Monday, June 3, 2013

Camel Country

Growing up in the U.S., I always got some strange questions about Iran. Do you eat with your hands? Do you have a bomb and an AK-47 in your car here? Do you ride camels? I knew I should have been insulted, but I couldn't help but feel a bit sad for these people who seemed to really believe these things. I explained that Iranians used regular utensils and, in fact, ate rice with a spoon, which received lots of oohs and aahs and a that's weird. As far as the weapons, I chalked it up to the particular fondness Americans have about their right to bear arms. Perhaps they thought they had found some common ground? Whatever the reasoning, I didn't particularly care for these stereotypes, but I didn't get upset about them either. Who could blame these kids in elementary, middle and high school when this really was Iran according to the media? 

The question about riding a camel always struck me as especially amusing. In all my years in Iran, I had never seen a camel...ever. Or a Persian cat for that matter. How we got credit for that beautiful fluffy breed of cat when all I ever saw was stray alley cats, I will never know. And the closest thing that I had ever done to riding a camel in Iran was riding a donkey. Aghaye Ashkani's (Mr. Ashkani's) donkey to be exact. Aghaye Ashkani (RIP) was a kind gentleman who used to help my grandmother around with the house, gardening, repairs, etc in Taleghan. During the summer, all my aunts, uncles and cousins would gather at my grandmother's house. I loved it when Aghaye Ashkani came around with his donkey because he would take us for a ride on it. That was one of the things we always did. "Do you want to ride Aghaye Ashkani's donkey?" they would ask. Baleh! Now that I think about it, the poor donkey was probably miserable, but we, of course, loved it!

With my siblings and cousins in Taleghan, 1983

It wasn't until my 2006 trip to Iran that I saw my first camel in my mom's hometown of Neyshabur. In the afternoon, we went for a stroll around the mausoleum of the great Persian poet Omar Khayyam. At the end of the road, I spotted a camel and some horses roaming around. I noticed that the camel had a cute little baby as well. 

The owner had brought his camels for the public to take rides on, and I decided it was time to finally make that childhood stereotype come true. I was the first and only person in line ready to ride on this camel, and during the walk, the baby followed just a few footsteps behind. The owner and I talked all about these two, whose names now escape me, their ages, how often they are vaccinated, where I was from, what I was doing in Neyshabur, etc. Our conversation was suddenly interrupted by some commotion back at the parking lot. What first looked like a mere begu-magu, argument, soon turned into a full-blown fight. I saw a man running with a stick the size of a baseball bat and smash another guy's windshield. Before I knew it, the camel owner took off running in the direction of the fight, leaving me alone with the mama and baby camel. You see, Iranians can be quite nosey, which is not always a bad thing, especially if you are in dire need of help in a public place. You can bet that it will take 2 seconds for an Iranian to get involved, whereas Americans usually prefer to look the other way and go about their business. Maybe that's the fascination with those social experiments on ABC's What Would You Do? I don't think they would really pan out in Iran just because EVERYBODY would do SOMETHING, and if that's the case, what's the point, really? I can imagine John QuiƱones approaching the Iranian and asking "So, why did you get involved?" and the Iranian giving this clearly morally and ethically bankrupt man a disapproving glare. "What do you mean 'why'?" Back to the story- the camel decided to capitalize on his newfound freedom and just started running deeper into the vastness. I was yelling for the man to come back, but he clearly found the fight far more interesting. I tried to go through all the facts that I knew about camels: How fast do they run? Do they stand on their hind legs like horses? Was he going to turn around and spit on me? Or lose his balance and have me tumble off his back? I knew absolutely nothing about camels other than what I learned in my second grade Persian book- they can survive in the desert without food or water because they store it in their humps, and sandstorms don't bother them because they have a second eyelid. None of this information was going to help me. Luckily she started to slow down slightly when she came across some good-looking green spots to graze. (Do camels graze?)

Once matters were settled back at the fight, the owner somehow caught up with the camels and me who were now in the middle of nowhere. He brushed off the fact that I was freaked out about riding on top of the speeding camel completely unsupervised. In the typical non-chalant Iranian manner, he just waved his hand, Na baba, she won't do anything! But I have a sneaky feeling he was thinking spoiled American.

Besides this little scare, I did thoroughly enjoy my first camel ride and decided to make it a thing every time I went back to Neyshabur. So when I returned a few years later, I couldn't wait to see the camels. This time, I was shocked to see that they looked a lot fancier! Almost exactly like the stereotype. Wasn't this the same camel that Aladdin rode in on when he went to meet Princess Jasmine? 

In 2006, I was the obvious kharejiforeigner, doing any camel riding while the native Neyshaburis looked at me like a divoonehcrazy person. But this time I noticed more people were around with their children eager to go for a ride on the camels and horses or take a ride with the whole family in the carriage. If you ask me, I think maybe the camel was happy about this, too.  



  1. The camel posed for the photo, debsh!

  2. haha - good smile on the camel,
    I remember seeing camels in Shiraz outside Persepolis in 2008 too


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