19 February 2015

Jerusalem 2011

The cruise allotted two days for the storied Holy Land; as a one-time student of the New Testament, I was thrilled at this opportunity, however fleeting. It was enough, barely, for an interesting taste of very awesome history. Instead of stamping our passports, the Israelis issued us with short-term visas. That saved us from being barred future entrance to inimical Arab states, a customary and appreciated gesture. 

From the port of Ashdod it's a one-hour drive to Jerusalem, everyone in high anticipation.

The name of our guide, who was very good when we could hear her, escapes me now. She was well-trained to deal with any challenging or religious-type questions. If we asked why Jesus' body was commemorated in different places, or queried dubious tales about the Stations of the Cross, the answer was always the same: “It’s tradition.” Thereby causing an earworm in moi for the remainder of the day of Zero Mostel belting it out in Fiddler on the Roof.

Our splendid morning overview saw the city from the heights of Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives. Note the view of Jerusalem seemingly surrounded by one big cemetery; here, Jews and Moslems peacefully share. The golden Dome of the Rock can be seen ahead on the eastern flank; it was not open for tourists that day, very disappointing. I, of course, was distracted by camel men patiently waiting for customers. After that it seemed abruptly soon for the obligatory stop at an obligatory souvenir shop. The prices were outrageous: reality tempering some of our expectations.

 From one site to another, the vehicular traffic that day was horrendous; one can only assume it's 365 days a year. It's a small miracle we saw so much. Most memorable was the morning visit to the small Garden of Gethsmane beside the Church of All Nations. Ancient olive trees date back "to Byzantine times." It was the only spot of peace and quiet the entire day. A Franciscan monk was gathering olives; he must be quite accustomed to a constant file of gaping tourists.

Jerusalem is quartered into Christian, Moslem, Jewish, and Armenian sections. Among them the holy sites are managed by different religious organizations or nationalities, not without some difficulties. We passed the Place of the Skull, site of the crucifixion, having variable traditions for its eery name. Nearby we saw what is believed to be Joseph of Arimathea's tomb where Jesus was laid. It's within the British-sponsored Garden of the Tomb, and is a relatively recent archaeological discovery. It was a lovely place, not too crowded. Unfortunately, our special guide there spoke in such a low voice she was inaudible to most of us.

 In the afternoon we entered the Old City through the Jaffa gate. We were then well into the crush. A seething mass of international humanity swarmed outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditionally accepted site of both the crucifixion and where Jesus' body lay for three days. Dozens of guides with competing voices waved their distinctive markers aloft as group signals. It's easy to imagine being trampled should some disaster strike. In the noisy melee, our guide beckoned us to inch our way into the almost pitch-black interior.
The mosaic portrays the anointing and burial preparation of the body. Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic faiths care for shrines within the site. Everyone wants to touch the Rock of Calvary around which the church was built. Here, as at most places, emotional Christians were in various stages of prayer, often blocking the view. No dallying; you move with your group or you're lost. 

Little did we realize that being a Friday, the foot traffic was extra busy. Moslem holy day meant streams of people heading for the mosques. By late afternoon, Jewish Shabat was drawing throngs to the Western Wall, our ultimate destination. We stumbled single file along part of the Via Dolorosa, unbalanced on one side by overbearing Hasidim racing to the Wall and jostled on the other side by eager stall owners. Very disappointing not to have the Stations of the Cross pointed out, or if they were, not being able to hear our guide - way in front - leading our column. Glancing at the map in my hand was risky; one unguarded moment and this surging sea could easily swallow the troupe.

The Via, of course, like most of the Old City, is built up in layers and the first century AD was really meters below us, explaining why many sanctuaries and chapels are underground. References to bits of excavation we saw were lost in the general hubbub. I managed to spot the 5th Station of the Cross where Simon the Cyrenian assisted Jesus in carrying the cross. Here at the Franciscans' earliest chapel is an ancient stone said to bear the hand print of Jesus. Tradition, I suppose. I have a Kilroy-was-here moment.

The Western Wall
Outside the gates
The traffic delays, the crowds, the pressure to include as many places as possible inevitably create frustration at being unable to view without much pause or reflection. And yet, many marvelling flashes at the amazing panorama of human history! One is always aware of the passage of often-tumultuous centuries that altered, destroyed, excavated, or reconstructed the historic memorials. Most definitely I would return if I could. Having a personal guide would be worth it.
Originally I planned to include my second day in Israel in this post. Things tumbled out of hand as my journal sparked memories good, bad, and funny. I enjoyed relating the next one so much in retrospect, all I can say is come back to read (soon) Israel 2011.

Photographs, BDM November 2011.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

10 February 2015

Sinai, Egypt 2011

Early in the morning we load into the expected four-wheel drive jeeps. Much as I dislike them, they are necessary for traversing the mountainous southern tip of the peninsula, very difficult terrain to travel. My first visit to the southern Sinai. We first pass through a bit of Sharm el-Sheik—the hotel area where many high-level Middle East meetings take place. I think of my friend who was here just after the Six Days War, as a guest on an Israeli training exercise. No hotels for them; they slept on the beach where nomads passed in the night with their camels. The immense climb takes us thousands of feet above sea level to reach the desert.

The paved road soon comes to an end. Then it takes another 1½ hours (I suppose it would take half a day on a camel :-) along twisting, up-and-down, bumpy tracks to a Bedouin village. The striking landscape is merely part of the Sinai; the stereotypical desert, the ocean of sand, is way north of here. As it is, we have all the sand anyone could want in the passes among the rocky peaks.
Nearing our destination, a few excited boys appear on camels to race around us. The village is a small random collection of seemingly half-finished homes with the more familiar outlying tents. A gaggle of kids, possibly all the children, has turned out to assist the tourists with the prescribed “Bedouin experience.” The little girls wear the hijab but otherwise it’s a motley group of T-shirts and sweaters.

Like the Jordanian government, Egypt has made an effort to provide Bedouins with permanent locations—assured supplies of water, staples, and a few basic installations. No doubt they prefer their comfortable tents. Government largesse doesn’t stop many of them from the customary seasonable migration back and forth with livestock ... they have permission to pass into/through countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia without passports. One supposes this village site was chosen at an original oasis but I see no sign of it. 

The school
Along with such intervention come schools. And tribal ambivalence. Most parents believe “learning” will entice their children away from the traditional life. If they get too much education they will likely leave the tribe to pursue greener pastures. Pun intended. Maintaining family, tradition, and the tribe are everything. Therefore children are seldom in school long enough to learn more than fundamentals. 
Our reception is a communal effort ... to a degree. The village men do the negotiating with our harried tour leader. The kids are the camel handlers. Women are never seen. Mounting the camels is a scene of confusion. Scarcely time for photography unless you have three or four hands. English is non-existent except for our leader/translator. It’s odd to be riding with a group. Impossible to communicate to my child camel handler (a) could your camera shot get both me and the whole camel in, and (b) my saddle was cinched off-centre (a test of the abs to keep upright). 
An hour or so later at a genteel pace, we find refreshment waiting at a purpose-built, rudimentary compound. Not before more confusion and milling around at the dismount. With sign language and graphic facial expressions, the kids haggle fiercely for more than the expected tip. Mission accomplished .. for the most part .. and they vanish. It’s disappointing to me that our “experience” does not include a Bedouin tent. Or at least a facsimile.
We are grateful to be directed to the shade of one open hut; our guide huddles with the local men and the jeep drivers in another. The sun is so overbearing I can’t get a decent photo in the starkly contrasting interiors. Boiled mint tea may sound strange on a blazing hot day but the effect is refreshingly welcome. The men bring us a snack of fresh goat cheese and lebe, cooked on a fire as we watch and make admiring noises. Handmade crafts are displayed for purchase. Sadly, you can hardly say we are interacting with them. I wish to, but can’t, dissociate myself from some of my companions who are dressed for a California beach romp in shorts and sleeveless shirts. Hasn’t anyone heard of cultural respect? 
Passing back through the village later, the young boys reappear all scrubbed up for Friday prayers. Where is the mosque, I wonder. Are they saying goodbye to us or wanting money for photo opps?

Reflection: In case it wasn’t apparent, my unease during the day had increased. I felt disengaged, disconnected, tourist-trappy. Not that I think a North American female will ever have the slightest meaningful dialogue with these people, but the ambivalence, the paradox, was too ironic. We seemed to be amidst a trial start-up business for this particular village or tribe. I think they haven’t resolved the means to their end, which is presumably to strengthen their micro-economy. We seem mere objects of mild curiosity to the children, or perhaps we are viewed only as cash machines. Limited exposure to us apparently inspires no thoughts of leaving home so tradition is safe on that front.  

The awkwardness is entirely forgivable. I know of successful ventures amongst the Bedu in other places where tourists are accepted not only as economic contributors but treated with friendship and good humour. One has to spend more than a few hours with them. And I much prefer negotiating a solo ride.   

Photographs BDM, November 2011

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

31 January 2015

Eastern Med Islands 2011

Mediterranean islands are chock full of ancient history. A romantic can easily imagine Jason and the Argonauts or Odysseus sailing amongst them in ships of yore. Our somewhat larger 600-passenger craft glided into Rhodes harbour early in the morning. Day trips are hardly more than a superficial cultural experience, but luckily we were off-season with few other tourists.
Rhodes is one of the bigger Greek islands, situated off the south coast of Turkey. Must-see is the UNESCO heritage-designated Old Town and in it, the Grand Masters' Palace, a centuries-old seat of the Knights of St. John (also known as Knights of Malta and other appellations). What did I know about the Knights? Close to zip: recalling dim thoughts of the Crusades. Richard the Lion Heart. And shades of ambitious mystery novelists who attribute all manner of mysterious skulduggery to the order.

We spent most of our time exploring the magnificent 14th century palace that houses the Byzantine Museum. In 1856 the palace was largely destroyed by an accidental explosion in its armoury; almost one hundred years later it was painstakingly rebuilt and restored from the original plans. To use their full title, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta dates back to the monastic Order of St. John of Jerusalem, dedicated to caring for sick and poor pilgrims in the Holy Land.

It became a military as well as religious order under a Papal charter; its mission then expanded to defence of the Holy Land at the time of the First Crusade. The order attracted members from everywhere in Europe to make it a fierce defensive Christian force. After Jerusalem fell to the Ottomans in 1291, the Knights moved their administration and hospitals to Rhodes, Cyprus, and Malta over a period of time.
  In the museum, I was thrilled to see one of my favourites, the reproduction of Laoco├Ân, “one of the greatest of all artworks.” The original masterpiece is attributed to Rhodes sculptors and when discovered in Rome it was grabbed for permanent display in the Vatican’s Belvedere Garden.
The Knights began fortifying the town of Rhodes when they arrived in the early 1300s. The outer grounds of the palace now provide a park for exercise and families.

After an enjoyable little trek downhill through narrow streets we had adequate time to gaze around a central square and look at the shops. On the way a picturesquely pathetic small child was playing a faintly familiar song on a bouzouki type instrument. Seeking handouts of course. It would have made a striking photo if the camera had been uppermost in mind. Some of our group, all supposedly well-travelled, had to be told NOT to give her money when she should be in school. An ice cream shop has amusing creations in its display window.

Greece was in bad financial shape in 2011 and the tourist industry was suffering. Our local guide Ireni was not optimistic about the upcoming election, urging us to return soon, bring our friends.


Cyprus is a divided island, as we know. Limasol was our port, in Greek jurisdiction. Rumour has it the town is filled in season with the nightclubbing offspring of Russian oil-money and possibly serves as an offshore tax haven. Or money laundering; take your pick. My tour went into the hills to see mountain villages, thus I missed discovering any direct evidence of the jetsetting Russian oligarchy. 
 Beautiful scenery and sometimes terrifying hairpins on the mountain road led us to a variety of craft and home industries. It only took the first visit to see how business had stalled in the discouraging economic climate. Production had basically stopped. Owners, managers, or employees whoever was tasked with showing us around these places were subdued. Our local guide Antoinetta was the most animated soul of the day.
Photo of their poster

At the village of Agros we visit House of Roses, a small factory based on cultivation of (immense fields of) the ancient Mesopotamian Rosa Damascena. They produce perfume, cosmetics, wine, candles, ceramic ware, and what-have-you. The site was virtually vacant: no humming of machinery or chatter of workers. A brief introductory talk was uninspired; much more time was given to browsing the shop for souvenirs. 

Photo of their poster

After that was a cottage-industry of jams, jellies, preserves, and candy. We toured the pristine kitchen where I believe a woman was at work stirring something. Preserved tender young walnuts and a candy made from fresh grapes are specialities. Samples, of course. Our bags were getting heavier with fragrant and tasty purchases.  

Then came the winery. Just the right time for a tasting. Here we found more enthusiasm in the unabashed sales talk, maybe because the harvest was over as a natural course of events rather than due to financial woes. All wines were unfamiliar but I bought a red, knowing enough to steer away from the retsina.

A pensive moment on their terrace with the cats was worth its weight in gold.

Barely disguised commercial promotion on a "tour" is easily forgiven because these people are desperately dependent on the tourist trade and we were the only tourists around. Of course we felt silently obliged to spend some money as we met one pair of melancholy eyes after another. Did we help prop up the economy? Not so much, I think. Even more so than Ireni yesterday, Antoinetta implored us to come back to her island again.

Occasional tiny churches dot the area, one dating from the 11th century! Stop the bus! But no, we have an agenda and today it apparently does not include history. To my great disappointment. Trying to capture them through a moving window is impossible. The sun starts to set on the Mediterranean about 5 p.m. this time of year; it gets dark earlier if you’re in a mountainous area. So that puts a natural end to a day’s excursion. 

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

16 January 2015

Hi Jolly

Photo credit: It appears so often on the Internet,
difficult to tell the real origin; this is from the
Quartzsite Yacht Club
He was called Hi Jolly. His name was Hadji Ali (Ali al-Hajayah). He was a Moslem Ottoman, the man most closely associated with the United States Army Camel Experiment. Or perhaps he was Syrian. Or Greek. It's a story not well known in the U.S.A., let alone Canada.

In 1856 the U.S. Army imported altogether seventy-five camels from the Middle East as the "answer" to facilitating American expansion across the southwestern territories. Who but a man of the Middle East to handle the animals and train the soldiers to adapt. Actually more than one man was hired from the Levant but Hi Jolly, as the Americans quickly dubbed him, became the legend. He was capable and well-liked by all accounts.

Courtesy Doug Baum
The project was the brainchild of Jefferson Davis, then U.S. secretary of war. His own experience in the southwest and understanding of camels' role in distant desert areas led him to the bold experiment. Camels would fare so much better as pack animals in the arid terrain than horses. And they did. The camels were stationed at Camp Verde, Texas, near San Antonio. They first fulfilled their promise in the 1857 Beale Expedition, a successful trip transporting supplies and surveyors across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California to Los Angeles. For several years their use was continued even after the Confederacy took over in southern areas.

Then what? By the time the Civil War ended the Camel Corps project had evaporated along with Davis's political power. Congress declined further funding; some said that camels frequently spooked the horses and other animals, causing disruption and timing delays. A plaque at the Hi Jolly Memorial in Quartzsite, Arizona, reads in part: "Officially the camel experiment was a failure, but both Lt. Beale and Major Wayne were enthusiastic in praise of the animals. A fair trial might have resulted in complete success." Some of the "failure" has to be attributed to uninformed poor treatment of the animals.

"Legends" beget more legends and it's not easy to separate facts from the apocryphal. Many camels were auctioned off by the government but others were set free in Arizona to roam the desert. Camels were still being reported in the American desert in the 1930s. More or less abandoned, Hi Jolly was out of a job but unlike his few colleagues decided to remain in the United States. Among other occupations he became a prospector and a mail courier. Known as Phillip Tedro after his naturalization in 1880, he married, had two daughters, and died in 1902 in Quartzsite, Arizona. There, much later, a memorial was erected to him.

Doug Baum, likely the most camel-knowledgeable man in North America, created the Texas Camel Corps partly to commemorate the Beale Expedition, and also to spread the word about these hardy and fascinating animals.  

Courtesy Doug Baum
His Facebook page says it: "The Texas Camel Corps was established to educate the public on the historic use of camels in America in the 19th century." Demonstrating historical re-enactments of the U.S. Camel Corps is only one of dozens of educational events he conducts or participates in all year long. I greatly anticipate the book he will publish in 2015.

This photo I took unsuspectingly about ten years ago is one of several you might come across in Arizona tributes to the legend of the camels and Hi Jolly. Quartzsite remembers its most famous citizen.

● Doug Baum, "The status of the camel in the United States of America," paper given at the 2011 Camel Conference of the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (https://www.soas.ac.uk/camelconference2011/file84331.pdf).
● Doug Baum, April 2014, "Confederate Reunion Grounds," The Camel's Tale (www.texascamelcorps.com and https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-US-Army-Camel-Experiment/).
● Ibraham Kalin,"From Hadji to Hi Jolly," 6 December 2014, Daily Sabah (Istanbul) (http://www.dailysabah.com/columns/ibrahim-kalin/2014/11/25/from-hadji-ali-to-hi-jolly).
Forrest Bryant Johnson, The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America's Desert Military Experiment. New York: Penguin, 2012; preview on Google books.
● "Hi Jolly" and "United States Camel Corps," Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hi_Jolly and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Camel_Corps).
● "The U.S. Army Camel Experiment," 2014 Tour Schedule, History America Tours (http://historyamerica.com/tours/14-CamelCorps.html).

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman

02 January 2015

Douz, Tunisia 2012

Re-posted and revised from the BDM blog, where it will disappear.

We are in Douz, "Gateway to the Sahara." No kidding, our hotel is right up against the town wall beside the vast sandy openness. The rooms have small windows to the outside world, rarely opened because of constantly drifting sand. As with most Arab structures, the beauty is in the inner courtyard. Here too, as every morning in this delightful country, we can gorge on yoghurt and pomegranate arils to our hearts' content.

Late afternoon, some of us gear up for our optional group camel ride. Others contentedly remain beside the pool, partaking of snacks or massage offerings. For us, it's barely a hop-skip-and-jump outside the wall to a little tour office sitting in the desert. The general plan here is to dress us up in cheche turbans (aka kefiyah elsewhere) and a loose djellabah so we look like clones. Jockey around for a group photo. It's a well-practised tourist manoeuvre, pardon my cynicism. My inner camel snob is showing, channelling shades of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, as in "Road to Morocco." 
OH NO. My camera memory card is full. Dither! Must rely on the others to provide what I missed. It's time to mount and I spot a white camel, perhaps the tallest in the bunch. Mine! But he doesn't have blue eyes ... our irrepressible guide Sami told us the best racing camels are white with blue eyes. We head off into the peaceful dunes with each handler leading two or three of us. The air has that slightly surreal haze from gently blowing, hovering, distant sand. The surprisingly comfortable saddle promises a smooth ride.

Not so long after we begin, a dashing young Tuareg on a perfect Arabian horse comes galloping up to my friend and me, as we are somewhat separated from the others. In rapid-fire French he goes into a invitation — no, insistence that one or both of us get on his horse and he will take us across the desert. No concession at all of interrupting an event in progress. We try to be friendly but he goes annoyingly on and on with the extravagant, totally insincere compliments—the familiar you will be my Tunisian wife, yadda yadda. It's embarrassing. He has his royal blue cheche drawn so only his kohl eyes show, right out of a 1930s movie. Hmmmm, another practised manoeuvre.

Does this silliness really work for him sometimes? But it gets worse. Ignoring the obvious that we are not smitten, he grabs my buddy's hand, kisses it, calls her Mama ... very bad move. If Mama is intended as a winning ploy, it has the opposite effect. Besides, she's getting a bit frightened. He's impeding our progress and our camel handler stands by hesitantly. The rest of the group is out of earshot. Then he tells her handler to couche the animal so she can dismount (and remount his horse) and the daft man on the end of the rope looks like he will comply. We start shouting at both men. 

Finally the horseman accepts the rebuff ungraciously and gallops away. I hear him hurl "Ingrates!" as a parting shot.

It seems only moments later we are stopped as a group. The others have already dismounted to climb the smallest bump ever to be called a dune. More photo opps. And a more or less discreet pitch for buying jewellery that magically unrolls from the folds of a handler's djellabah. Looks like this is the turning around point. Damn. Hardly a ride at all, not the expected hour. Not to mention fifteen or twenty minutes wasted trying to ditch the horseman. Where is the "Great Dune" the Tunisia guidebook promised?! More fretting about my useless camera.

Reality: We become aware of hearing distant dune buggies as the sun sinks, their rackety whine spoiling the air.

SO ... it was partially good and partially disappointing. My buddy's so glad she saw real dunes on yesterday's optional trek to the old Star Wars film set. Tunisia had much richer adventures on offer!

Photography November 2012 by Analee Smith and Peggy Wilson gratefully acknowledged.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

22 December 2014

Clem, the Clumsy Camel

Clem was born awkward and uncoordinated. He fared poorly at camel training school. He lurched and stumbled. He didn’t make the cut to be chosen for exciting caravan expeditions. Clem was having a sad life. 

Then suddenly he was the last camel sold to a well-dressed man in a hurry. The man was following a star. 

Clem picked up a lot of experience on the journey, following the star. Carrying the man and packed with gifts, he became strong and happy. 

When they reached their destination, he knew how to kneel as gracefully as can be.

Thanks to my friend Alison for: Mueller, Virginia. Clem the Clumsy Camel. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing (Arch Books), 1974.