Nabila and her family were Bedouins of the Arabian desert before the time of roads and cars and electricity and radio. They lived in tents, one small tent for her father and two brothers, one large tent for Nabila, her mother and her sister, and a separate tent for cooking and every-day chores. The tents protected Nabila and her family from the searing sun of the mid-day and the chilling night winds swirling across the Arabian desert.
Chapter 1 -- Adrift in the Desert
As the rains fell far away in the mountains, the waters ran deep under the sand, welling up in the low places in the vast desert. The places where water came up to the top of the ground were called oases. Grasses and shrubs grew and tall date palm trees shaded the water from the hot sun. The tents were clustered around one of these oases, close to the precious water.
"Ummak," called Nabila to her mother. "I'm going out to find Ji Jamal."
Her mother, Fatima, looked up from the cooking fire. "Be careful, Nabila, watch for the wild animals prowling around the camp."
"Oh, Ummak, donít tease me like Mohammed and Ahmed do. I am almost grown." The little girl ran out of the tent into the morning sun. It was early in the year, and the morning coolness had not yet been driven away by the sun. Soft brown doves cooed and pecked in the grasses by the small pool of may, water, near the well. Nabila held her hand to her forehead, shading her dark brown eyes from the sun, and searched across the desert for Ji Jamal
Her father, Ibrahim, sat in front of the majlis, the tent used by the men. After finishing his morning prayers at dawn, Ibrahim had sat quietly, watching the sun chase the clouds away.
In the cooking tent, its side flap open to the morning sun, Fatima boiled the water and ground the coffee beans for the men. As she poured boiling water over the coffee, a delicious aroma wafted up into the morning air. Mohammed, Nabilaís oldest brother, sat with Ibrahim in the still of the early morning. They talked softly about when it would be best to take the herd to market and where the best grazing would be for the next few weeks. Ahmed, the youngest boy, poured coffee for his father.
Nabila turned away from the tents and toward the desert.
"Jiiiiiiiii....Jamal, she called, her strong voice carrying over the desert sands.
A falcon, circling high overhead, dipped his wings as it heard the girl's call, carried up into the clear sky on the wind. Down below, a little hare, hiding in the thorny bushes, perked up its ears, nose whiskers twitching at the noise. The hare was careful not to move its head or jump out at the strange sound, knowing that the falcon would spot any movement in the sand and swoop down for a furry little lunch.
Nabila's Walidak, father, smiled as he heard her call, pleased that she loved the animals as he did. At the edge of the desert sands, the camels continued their grazing, undisturbed by the girlís shout. Except for one.
"There you are, hiding from me," Nabila called and ran toward the scattered line of camels slowly grazing among the thorny bushes.
Peeking out from between her mother's legs was a small white camel, Nabila's favorite of all the yearlings. Nabila slowed to a walk as she approached the camels, careful not to frighten them as they ate their morning fill. Nabila had grown up playing around the big beasts, and knew they would not hurt her on purpose, but their big legs and broad hooves could knock even a grownup to the sand if they were not careful.
The camels grazed slowly from clump to clump, each taking one bite from a bush, then moving on to the next, jaws moving slowly side to side, slowly grinding the thorny stems between their big teeth.
Nabila stopped, wiggling her bare toes in the warm sand. The big camel looked over at her, soft brown eyes watching carefully to make sure the girl did not hurt the camel's newest baby. The mother camel's name was Abyad, White. She and her baby were both as white as the silk strands in Nabila's mother's finest woven rugs. Nabila clucked her tongue and held out her hand toward the little white head, the animalís dark eyes glistening like jewels in the white fur.
"Here, Ji Jamal; come here, little one," coaxed Nabila.
The little camel bounded away, its long legs kicking up a spray of sand as it teased the girl. Nabila laughed, running after the scampering camel. The two struggled up the side of a low dune, the sliding sand slowing their run, but not the girl's laughter as they pranced and dashed about.
Suddenly, the camel turned and trotted up to the girl. They were about the same size, shoulder to shoulder as they stood together on the top of the sand dune. As the young camel nuzzled her, Nabila ran one hand over the silky coat of the baby camel's neck, smooth and shiny, clean from Abyad's broad tongue.
Ji Jamal finally found what she had smelled, a tamr, date, clutched in the little girl's hand. Nabila giggled as the camel tried to snuffle her way between the tightly clenched fingers for the sweet dried tamr, a treat for animal or man. Finally the girl loosened her grip on the date, allowing the baby to lick the sweet fruit from her fingers.
Nabila rubbed her hand across the camel's back, the white fur shaggy on top of the hump, and looked down at the small group of sheep cropping the grasses close to the well. They were pretty with their long coats of wool, some black, some white, some spotted, but not as smart as camels, thought Nabila.
Down below, Ji Jamalís mother looked up and snorted at the children playing up on the dune, a sign that it was time to come home. The two youngsters slowly walked back toward Abyad as the sun's rays began to warm the desert, waves of heat shimmering over the sands.
Ji Jamal, thirsty after the sweetness of the date, nuzzled her mother and began nursing her milk in the shade of the big camel. Abyad stood quietly as her baby drank, chewing the tough grass and watching Nabila. The little girl, thirsty herself after the romp in the growing heat, ran back across the oasis, returning to her mother and the coolness of the work tent.
"There is much to be done today," said Fatima as Nabila poured a cup of water from the goatskin bag hanging inside the tent. Nabila, Bushra, her sister, and their mother would pack up the cooking pots, spice jars, bags of coffee beans, tea leaves and sugar; the brass coffee pot and cups; everything they owned ó bundle away all their possessions in a collection of small chests and large sacks.
Her father and brothers would then fold the tents and load everything onto the big camels, the camels complaining and frowning in their camel way. When every pot and pan and tent and rug was loaded, the family and their camels and sheep would start on the hot trek across the desert to the next oasis. The family moved every few days so they would not use all the water or grass at each of the many small oases scattered across the desert.
To Nabila it was a wonderful life, living out under the sky, free to wander across the broad desert with their small herd of camels and the shaggy sheep. Especially with her brave brothers and older sister. And most especially with her little friend, Ji Jamal.
Chapter 2 -- The Raid
The family traveled all the next day. Ibrahim walked ahead with Mohammed, through the blazing sun and into the night, leading the camels. Ahmed scrambled to keep the sheep together and following the camels, running back and forth to keep the strays in line, whistling and clapping his hands to turn the wandering animals back onto the faint trail in the sand. The desert breeze brought just a hint of the coming coolness of the night when they finally reached the new oasis.
Ibrahim and his sons pitched the tents and then tended the animals in the light of the full moon. Tired as they were, Nabila, Bushra and their mother unpacked and spread the rugs and blankets for the night. When they were finished, the weary family, exhausted from the trip across the sands, prayed in thanks for their safe trip, then went to their separate tents and sleep, leaving the rest of the unpacking for the morning.
But Nabila did not sleep well. The wind grew stronger and stronger as the night became darker. The wind-swept sand gradually blotted out the stars and even the light from the moon. As Nabila tossed and turned in the dark, the sand rasped against the sides of the tent like a lizard swishing its tail across the rough cloth, a loose tent corner flapped in the wind. The night noises all conspiring to keep her awake. And she had imagined voices in the night, shouting and loud noises. Or was it her imagination? Finally she drifted into sleep.
"Wake up Nabila. It is time to get up." Bushra gently shook Nabila, a little lump under the bright red blanket. As the sun peeked over the edge of the desert, Ibrahim and his family were rising to greet the day at their new camp. Nabila stretched, tired from her long walk beside her mother as they had led the camels to the new oasis. She sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
Nabila heard loud voices through the tent walls, her brothers, angry talk so early in the morning. Nabila thought Walidak would not be pleased. He very much liked his coffee and peaceful meditation after morning prayers. Something was wrong today. Nabila quickly dressed and peeked out the door flap. Her father was speaking softly to the boys, calming their anger, but Nabila could tell that he, too, was angry from the hard look on his face.
"What is wrong, Ummak?" she asked her mother. "I have never seen Walidak so angry in the early morning." Her mother turned from the cooking fire.
"Raiders came in the storm last night. They ran away with some of the camels before your father and brothers could stop them. Ibrahim chased them and, Thanks to Allah, was able to get back most of the herd."
"Did they hurt Ji Jamal?" asked the little girl, worried that her friend might be in trouble. Before her mother could answer, Nabila burst out of the tent and ran to the little hill overlooking the oasis.
"Jiiiiiiiiiiiiii...Jamal," she cried.
"Jiiiiiiiii....Jamal." She turned to the four winds, calling in every direction. She could see the camels scattered around the valley, but no white ones. And no white baby camel, scampering up to play.
Nabila walked slowly down to the tents, trying not to cry. She was ten years old, and she knew the way of the Bedouin tribes. Camel raids were part of the nomad's life. The young men believed it showed their bravery and skill as a warrior. And the raiders were always careful not to harm the women or children.
But this time they took Ji Jamal. Her very best friend.
Over the following weeks, Nabila and her family often crossed the paths of other families roaming the deserts. Sometimes they met along the trails and stopped to talk. The two families would exchange gossip and news on grazing and water as they carefully kept the two groups of animals separate. Or a traveling family would stop by Nabila's camp as the family was moving to a new oasis.
Whenever they met wandering travelers on the caravan trails, Nabila always asked if they had seen a big white camel and little baby one lost in the desert. One man laughed, and said that if he did see the pair, he would capture them and sell them for a great profit, teasing the little girl.
But no one had seen the lost camels.
Months passed, and Nabila often thought of the little white camel, and hoped Ji Jamal had found a new friend that fed her tamr and rubbed her long neck. Nabila often walked among the big camels, and loved to talk to them and rub their soft noses as they reached down for sprigs of grass. But none of them would play with her. The big camels were like her own family now, all grown up but her.
One evening, three travelers came to their tents. Her father invited them to stay for a meal and rest until the morning. Sitting quietly in the back of the cooking tent, Nabila had given up asking about the lost camels. Her mother had scolded her when the travelers arrived. She had become a pest whenever guests came, her mother had warned her. Ibrahim did not want her bothering their guests with talk of the raid. Time had passed. The family must work today and prepare for tomorrow. With or without the lost camels, all would go well; Inshalla, God willing.
The visitors were on their pilgrimage to Mecca from a large city, Damascus, far in the north. As they talked and sipped hot sweet tea, the travelers described their home ó new buildings sprawled around the ancient ruins high on the banks of a river, the Euphrates. Nabila was almost asleep, only half-interested in the men's stories.
Suddenly, the girl's ears perked up, like the little hare, as she heard the old man mention white camels. The visitor had seen them, many of them, he said, in the jamal souk, the camel market, in the nearby town. Excited by the prospects of perhaps seeing Ji Jamal, Nabila crawled to the edge of the firelight, closely listening to every word of the travelers' tales.
But before she knew what had happened, Nabila was asleep, dreaming that Ji Jamal was running beside her across the desert. Her mother picked her up and carried her across the blowing sands to the women's tent. Carefully, she tucked Nebulaís favorite red blanket around the sleeping girl and brushed her long black hair back from her eyes.
In the flickering lamp light, Fatima smiled at her daughter. In her sleep Nabila was smiling, happy in her dream, reunited with Ji Jamal.
Early the next day, soon after morning prayers and before the heat of the day, Nabila, her father, mother and sister rode out with the pilgrims, leaving the boys to watch the herd. The boys waved as the camels walked single file across the rocky desert toward to the town and the jamal souk, searching for the lost white camels. Nabila waved back from atop the old gray camel, swaying back and forth as he plodded along.
Chapter 3 -- The Jamal Souk
The small town rose up out of the desert as they wound around the side of a long ridge. It looked huge to Nabila. She had never been to more than a small village before. The sight of the squat buildings built of mud bricks, huddled inside the protective wall, was an odd change from the familiar tents of the open desert, defiantly flapping in the desert wind. A constant murmur of voices drifted to the travelers on the breeze, so different from the peacefulness of the open desert.
The glistening white dome of the masjid, the mosque, flanked by two tall minarets, stood in the very center of the little town. Nabila spied a caravan of camels slowly going through the gate, disappearing behind the walls.
"Mass salaama, good-bye," they called to the old man and his companions as the two groups parted ways, the men continuing their journey toward Mecca, the Holy City to the West.
Ibrahim turned and led the way up out of the desert to a small hill overlooking the town. It was nearing noon and they needed to put up the small open tent and rest from their hot ride.
Nabila could hear the calls to prayer from the top of the minarets, the long calls flowing out over the desert, echoing back from the cliffs in the distance, as she unrolled the rugs over the desert sand floor. After he had watered the camels from the goat skin water bags, Ibrahim told his wife and daughters that he planned to stop in the mosque for noon prayers and, after prayers, ask the way to the camel souk. Fatima reminded him to be sure to take the water bag with him. In Arabia, one never forgot to refill the water bags. If a sand storm came up in the desert, it might be days before a traveler could find his way back to an oasis.
The morning breezes had stopped. Except for an occasional swirl of dust from the desert, the wind had paused to let the mid-day heat wash over the people and animals and deserts of Arabia. Ibrahim walked slowly down the hill, through the gate and into the twisting alley ways of the small town. He was tired from the long ride and the walk in the noon sun. The cool may was refreshing as he washed at the mosque, preparing for noon prayers.
Later, walking from the shade and quiet of the mosque back into the harsh midday sun after his prayers, Ibrahim saw a man leading a line of camels across the opposite side of the broad square. One behind the other, the camels plodded by the brown mud brick buildings. Quickly, before he lost them in the maze of shops and twisting alley ways, Ibrahim hurried to catch the man with the camels.
"Min fadlak, please," Ibrahim asked, breathless from his dash across the square, water bag bouncing on his shoulder. "Ween jamal souk?, where is the camel market?" he asked as he slowed to a walk beside the trader.
The man, tall in his dark robe, slowed his pace, held out his hand and spoke a friendly greeting to Ibrahim. The souk was on the other side of town, out toward the high escarpment rising up out of the desert, the camel trader told Nabila's father.
"Sukran, thank you," responded Ibrahim, as he waved good-bye to the helpful stranger. Quickly retracing his way back through the alleys and up the low hill, he found Nabila, Bushra and her mother quietly sitting in the shade, dozing after their noon prayer. He poured each of them a cool drink of water from the newly filled goat skin, shared a handful of dried dates, then lay back to rest until the evening market time.
"Nabila, there will be many people and pretty things to see at the souk," said Bushra, you will enjoy going there.
"But I only want to find Ji Jamal," replied Nabila. See peered out of the tent toward the town below.
"You must learn patience, my youngest. The souk does not open until the cool of the evening." Ibrahim smiled at Nabila.
"Yes, Walidak." Despite her impatience, Nabila lay back on her favorite carpet, the one with the silk threads, and slept through the heat of the afternoon, dreaming again of the small white camel. She woke as her mother and father were beginning to pack the tent and prepare for the journey home.
"Aren't we going to the souk?" cried Nabila.
"Yes, dear, but we are going to go straight home from there. Your father does not want to leave your brothers alone in the desert another day. We will ride back in the cool of the night," answered Fatima. She and Bushra carefully wrapped their abaya, black robes, around their shoulders, veils covering their faces Ibrahim helped onto their camels.
"But what if we do not find Ji Jamal and Abyad?" asked Nabila as she hurried to roll up her carpet and tie it to the camel saddle.
"Don't worry so much, child," replied her father. "Either the camels will be there or they won't."
With that, he lifted her atop the old gray, and led them on their way to the souk. As they wound their way though the streets of the town, Nabila was astounded by the smells and the sights. Passing by the spice shops was like being in a huge cooking tent, aromas of all the good foods mingled together. Bright woven carpets filled the rug shops, spilling out into the streets.
"Look, Nabila." Bushra pointed down the ally. Wonderful smells drifted from the chunk of lamb slowly turning on a rotisserie.
"Bang, bang, bang." The pot maker was beating out a large brass bowl in the front of his shop. Ladies, all covered in their veils, hurried by the stacks of shiny pans and bowls. Nabila saw more people that evening than she had seen in her entire life in the desert.
Then, there it was, the jamal souk. Camels of all sizes and shades, some hobbled, some in pens of wood, some being led by small boys; the camel market was a jumble of people and animals. Ibrahim led his wife and daughters between the pens, looking out over the animals, searching for the whites.
"Look, Walidak, look, there they are!" cried Nabila, pointing over the pens toward a small group of hobbled camels, some white, some brown, standing on the edge of the market.
"Min Huna, this way," bouncing up and down in excitement, she tapped the old gray with a stick, guiding the big beast toward the white camels. As she got closer to the whites, Nabila pulled her camel to a halt. Her family rode up beside her and they looked over the mass of camels, searching for a white mother and baby camel. His tail swishing away the flies, a nearby camel stared back at them, blinking a sad blink as it slowly chewed on a handful of dry hay.
Nabila's heart sank. As she looked over the brown and white and dirty and fat and skinny camels, none of them reminded her of little Ji Jamal. She began to think she was never going to see her friend again. Ibrahim tapped his camel until it kneeled, letting him slide down to the ground. He reached up and swung Nabila to the ground beside him. The man and his little girl walked over to the camel dealer, an old man in very dusty robes, and explained their plight.
"La.......,no..., was the camel dealer's slow answer. The old man stroked a silvery white beard as he stood and thought for a moment. The pair waited, trying to be polite and patient. "No," he finally said again, he had not bought any whites recently. But, he had traded for the old whites in back of the pen several months ago.
Ibrahim picked Nabila up and put her on his shoulder so she could look across the pen. "Do you see them?" he asked. She shook her head slowly, her face forlorn. They had come all this way for nothing. Remounted, they urged their camels back toward the caravan trail. Nabila turned to look one last time, her eyes blurred with tears.
"Jiiiiiiiiiii.....Jamal," she cried out over the animals. At the back edge of the pen, a scrawny, half-grown camel looked around toward the sound, her white coat dirty and brown with the desert dust.
"Jiiiiiiiiiii....Jamal," was Nabilaís last, final call to her old friend.
The camel slowly trotted from the back of the pens toward the familiar cry. As the camel saw Nabila, she broke into a full run, front hooves flinging sand as she ran in the unique gait of the desert traveler. The dirty camel slowed to a stop in front of the little girl, as if unsure of her welcome. Without waiting for her father to help, Nabila slid all the way down the old gray camel's side down to the ground with a thump and walked over to the sad looking camel.
It was almost full grown, with shoulders that were at least two heads higher than the girl. Its ribs were gaunt and stuck out like sticks. The two stood, looking into each other's eyes. "Ji Jamal?" Nabila whispered. Then the white camel bent down its tall neck and nuzzled Nabila's ear. Nabila giggled and threw her arms around the rough white neck. They both knew they had found an old friend.
"Look," said Nabila's mother, as an old white camel slowly walked up to join the group, slowly blinking the desert dust from her eyes.
"It's Abyad, " said Ibrahim, patting the old camel on the nose. "Our family is finally all together again, Allah issalmak, Thanks to God." He turned to the old man who had walked up to them.
"Would you like to buy this old one. She is a strong one, still with plenty of milk. The young one is too thin now, but I was thinking of butchering her for steaks as soon as she fattens up a little."
Nabilaís eyes got big as she heard the man talk of butchering the skinny white camel, her Ji Jamal.
"Look, the mother has our wasm, brand, surely you will let us take our camel home?" Ibrahim brushed at Abyadís dirty flank, pointing at the faint design on her hide.
The old man held a lantern close, peering at the camel, then stood back, stroking his long beard. "But I have been feeding these two ever since I found them in the desert. They have cost me mush to keep them fed and watered. And the young one has no wasm."
Ibrahim, a veteran camel trader, took the old manís arm and they walked away, arms waving as they bargained.
"Ummak, what will happen to Abyad and Ji Jamal?" Nabila asked.
"Your father is wise in the ways of the souk and will make a good bargain. I hope they will return home with us, Inshalla.
Ibrahim walked over to the old gray, untied the blankets and slid them off, flinging them over Abaydís back. He and the old camel trader shook hands and the old man led the gray to the back of the compound.
Later that night, as Nabila tightly clutched the rope leading the white camel, she looked up into the full moon overhead, then back at the old friend walking beside her.
"Yawm jamiil, a nice day," she murmured to the camel.
Ji Jamal snorted lightly, fluttering her lips as if to agree.
A truly nice day.