April 13, 2005
Cairo - The camel appeared uninterested in me.
He was 10 years old, his name was Mickey Mouse, and to him, I
was probably nothing more than just another tourist he'd have to
take for a brief ride across the desert sands.
What number was I? 556? 3,072?
To me, he was Camel No. 2.
Moving in the dark
In the dark, the beast took me by surprise. I was 5 years old
and increasingly suspicious about where we were and why we were
there. It was very cold, and I remember probing the night with
my eyes when the camel's outline emerged.
It terrified me.
But before I could protest, I was 100 feet above the ground,
and the camel under me was moving. My father sat behind me, holding
me tight. We began to move forward.
I had a purse with me.
It contained a smaller purse, which in turn contained an even
smaller purse. The two smaller purses were elaborately decorated,
with beads and gold trim. They contained treasures dear to me:
a handful of Iranian coins and, I think, some marbles and fake
As the hours dragged on, I kept thinking that my big purse was
open. I zipped and unzipped it. I don't know why I thought the
zipper kept reopening, but for some reason, I kept unzipping and
The two smaller purses made no noise at all when they fell out,
so I had no idea I had lost everything until after the camels stopped.
I cursed in Farsi.
There was nothing I could do. Those treasures, I guess, are still
somewhere between Iran and Pakistan.
Fast and bumpy
More than two decades later, Mickey Mouse straightened his gnarled
knees and stood up. I caught my breath, blinked and looked down.
It was not 100 feet after all, but maybe 10 or so.
The rocking sensation was simultaneously relaxing and startling.
Mickey Mouse chortled as his long, wrinkled neck moved back and
forth. The large saddle covering his one hump (he's a dromedary)
was wide, though relatively comfortable for a 25-minute ride. A
fellow tourist joined us on a camel called Charlie Brown.
As we made our way along a well-worn desert path, the other tourists
shrunk in the distance. The great pyramids of Giza seemed small
enough to lift. As our path continued, the three main pyramids
appeared stacked one in front of the other.
"Do you want to go fast?" our guide, a 20-year-old
named Zaabullah, asked. The thought of the camel running worried
me, but I was too curious to resist.
So Zaabullah jumped on the saddle with me, and prodded Mickey
Mouse to go faster, though not at full speed. It was bumpy, and
my eyes gave away my nervousness.
"If you are with me, you don't fall," Zaabullah promised.
The ride cost about seven U.S. dollars, and for Zaabullah, keeping
the money coming and the customer base growing was important. He
gave me his cell phone number, told me to tell people in the United
States about his camel riding services, and to make sure to come
back to Egypt some day.
I don't remember the faces or the names of the guides who took
me and my family across the border into Pakistan. Though there
were about a dozen of us were fleeing Iran, the 11-hour camel ride
was one of the loneliest experiences I've ever had, even with my
father right behind me.
My parents had told me the family was going on a vacation, but
this vacation had nothing of the pleasures of our past trips. I
didn't understand why they would do this to me.
It was chilly. I was hungry and tired. I began to cry.
My father begged me to stop. He said there were Iranian border
agents not far off, and they would come after us if they heard
my cries and take him away for good. I didn't fully understand
what he meant, but I tried to stop my tears.
Later, I understood the wisdom of not telling a 5-year-old about
the exact circumstances of illegally fleeing post-revolution Iran.
If we'd been caught, I might have told the border patrolmen everything,
not understanding the consequences.
I remember being flung off the camel as if I was a piece of luggage.
I landed in the sand, and still couldn't see anything. As others
unloaded our bags, I tried to stand up. But I fell every time.
The hours on the camel had taken an incredible toll on our unaccustomed
bodies and I had lost all feeling in my lower body.
Using my arms, I dragged myself around in the sand, trying to
avoid having bags placed on top of me.
My parents told me later that my legs were completely black and
Even after we'd been in the United States for a few years, I
kept asking when we would go back home to Iran. It took a long
time to accept that the vacation was permanent.
Mickey Mouse moved forward as if he was bored. I took pictures
of him and the shadow we made on the dark yellow sand. I took pictures
of Zaabullah, who wore a traditional Arab turban and robe, along
with athletic sneakers. Zaabullah pulled out his cell phone and
showed me a picture of a woman from America whom he had befriended.
He said he had an Egyptian girlfriend, and asked if I was married.
He seemed disturbed to find out that at age 27 I was still single.
I was disturbed that he was disturbed.
At least the camel doesn't care, I thought.
We made our way to one of the pyramids, where our tour guide
was waiting for us.
Zaabullah helped me hop off Mickey Mouse. The ride had lasted
less than a half-hour. But my legs were already in pain.
Nahal Toosi is a reporter for the Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel, where this article first appeared.