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THE STRANGER IN THE DESERT by Jane Finch

© Jane Finch

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This is a rewrite of The Camel Boy. For those of you who read the former, I hope you feel this is a better version.


The Stranger in the Desert.

The relentless Egyptian sun hammered down upon the young boy as he waited for the tourists to arrive. His ebony hair stuck stubbornly to his forehead covering the dusky skin, encrusted with sand from a thousand windstorms.

He sat awkwardly on the brown earth, a mixture of dirt, gravel, and coarse sand which clung to the hardened skin between his toes. He examined his worn sandals and wondered how many more days they would last before they finally collapsed and he would be left to walk barefoot.

His camels stood aimlessly behind him, twitching their tails and grumbling quietly in their throats. The boy noticed that some of the other handlers were having trouble trying to control their string of restless camels, all anxious to start their day.

Looking at his own three grubby creatures he saw their dull eyes and flea-infested blankets and looked away again, uncaring. Even the thought of the tourists, scratching their bottoms with desperate hands as the fleas explored, failed to raise a smile in him. Every day was the same, but somehow today he seemed less tolerant.

He heard the rumble of the coaches before anyone else, so attuned were his ears to the sound after so many years of waiting. Suddenly from the hills and the dunes came the hoards of hungry children, jostling for prime position in readiness for when the doors to the vehicles eventually opened.

His camels stirred slightly, expecting to move, but he shouted at them and they were still again. He watched through cold eyes as the tourists arrived, eager and anxious to start their trek. The young children set up their pleas for money, for food, for clothing, or for anything they could sell.

“Get out of my way,” shouted a sweating tourist in clinging shorts and an abundance of baggy skin.

The children surrounded him, holding out their hands and begging for a gift. Soon all shapes and sizes of prospective camel riders had descended from the dark coolness of the bus. The begging hands were waving frantically, the grown-ups were becoming agitated, and the husbands were raising their voices in annoyance. Women began to look anxious and cosseted European children in Nike trainers and matching t-shirts and shorts began to wail.

Soon the handlers moved in, pushing through the children and seeking out their customers with toothless smiles. Camels crowded around the buzzing group, growling lowly and pulling against their straining ropes.

The boy watched it all without a flicker of interest. He let the handlers take the early tourists, knowing that another coach load would arrive shortly. They came and left, and others came to replace them, endlessly, day after scorching day.

“Hey, you – camel boy…”

The bulging tourist waddled towards him, pushing away the tide of children surrounding him.
“I said – camel boy – you’re here to earn some money, aren’t you?”

The vastness of the man’s body sheltered him from the blazing sun for a moment, and the boy looked up into the pink and sweating face.

“Yes you, camel boy. Three of us here. Let’s get moving.”

The boy paused for a moment, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and stood slowly, his camels immediately alert.

The bulky tourist was joined by a screeching woman and a grumbling child. With a flick of the boy’s hand the camels began their humble bow as the customers edged forward. The man hurried to the nearest camel and began a long and beleaguered attempt to climb on to the animal’s back. The boy began examining his sandals while he waited, offering no assistance or advice.

As the full weight of the man sank on to the camel’s back a loud explosion of gas escaped from the camel’s backside, followed by a similar noise from the man. His family, standing nearby, laughed loudly.

“Oh, Dave, you are terrible. I told you not to have such a big breakfast…”
“Dad, puh-lease, you are sooo embarrassing..”
The man gurgled.
“Hey, camel boy, lets get on with it.”

The boy looked at the woman and gestured to the next camel, and she giggled as she shuffled and pulled and pushed herself into position. The child threw his Nike-clad foot over his ride and leapt triumphantly onto the camel’s back.

Amid screeches and groans the camels rose, and the boy began his trudge into the desert. He closed his mind to the incessant chatter of the riders, ignoring the constant references to "the camel boy”.

They had not gone far when the boy’s sandal finally broke and he stumbled and fell. The man sniggered and then became impatient as the camels slowed and waited. The boy picked up his sandal and examined it carefully but it was beyond repair, the rubber strap hanging limply.

“Come on, camel boy, lets get moving.”

Slowly the boy took off his other sandal, laid them together in the dirt, and continued on his arduous way, the camels following closely. The sand was hot but the boy felt no pain, the skin of his feet toughened by a hundred similar journeys.

As they reached the end of the trek the camels began their slow descent and the tourists slid painfully to the ground. The man fumbled in his pocket for his wallet and searched until he found a small note which he handed begrudgingly to the boy. He and his family then shuffled away without a backward glance.

The boy stared at the retreating figures, a dark empty look in his eyes. He took the Five Egyptian Pounds and rolled the note and put it into the pocket of his shorts. He then turned his back on the jabbering tourists, sat beside his lead camel, and rested his head against its steady body.

Inside him he felt the anger stirring. At first he ignored the sickness in his stomach, but then the feeling became more intense, rising up through his chest until his breath came in short gasps and his head began to pound. His hands gripped the camel’s rope so tightly that he saw his knuckles turn white beneath the years of grime. The muscles in his cheeks began to twitch as the bile reached his throat.

He knew he would not continue in this way much longer. His secret remained his own and sustained him through days like this. His father would beat him if he knew that he was hoarding away half of his earnings each day, and soon he would have enough to leave the desert and never return. He had heard talk of training camps where he would learn to fight and where he could channel his thoughts into fighting for justice and for a right to be known by his name. He would work hard in such a camp and learn everything he was taught so that his life would no longer be meaningless.

It was these thoughts that got him through each day and hope that got him through each night.

The sudden snorting of the camel made him open his eyes as another tourist approached him. He turned his head away and waited, but there was no familiar shout of “camel boy”. The man stood quietly nearby, just waiting.

Eventually, the boy looked up, curious. The man smiled.
“Hello.”

The boy said nothing, but found himself reluctantly looking up into the man’s face. This tourist seemed different. His skin was not ravaged from the sun and leaking with sweat, he seemed cool and relaxed and gentle, somehow.

“Hello”.
The boy found himself nodding, although he was annoyed with himself for doing so. He had no wish to speak to the tourists and had never done so. He looked away again and kept his eyes firmly on the ground by his shoeless feet.

Still the man waited, silently. The air was so still and quiet the boy could hear the rumblings of the camel’s stomach Curiosity touching him, the boy raised his eyes again but cowered back as the man crouched down before him. The boy began to protest as the man touched his chin and turned his face so that the two looked into each other’s eyes. The boy was amazed as he saw a crystal blue ocean with a myriad of dancing fish, and then his skin began to tingle as gentle cool water bathed his aching feet.

The boy shook his head briefly and rubbed his gritty eyes. When he opened them the man was still beside him, now sitting in the sand, quietly waiting.

“Hello”.
The boy opened his lips and tried to speak, the dust clinging to his mouth. Behind him his camels were quietly listening.
“Hello, son. What is your name”.
The boy tried to speak, but his words stuck in his throat. He wanted to answer, indeed struggled to answer, but for some reason his voice had left him.
The man smiled.
“Do you speak English?”
The boy nodded.
“What is your name, son? My name is Michael.”
The boy coughed, cleared his throat, and coughed again. Sand clogged his throat and nostrils.
“I am the camel boy” he mumbled.
The man nodded.
“Yes, but what is your name?”
The boy was dumbfounded. He knew a little English, but for some reason he felt unable to answer. He spat into the sand and ran his tongue over his lips.
“I am the camel boy.”

The man reached into his pocket and brought out a Hundred Egyptian Note and handed it to him, curling the boy’s fingers round the money. Then reaching behind him produced a bag from which he took a candy bar and offered it to the boy. When he made no attempt to take it, the man put the chocolate on the ground beside the boy.

“Take care of yourself, son.”

As the man rose to leave the boy had a strange yearning to stop him. He tried to stand but his legs would not obey him, and although his lips formed words, none came. He watched as the man moved away, the children suddenly arriving from the dunes, and surrounding him, laughing as he handed out more candy bars. Pushing against the camel the boy staggered to his feet. He felt the warmth of the camel, the hot sun, and the grit beneath his feet. On the ground lay the chocolate bar, slowly melting. Therefore he was not dreaming, this was real, the man was real. He dropped the rope and began to move towards the man’s retreating figure.

The sound of laughter filled the air as children tasted the warm chocolate and the chewy candy. The man paused and turned, looking at the boy, waiting for him.

The boy forced his feet to move one in front of the other until he was in the crowd of children and then beside the man. A hush fell as the boy and man looked again at each other.
“You’ll be ok, son”.
Still the boy could not speak. He felt tears falling down his cheeks but had no idea why. He had not cried since he was four years old when his father had beaten him for stealing food. Now the hot tears left pale streaks on his skin and he swept them away with the back of his hand.

“Who are you?” asked the boy.
The man smiled, and turned away. The children stood and watched as he walked towards the desert, and then moved aside as the boy went to join him. Without looking back, the man spoke softly.
“This is not your time.”
The boy stopped, unsure of what he should do.
“Go back to your camels, son.”
The boy tried to speak again, coughed, cleared his throat, and called softly,
“Ahmed,” he called, “my name is Ahmed.”
“I know”, said Michael “I have always known your name, but I think perhaps you had forgotten.”
The boy turned and made his way back to his waiting camels. Another coach rumbled along and stopped nearby in a cloud of dust.
The door opened and a huddle of tourists clambered out. One of them looked over to the boy.
“Hey, camel boy.”
The boy stood quietly, raised his eyes and looked directly at the tourist.
“Ahmed,” he said, “My name is Ahmed.”

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