by Jane Finch
My name is Mishka, and I am lurking in the sand dunes near Prada Bay. I am wearing white, so I know I cannot be seen as I sit hunched down in the bleached sand. I don’t normally come here, and I know I should be at home with my husband, and caring for my children. But today something is different, and I have been compelled to come. It is hot, although the heat does not bother me. My family has lived in the hills around Prada Bay for generations. We welcome the sun. The tourists seem always to complain about the sun, and shout numbers like ‘thirty-seven degrees’ or ‘forty degrees’. The numbers mean nothing to me. If it is too hot for them, then they should not come to Egypt.
As I watch I see the young boy as he waits for the tourists to arrive. His ebony hair sticks stubbornly to his forehead, covering the dusky skin encrusted with sand from endless windstorms. He sits awkwardly on the brown earth, a mixture of dirt, gravel, and coarse sand, which clings to the hardened skin between his toes. He examines his worn sandals. I wonder how many more days they will last before they finally collapse and he will be left to walk barefoot.
His camels stand aimlessly behind him, twitching their tails and grumbling quietly in their throats. Some of the other handlers are having trouble trying to control their string of restless camels, all anxious to start their day. I look at the boy’s three grubby creatures and see their dull eyes and flea-infested blankets. They watch him, but he does not see them. Even the thought of the tourists, scratching their bottoms with desperate hands as the fleas explore, fails to make me smile. Every day is the same, but somehow today the boy seems less tolerant.
I know he hears the rumble of the coaches before anyone else, so attuned are his ears to the sound after so many years of waiting. From the hills and dunes come the hoards of hungry children, each jostling for prime position in readiness for when the doors to the vehicles eventually open. His camels stir slightly, expecting to move, but he shouts at them and they are still again. He watches through cold eyes as the tourists arrive, eager and anxious to start their trek. The young desert children set up their pleas for money, for food, for clothing, or for anything they can sell.
‘Get out of my way,’ shouts a bulky tourist in clinging shorts and an abundance of baggy skin.
The children surround him, holding out their hands and begging for a gift. Soon all shapes and sizes of prospective camel riders descend from the dark coolness of the bus. The begging hands wave frantically, the grown-ups becoming agitated, and the husbands raise their voices in annoyance. Women start to look anxious, and cosseted European children in Nike trainers and matching t-shirts and shorts begin to wail.
The handlers move in, pushing through the children and seeking out their customers, grinning with toothless smiles. Camels crowd around the buzzing group, growling lowly and pulling against their straining ropes.
The boy watches it all without a flicker of interest. He lets the handlers take the early tourists. He knows that another coach load will arrive shortly. They come and leave, and others come to replace them, time and again, day after scorching day.
‘Hey, you – camel boy…’
The bulging tourist waddles 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 shelters him from the blazing sun for a moment, and the boy looks up into the pink and shiny face.
‘Yes you, camel boy. Three of us here. Let’s get moving.’
The boy pauses for a moment, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and stands slowly, his camels immediately alert. The sweating tourist is joined by a screeching woman and a grumbling child. With a flick of the boy’s hand the camels begin their humble bow as the customers edge forward. The man hurries to the nearest camel and begins a long and beleaguered attempt to climb on to the animal’s back. The boy begins examining his sandals while he waits, offering no assistance or advice. As the full weight of the man sinks on to the camel’s back a loud explosion of gas escapes from the camel’s backside, followed by a similar noise from the man. His family, standing nearby, laugh 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 gurgles.
‘Hey, camel boy, let’s get on with it.’
The boy looks at the woman and gestures to the next camel, and she giggles as she shuffles and pulls and pushes herself into position. The child throws his designer-clad foot over his ride and leaps triumphantly onto the camel’s back.
Amid screeches and groans the camels rise, and the boy begins his trudge into the desert. They have not gone far when the boy’s sandal finally breaks and he stumbles and falls. The man sniggers and then becomes impatient as the camels slow and wait. The boy picks up his sandal and examines it carefully. I can see the rubber strap hanging limply.
‘Come on, camel boy, let’s get moving.’
Slowly the boy takes off his other sandal, lays them together in the dirt, and continues on his arduous way, the camels following closely. The sand is hot but I know the boy will feel no pain, the skin of his feet toughened by a hundred similar journeys.
As they reach the end of the trek the camels began their slow descent to their knees and the tourists slide painfully to the ground. The man fumbles in his pocket for his wallet and searches until he finds a small note, which he hands begrudgingly to the boy. He and his family then shuffle away without a backward glance.
The boy stares at the retreating figures, and I can imagine the familiar dark, empty look in his eyes. He takes the five Egyptian Pounds and rolls the note and puts it into the pocket of his shorts. He then turns his back on the jabbering tourists, sits beside his lead camel, and rests his head against its steady body. I see his fingers burrow into the camel’s coat and a tear wells in my eye. I feel his despair. I know that deep inside him the anger is stirring.
At first he will ignore the sickness in his stomach, but then the feeling will become more intense, rising up through his chest until his breath comes in short gasps and his head begins to pound. I see his hands grip the camel’s rope so tightly that his knuckles turn white beneath the years of grime.
He will not continue this way for much longer. I know his secret although he believes it remains his own, and that knowledge sustains him through days like this. His father would beat him if he knew that he was hoarding away half of his earnings each day, but soon he will have enough to leave the desert and never return. He has heard others talk of training camps where he will learn to fight and where he can channel his thoughts into fighting for justice and for a right to be known by his name. Above all I know his greatest desire, that his father might be proud of him.
It is these thoughts that get him through each day and hope that gets him through each night.
The sudden snorting of the camel makes him open his eyes as another tourist approaches. He turns his head away and waits, but there is no familiar shout of “camel boy”. The man stands quietly nearby, just waiting.
I feel it strange I have not seen the man approach. Perhaps I have been engrossed in watching the boy. The man does not look like the usual tourist. He wears white trousers and a white shirt, both immaculate. His light hair is long and swept behind his ears, falling in cascades down into his neck. His skin is not ravaged from the sun and leaking with sweat; he seems cool and relaxed and gentle, somehow.
The man continues to stand, and eventually the boy looks up, curious at last. The man smiles.
The boy says nothing, but cannot help but look up into the man’s face. This visitor seems different.
The boy nods, although I can see he is annoyed with himself for doing so. He has no wish to speak to the tourists and has never done so. He looks away again and keeps his eyes firmly on the ground by his shoeless feet.
Still the man waits, silently. The air is so still and quiet I am sure I can hear the rumblings of the camel’s stomach. The hustle and bustle of the tourists seems but a distant murmur. Curiosity touches him, and the boy raises his eyes again but then cowers back as the man crouches down before him. The boy begins to protest as the man touches his chin and turns his face so that the two look into each other’s eyes. I don’t know what he sees there, but I can see the boy’s shoulders sag and his body crumble. He shakes his head briefly and rubs his gritty eyes. The man is still beside him, now sitting in the sand, quietly waiting.
The boy opens his lips and tried to speak, the dust clinging to his mouth. Behind him his camels are quietly listening. I find myself edging forward, entranced by the presence of this stranger.
‘Hello, son. What is your name?’
The boy tries to speak, but his words stick in his throat. He wants to answer, indeed struggles to answer, but for some reason his voice has left him.
The man smiles.
‘Do you speak English?’
The boy nods.
‘What is your name, son? My name is Michael.’
The boy coughs, clears his throat, and coughs again. Sand clogs his throat and nostrils.
‘I am the camel boy,’ he mumbles.
The man smiles.
‘Yes, but what is your name?’
The boy is dumbfounded. He knows a little English, but for some reason he feels unable to respond. He spits into the sand and runs his tongue over his dry lips.
‘I am the camel boy.’
The man reaches into his pocket and brings out a Hundred Egyptian note and hands it to him, curling the boy’s fingers round the money. Then reaching behind him produces a bag from which he takes a candy bar and offers it to the boy. When he makes no attempt to take it, the man put the chocolate on the ground beside the boy.
‘Take care of yourself, son.’
As the man rises to leave the boy tries to stand but his legs will not obey him, and although his lips form words, he cannot speak. He watches as the man moves away, the children suddenly arriving from the dunes, and surrounding him, laughing as he hands out more candy bars. Pushing against his camel, the boy staggers to his feet. On the ground lays the chocolate bar, slowly melting. He drops the rope and begins to move towards the man’s retreating figure.
The sound of laughter fills the air as children taste the warm chocolate and the chewy candy. Children’s laughter is an unusual sound in the desert. The man pauses and turns, looking at the boy, waiting for him.
The boy forces his feet to move, one in front of the other, until he is in the crowd of children and then beside the man. A hush falls as the boy and man look again at each other.
‘You’ll be ok, son.’
Still the boy does not speak. I am amazed as I see dusty tears falling down his face. He has not cried since he was four years old when his father beat him for stealing food. Now the hot tears leave pale streaks on his skin and he sweeps them away with the back of his hand.
‘Who are you?’ asks the boy.
The man smiles, and turns away. The children stand and watch as he walks towards the desert, and then they move aside as the boy goes to join him. Without looking back, the man speaks softly, but I can hear him.
‘This is not your time.’
The boy stops, unsure what to do.
‘Go back to your camels, son.’
The boy tries to speak again, coughs, clears his throat, and calls softly, ‘Ahmed, my name is Ahmed.’
‘I know,’ says the man. ‘I have always known your name, but I think perhaps you have forgotten.’
The man named Michael walks away towards the desert. Finally I can wait no longer and I break my cover. The boy turns and makes his way back to his waiting camels, so he does not see me. I run up to the man in white. He turns to me and as I look into his eyes I see what the boy must have seen, a crystal blue ocean with a myriad of dancing fish, and then my skin begins to tingle as I feel gentle cool water bathing my aching feet. We do not speak. He just smiles at me and walks away. I look down at my feet and see there is no water, only the clogging sand. When I look up, he is gone.
Another coach rumbles along and stops nearby in a cloud of dust. The door opens and a huddle of tourists clamber out. One of them looks over to the boy.
‘Hey, camel boy.’
The boy stands quietly, raises his eyes and looks directly at the tourist.
‘Ahmed,’ he says. ‘My name is Ahmed.’
My name is Mishka, and Ahmed is my son. I think today he met with an angel.