa a little above the ground, were three giant men wrapped in the whirlwind.  They towered above the salt plain, fifty feet high or more.  Their long black hair flew in the wind of their passage, trailing feathers and leaves and bright beads.  Their garments were made of pure white leather, sewn with turquoise and shell, and trailing fringes.  Around their necks hung necklaces of silver and precious stones, and from their knees hung rattles made of tortoise shell.  Their feet were naked, but as they did not touch the ground, they hardly needed shoes.  Each carried a great staff before him, with cords and feathers trailing from the top.

     The Apache nearest Ali reached out and pushed Ali's head below the rock they sheltered behind.  "Ch'indi," he said again.  Ali subsided, filled with astonishment.  For though their accents were barbarous, the Apache had named the creatures aright -- he had seen savage foreign djinni, riding the whirlwind in perfect freedom.  His fortune was made.

     A moment after the djinni had gone past, the Apache melted away into the desert, leaving Ali alone.  He caught his camel, and rode back the way he had come in search of his three pupils.  He prayed to Allah that the djinni had not come upon them.  Half a mile back, he found them rising up out of the sand, dusting off their uniforms, gazing in disgust at the camels.

     "Ali!" they cried.  "We feared that you were lost in the dust storm.  They come up so sudden in this territory -- you never know when one of them dust devils will overtake you."

     Ali knew that the soldiers had not seen the djinni, for if they had they would be trembling with fear.  For some reason, the Sons of the Air were invisible to the soldiers.  Perhaps this was why the djinni roamed free, instead of being safely imprisoned behind the Seal of Solomon as were all the djinni of his homeland.  Ali considered how he was to make his fortune.  For as all know, the djinni will grant incredible wealth and power to any mortal who can master them.  Ali had often dreamed that one day he would, like Aladdin of the tales, find an imprisoned djinn;  he had long ago fashioned his palace and his servants and his wives.  Now he would seize fortune in his two hands. 

     But alas, all know also that the way to master the djinn is to free him from his imprisoning bottle in exchange for the wealth and power he can give.  Ali knew well how to bargain with an imprisoned djinn, but these djinni were free.  Therefore, he considered, he must first imprison at least one of them.

# #

     Ali sat alone in the desert waste.  He had ridden a day from the soldier's caravan, explaining to Major Beale that his faith required that he spend this day in prayer.  And he did pray to Allah to forgive the lie.  He had taken a tiny brass bottle from among his few possessions, and emptied out the precious rose water that reminded him of home.  He hoped that the lingering scent would so intrigue the foreign djinn that he would enter the bottle seeking the source.  And so it came to pass.

     The djinn appeared on the wind, and roared up to Ali, hair and feathers flying, precious shells and turquoises lashing at the ends of the white fringe of the djinni's garments.  Ali fell to his knees before the Son of the Air, and greeted him in the name of the Prophet.  The djinn stopped, astonished, and curious about this mortal man who dared to be seen, to actually draw attention to himself.  The winds fluttered around Ali as the djinn explored him, lifting his headcloth and shirttails, going in and out of pockets and bags and shoes. Ali was pleased to discover that the djinn spoke the language of the Prophet, for that meant that his plan would work.

     When the curious djinn entered the bottle seeking the source of the sweet scent he had never smelled before, Ali leapt and quickly capped the bottle with a wax cork on which he had drawn the Seal of Solomon -- a device he had learned from the storytellers in the marketplace so long ago.

     The djinn raged and howled when he realized that he was trapped.  He rattled and moaned and made dire threats.  He swore that Ali was doomed, that he would be flayed and starved and pierced and flung from high places and torn apart by eagles.  The djinn vowed vengeance on Ali and all his family and all his children and all his ancestors, from the beginning of time until the ending.

     But Ali was not moved, and he did not remove the seal.  The djinn was trapped.

     When at last the djinn was silent, many hours later, Ali spoke to him and offered to remove the seal in exchange for the djinn's solemn vow to grant Ali wealth and power and all his heart desired.  The djinn remained silent.  Ali spoke again, again offering release in exchange for the djinni's promise.  And still the djinn was silent.

     Ali knew that the Son of the Air was trying to trick him into opening the bottle, and he was not fooled.  The djinn remained trapped.  Soon the djinn would grow desperate to escape, and then he would meet Ali's demands.  Ali was a patient man.  He could outwait the djinn.  He tucked the bottle into his pocket, and rode back to the camp.

      But days passed, and weeks passed, and months went by, and still the djinn promised only death to Ali.

# #

     Ali's camels had made many treks across the deserts, from the land of Texas to the land of California, and then back again.  The soldiers praised the beasts, and praised Ali for his skill.  They called him Haj Ali, for he had explained that since he had made his pilgrimage to Mecca before coming to America, he was worthy of the title, and they wished to do him honor in his own language.  But there were men of power who did not admire the camels, who called Ali a heathen, and who demanded that Major Beale's experiment be abandoned.  And so it came to pass that Ali the camel driver was left at Fort Yuma with two camels and no army to employ him.

    Fortunately, the djinn had decided at last to strike a bargain.

# #

     Ali drew a deep breath, and then broke the wax seal from the neck of his small brass bottle.  A great wind blew up, swirling dust and sand and small rocks into the air around him.  A column of hot dry air raced out of the bottle, and the djinn took form in the air, towering above Ali.  The djinn shook his staff at Ali, lashing Ali across the face with the heavy beaded feathers.  The djinn's hair gave off lightenings and there was thunder as he stamped his bare feet on the ground.  Ali stood firm, holding up the remnant of the Seal of Solomon.

     "Remember, o Son of the Air, that you have given your oath upon this."

     The whirlwind subsided somewhat, so that Ali no longer feared being struck.  The djinn bowed slightly.

     "To hear your command is to obey.  But remember that I will grant only three wishes, mortal.  And remember that I shall grant them exactly."

     "And you will not harm me.  That is the bargain, and not a wish."

     The djinn bowed again.  "I will not harm you.  I have given my word.  State your wishes, for I am sick of this place and of your mortal taint, and I would be gone."

     "Then hear my first wish, o Djinn.  Look into my mind, and see there the palace I have fashioned, its rooms and furnishings, its servants and treasury."  Ali conjured in his mind the fantastic palace he had first imagined while sitting in the dust and camel dung in the marketplace of Medina.  "Now, create this palace for me here, in this place."

     The djinn laughed uproariously, and bowed a third time.  "It shall be as you command."  The air shimmered.  The winds roared.  A great flame rose up from the desert floor, but Ali was not burned.  Then before his eyes, there on the stony banks of the Colorado River, beneath the great red cliffs and the peaks where eagles dwelt, there took shape a palace.  The walls were white marble, sending bright darts of reflection back from the high, hot sun.  The towers rose in delicately carved spirals up to the sky.  The gates were tiled in blue and gold, and the windows were screened in cinnabar and jade.  It filled the plain, covering an acre or more.  As Ali walked to the gateway, the doors were flung open before him, and six servants fell to their faces at his approach, crying "Master, we are your slaves."

     Ali turned to the djinn.  "You have done well," he said.  "My first wish is fulfilled.  I will summon you by the Seal when I am ready for my second.  Until then, you are free."  And with that he dismissed the djinn, and entered the place of his dreams.

     Ali dwelt in luxury such as he had only imagined.  His every command was obeyed upon the instant.  He had clothing of silk and linen and fine white cotton, new and clean every morning.  He had scented baths attended by naked slave girls of exquisite beauty, and meals of the most delicately spiced morsels, served on plates of gold and silver.  He had stables of fine camels and the most mettlesome horses, caparisoned in brocades and tinkling silver bells.  He had a treasury full of chests of gold coins and fine gems.  But alas, in a few weeks the larder was exhausted, and someone must go to the trading post in Yuma to purchase supplies.  Ali had neglected to cause his servants to speak English, and they had not had time or reason to learn it.  So Haj Ali must go himself.

     He took with him a purse of gold coins, and two camels to carry the supplies, and two of his servants to tend the camels.  He rode on his fine white horse, and was dressed in a white silk tunic and trousers with a fine red sash embroidered in gold thread.  He wore the burnoose of the desert Bedouin to protect his head from the sun, and a surcoat of fine stripped cotton.  He was a brave sight.

     But as Ali and his servants entered Yuma, the children, who usually greeted him with cries of "Hi Jolly!  Hi Jolly!", ran screaming from the sight of him.  The poor spanish ladies crossed themselves, and faded from their window ledges, and the men,  trembling and with wide eyes, blocked the street while one ran to the parish church.  Another ran to the gate house of the fort.

     "Demonio!" cried one of the men, and they all made a sign against evil.  The priest rushed out into the street, carrying a cross and cup of water.  He gestured to the men, and they threw themselves at Ali and his servants.  The servants were knocked to the ground by two men each, and tied with ropes.  Ali was unable to avoid being pulled from his horse into the dusty street.  Five men held him against his struggles, while a sixth bound Ali's hands cruelly behind him.  The horse and camels fled.

     The priest approached Ali's servants, holding up the infidel symbol and praying loudly in a language that was not Spanish, but closer to that than to English.  When the prayer was done, he sprinkled the unconscious men with water from the cup.  As the droplets hit, smoke rose up to the sky, roiling out of the servants' bodies and filling the street.  The priest leapt back, crying aloud in the strange language, and gesturing his people to stand behind him.  When the smoke had cleared, a moment later, nothing remained but the ropes that had been used to bind the servants.

     The priest turned to Ali cautiously, held up the cross, and spoke the prayers again.  Each word fell upon Ali like a hammer blow.  When the water was sprinkled on Ali, he cried out with pain, for each droplet burned like a fiery coal.  His fine clothing disappeared, leaving him lying naked and bound in the middle of the main street of Yuma.  The townspeople cried out, and rushed forward to kick and beat him, and the priest stood aside to allow it.  But a soldier from the fort came out to see what had caused the alarm, and he was one who Ali had trained to ride the camels.  When he saw his old teacher, he rushed in and drove off the attackers.

       Ali was not badly injured.  The soldiers gave him a pair of trousers and a shirt, and an old pair of boots.  They also gave him a warning sent from the church -- he was no longer welcome in Yuma.   He walked north out of town, vowing to return with all his servants, and the weapons from his armory, to take revenge.  But when at last he arrived at the site of his palace, he found nothing there.  He searched the barren ground for hours in the hot sun, seeking any sign of what had happened.  At last, near where his chambers had been, he found a small heap of cotton clothes; his army satchel still holding his knife, tinderbox, canteens and mess kit; and the small brass bottle and the wax Seal of Solomon.  As he stood there, gazing at the desolation of his dreams, a wind rose up around him.  Ali saw four wild djinni whirl in to surround him.  But they did not approach closely, and after a moment of waiting, they disappeared.  Haj Ali sat down on a rock and wept.  He would have to walk miles from this place before he could try his second wish.

# #

     Ali rose up from the shade of a boulder as the sun set at last.  He had been walking eastward for four days, traveling always at night.  This night he knew that he must find water, for he had drunk the last drops from his last canteen before lying down to sleep.  Ali had crossed this desert three times before, but each time he had been with a well-supplied column of soldiers, with camels and mules to haul plenty of water and food.  From the back of a good riding camel, the land had not appeared as desolate as it did now.  But according to the landmarks Major Beale had taught him, there was one of the mountain tanks only a few miles ahead.  He would surely find water there.

     As midnight approached Ali finally worked his way up the canyon toward the tanks.  But he found the natural tank dry.  The water had all flowed out through cracks in the containing rocks, or the winter rains had been too sparse to fill it.  Ali knelt there, exhausted and parched, and knew that he was going to die.

     "I wish," he said aloud, but before he could frame the next word of his sentence, the dry night air swirled around him, and the dead leaves flew off the desiccated trees in the canyon.  There was his djinn before him, though he had not taken the Seal of Solomon into his hand.  Ali closed his mouth, and considered.  There were five other djinn hanging in the air down the canyon.  It was clear that they were all following him, waiting for him to voice a wish.  He had been lucky up to now that he had not squandered his remaining wishes.

     "Yes, o my master," said the djinn who was Ali's, "what is your wish?"

     Now, Ali had indeed learned something from the storytellers in the market place, and his learning had not deserted him even in these extremes.  He remembered the tales of foolish men who wasted their wishes on food or water.  He considered carefully before he spoke again.

     "Djinn, look into my mind and see there the valley of the Salado, where the river flows down the high grassland, and there are wells and orchards.  I rested my camels there one spring, and it was an oasis in the desert.  Take me there, o Djinn.  Take me there this instant."

     The djinn bowed slightly to Haj Ali.  "It shall be as you command."  And the whirlwind rose up stronger than ever, and wrapped itself around Ali as the djinn reached down and picked up the wretched camel driver.  They flew through the air, accompanied by the other five djinni, over desert and mountain, valley and grassy plain, until only moments later the djinn deposited Ali none too gently upon the banks of the Salado.  The djinni hung in the air as Ali, half mad for water, flung himself into the shallow river and drank.

     Ali sat for a time beside the river.  He knew that there was a small town not too far to the north, where a strange sect of infidels had settled.  He would have no difficulty walking there, but what was he to do once there?  He had no money, no possessions.  He had one wish left, but Ali had learned something more in the past month.  Now he must seek for a wish that would grant him a lifetime's comfort, and not a few days of luxury.  For a moment he considered returning to his homeland, but the years in America had changed him, and he could not imagine taking up his old place, squatting by the wall in the marketplace in Medina.  As the sun rose, Ali made his morning prayers to Allah, and considered the path of wisdom.

# #

     Two weeks later, Haj Ali walked into an Apache village at the head of a train of mules.  Each mule carried two great packs, filled to brimming with beads and tools and cloth and fine white flour, and all the goods of civilization that can lure a wild desert nomad.  The elders were very interested in trade.  When Ali left, he had added skins and baskets and fine beadwork to his stock.  And he had made some friends.

     In the town of Mesa, three days later, Ali traded the Apache goods and the cloth and tools for other things.  Some of the people there remembered the strange little man from the Camel Corps, and made him welcome in the territory.  Haj Ali prospered as a trader between the cities and the nomads, building up a thriving business until he was so well known that people came from a hundred miles away to trade at his outpost.  He worked hard, from sunrise prayers until the last devotion of night.  In time he became a success -- a rich merchant with a wife and fine sons and a thriving business to show for it.  His wife, an Apache woman, often remarked that he was a doer, not a dreamer.

     But the wild djinni of the desert had learned something as well.  Never before had they paid much attention to the mortals who roamed their lands, but now they knew that these mortals could be a source of rich amusement.  And so, o my king, if you are traveling in the Arizona desert and you see the ch'indi rising up like whirling red smoke in the air, it is best to be careful of what you say.  For the djinni wait for mortals who make wishes, and sometimes they will grant them.

 

 

 

/end/

 

High Jolly was a real person, although not exactly the person in this tale.  He was born Philip Tedro, and he was an Ottoman Greek who, upon conversion to Islam, took the name Ali.  Haj Ali came to the U.S. with the Camel Corps in 1857.  After the Corps disbanded, Haj Ali remained in the Arizona Territory as a trader and prospector.  He died in the town of Quartzite, on the Colorado River, on January 23, 1903.

 

 

Copyright© Beth Meacham