When Ahmed picks me up at the Visitors’ Centre, he immediately apologizes. He has a bad toothache. He explains he needs to sleep.
Even in this condition, he is a gracious and kind host. He shows me where I will be working. I have a room at the office too, but will only stay there when we don’t have guests. On nights we have guests, I will sleep and eat dinner and breakfast at the camp.
Ahmed introduces me to Abu Baka, our camel wrangler, and then Ahmed leaves in agony. Abu Baka hands me the office keys. I guess I’m in charge.
It quickly becomes apparent that Abu Baka speaks about five words of English. I recognize the Arabic word ‘chai’ in the midst of a few sentences.
I nod, “Aiwa, chai. Shukran.”
Abu Baka leaves to make the tea. He returns and pours me tea from exactly the style and age of kettle one should be served sweet Bedouin tea in a village in the Arabian Desert. It is a cup of diabetes. If I could marry a drink, I would marry sweet Bedouin tea.
I sit at the desk. Abu Baka sits in a chair off to the side. It’s going to be a long day. I have left my English/Arabic dictionary home in PEI.
“Shukran jazeelan, Abu Baka. Chai moomtaz,” I say, proudly forming a complete sentence in Arabic. (Thank you very much. The tea is excellent.)
“Ana min Canada,” I continue. (I am from Canada.)
“Wa ant, Jordan?” I ask. (And you, Jordan?)
“La, Sudan,” he replies.
I struggle with the next part, trying for some reason to narrow down where in Sudan. As if I know many places in Sudan.
“Jordan – Amman, Aqaba, Wadi Rum. Sudan? Abu Baka?”
“Al Khartoum,” he quickly replies.
It worked! Yes, Khartoum. I know Khartoum. It’s the only place in Sudan I have ever heard of. It’s the capital. Too bad we can’t talk more about it.
I was beginning to exhaust my Arabic phrases. In many parts of the world, children appear out of every nook and cranny when a tourist is in the neighbourhood, so I have learned a few conversation continuers. I know how to say “How old are you?”, but that doesn’t seem an appropriate question to ask Abu Baka.
My next question in my kid conversation would be, “Mimken sura, min fadlak?” (May I take your photo?) Didn’t seem the time or place, but knew I could use that one in a few days.
Abu Baka offers me more chai and I immediately accept as I could offer another ‘shukran’ and ‘zain’ (good) or ‘moomtaz’ to keep things moving along.
The office is cold and I know the word for cold so I motion for us to move out into the sun, delivering my “bah’red” and rubbing my arms. Perhaps a change of scenery would inspire some more vocabulary.
I point to the sun and say, “Mmm..,zain.” like it was an M&M or something. I ask how to say sun in Arabic.
“Shamesha,” Abu Baka replies.
I nod and struggle to find the next topic of conversation and blurt out, “Jesus! The camels!”
He’s the camel guy. Show me your camels, dude!
“Jemel,” I say pointing to the camels across the road and then to my eye and then me and then Abu Baka and then across the road. It’s a bizarre game of Arabian charades.
I offer several, “Jemel jameels.” (Beautiful camels.)
I then point to a camel, motioning my hand in steps to show size and counting in Arabic from one to five which was as close I could get to age. I know how to ask age, but at this point I am mentally exhausted and can’t conjure it.
Abu Baka tells me the ages of some of the camels.
I know how to ask names. I wonder if the camels have names? I say I know how to ask names. I can ask the camel, like a person, its name. That would be precious. I can’t manage the Arabic linguistic gymnastics to convert “What is your Name?” to “What are the names of the camels?”, so I do my best.
“Ism Terry,” I say and then point to Abu Baka and repeat his name and then point to camels with raised eyebrows.
He tells me some names which I can’t pronounce nor remember. He also points to a camel and says, “Mama. Bebe.”
A pregnant camel. Splendid. Now we are in business.
“Teyb (OK),” I say followed by an enormous sigh. I should know the Arabic word for ‘when’, but I don’t.
“Bebe (for some reason we seem to be using the French word for baby)…wahad youm…ithnyn youm…(one day…two days..)?” I ask.
“Ithynyn,” he replies. Two days. Can’t wait.
We spend the next two hours getting high on chai and pointing to every object we could find and me writing down the Arabic word and Abu Baka trying to repeat and remember the English word.
I impress him with my counting up to ten in Arabic and scribble the numbers in the sand with a stick. He gets a great kick out of learning one and three in English, but never remembering two.
The whole afternoon plays out like a Monty Python skit. It is draining. It is exhilarating. It is intense. It is fun. It is comical. It is how I like to travel.
I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you. ― Yann Martel, Life of Pi