By Harriet Shenkman
Ever since his grandfather tossed empty packs of Camels and Danny lined them up pretending his caravan was heading to hidden pools of water, it was his ambition to be a camel tamer. His grandfather encouraged him. Even when his sister busted up his lineup, he would begin all over again. Today, he finds the clinic off a side street in a rundown part of Beersheba. A sign on the door says CLINIC in faded letters.
He pushes open the door and finds himself in a bare room, except for a chair, a file cabinet, and a wooden desk with a black dial phone on it. The walls are a dull white, paint peeling in random splotches. A drawing of a one-humped camel with three legs is tacked on a wall. Groans come from somewhere in the back.
After about ten minutes a short man with wire-rimmed glasses walks in. “So, what can I do for you?” he asks.
“You have dromedaries here. Right? My tour guide sent me. My name’s Daniel Gravelstein.” Before he’d left New York for Israel, he had argued with his sister at the top of the stairs. He might be a screw-up, he said, but he wasn’t a loser. A loser was permanent, a screw-up, temporary. “Stuff is going to happen to me,” he added, waving his newly issued passport. His sister just laughed. She was the smart one and he was the disappointment.
“I was expecting you. I’m Dr. Cohen. We have plenty of dromedaries.” Dr. Cohen peers up through his wire-rimmed glasses toward the top of Danny’s head. “You’re wearing a Yankee cap. You a fan?”
“Yeah. Sure am.”
Dr. Cohen grunts. “Your Holy Land Discount tour guide called me, said he wanted you out of Jerusalem. There are demonstrations about a bombing. A suicide bomber was targeted. Instead, the Arab boy who worked behind the counter was killed. He has become a martyr.”
Danny’s chest tightens. You never know what might happen here. At home, his biggest fear was that his mom would find out about his six-month splurge of phone sex on her credit card.
He shifts his bag onto his other shoulder. Soon he will go back to the States. It has been unreal since he hooked up with Holy Land Discount Tours. His guide had insisted on escorting him to the Central Egged bus station. “There could be violence. Just a precaution,” he said.
“Why do you want to tame camels?” Dr. Cohen gives him a puzzled look. “I gave up a veterinarian practice on Long Island to be on the edge of the desert, but I had a nasty divorce to escape from. What’s your excuse? You smoke weed or something?”
“Never touch the stuff.”
“What’s your business in Israel anyway?” He looks up at him again. “You have tiny ears like my dromedaries.”
“I’m on a youth tour.” His dad wanted him to go to summer school for math, but his mom encouraged him to learn about his heritage. He had money saved up from summer jobs and he’d just turned eighteen, so he could do what he wanted. The monuments and synagogues turned out to be boring and the girls on the tour had acne and frizzy hair. Cheryl Schwartz refused to sit next to him, said his long legs bumped her. At least three times a day the tour leader announced, “This is the land of milk and honey.”
“I took an extension tour off the beaten path. My guide promised I’d go to nightclubs in Tel Aviv and meet hot Russian girls, get pulled into bathrooms for blow jobs. He also told me about the camel clinic.”
Dr. Cohen snorts. “Dromedaries are not pussycats, you know.”
Danny looks up at the three-legged drawing on the wall. “Dromedaries don’t have three legs either.”
“Nothing is what it seems,” says Dr. Cohen. “A little deaf girl from the Bedouin village made it. Her uncle is one of my handlers. In the Al-Sayyid community down the road they have their own sign language.”
His grandfather stuck to Camels, never smoked Lucky Strikes. He drank sour mash and took him to church a few times. His wife, Danny’s grandmother, hung crystals from every doorway and massaged feet for a living. On his mom’s side, her mother used to tell him about her deaf sisters she’d left behind in Eastern Europe. People believed the evil eye followed her. No one would marry her, so she set off for America. He never knew what to believe, especially after she became demented.
“I want to train camels to koosh. I go back to the States in a few days.” No one else he knew wanted to be a camel tamer. His sister won swimming contests and debate tournaments. Her ambition was to be a heart surgeon.
“Takes at least a month for them to learn new behaviors,” Dr. Cohen says now. “Bedouins are the only ones who know how to handle my dromedaries.”
“I’m serious. I studied how to do it.” Danny digs his toe into the ground. This is his last opportunity before he flies home.
“You use a soft leg rope that has a steel ring on the end. The ring lets you get the slip loop on and off the camel’s leg without getting kicked.”
Dr. Cohn looks toward the top of Danny’s head again. “How tall are you?”
“Almost six feet.”
“Dromedaries are seven at the hump. Dangerous if they pin you to a wall.”
“They don’t sweat. They store over eighty pounds of fat in their hump. They drink twenty-seven gallons of water in ten minutes. They’re only mean when frightened.”
Dr. Cohen clicks his tongue. “You’re not as dumb as you look.”
The black phone on the desk rings. It goes on for a few seconds before Dr. Cohen picks up. He listens and speaks in rapid-fire Hebrew.
Two days ago Danny got separated from his group while shopping for souvenirs in East Jerusalem. He was considering a T-shirt, PEACE in five languages printed on the front, when two Arab kids came into the shop. He sensed them watching him. When he picked up a snow cone with Moses holding the ten commandments, one of them shouted “Jew dog!” and pointed at him. The other one looked him in the eye and said, “Zionist pig!” He thought of telling them he was only three-quarters Jewish, but the shopkeeper chased them out. Danny had been called a loser, but never these names.
Dr. Cohen finally hangs up the phone. He turns to Danny. “Have to make a house call. Sick horse at Kfar Hanokdim.”
Danny doesn’t budge.
“You paralyzed or something?” Dr. Cohen grabs his arm and ushers him out of the office and into a ramshackle shed where the animals are kept. He signals to one of the handlers. “Give this boy a brief tutorial. The basics.” He turns and starts to walk away. “I’ll be back shortly. The village is only down the road.”
An awful stink hangs in the air. The floor of the shed is strewn with hay and dirt. There are about a dozen fenced-in pens. The animals are groaning and jerking about.
The handler swings open the gate to one of the pens. The camel inside is enormous. He bares his giant teeth and gargles. Then the camel spits a glop near Danny’s foot and Danny jumps back just in time.
The Bedouin handler reaches up and pulls down ropes hanging from a hook. He holds two in front of the animal, a lead rope and a long soft one with a steel ring at the end for the camel’s legs. “Watch me,” he says. He hooks the lead rope to the halter, then runs it under the lower rail of the pipe corral.
Danny inches closer to allow the animal to recognize his smell. The animal’s eyes bulge, but he has a soft doe-like expression. Danny reaches up and rubs his nose, tries to get the leg rope around his ankle and over his back. The hide is rough under his fingers. The dromedary unloads a dump. Danny squeezes his nostrils shut.
The handler holds the lead rope and pulls the camel’s head down while Danny pulls the leg rope, applying downward pressure on its hind quarters. He is careful not to hurt him. The handler taps lightly on the camel’s hind legs with a stick. “Koosh. Koosh,” he says firmly. “Koosh. Koosh.”
Danny repeats the command. They perform the routine over and over. Each time the dromedary becomes more compliant.
Suddenly, a shrill siren goes off. Holy crap! Danny looks at the handler.
“Red Alert!” the handler shouts, turning and running out the door toward the back of the building. “Quick, two seconds. Hurry! Hurry!” Danny and a second handler dash after him. Dr. Cohen has returned and comes huffing behind them.
“What about the camels?”
“They’ll survive,” Dr. Cohen mutters, breathless. “We’re used to rockets.”
They scramble down the cellar steps. The second handler slams the door shut and bolts it. Danny finds himself in a small empty space with wooden benches. A light bulb hangs from the ceiling. The second handler reaches out, makes two fists, and pulls his fists down toward the floor, looking at Danny.
“Sign language for ‘sit’,” Dr. Cohen explains. Danny squeezes in next to him.
There is a thunderous boom. Then another. The walls of the shelter shake. Danny is thrown forward, but regains his balance. The handler’s hands flutter in the dim space. Keep calm, Dr. Cohen whispers.
The bomb shelter is like a foxhole. Danny is wedged between Dr. Cohen and the deaf handler. He smells sweaty armpits and stale breath. He wants to pray, but he doesn’t know any prayers. “I never had a bar mitzvah,” he blurts out. “I refused to learn to read Hebrew. Reading from right to left was too confusing.”
Dr. Cohen waves his hand. “No big deal,” he says. “You are coming of age at this very minute.”
His sister had a lavish bat mitzvah. The party was in a hotel room called The Royal Princess and her presents were piled high on a long table. She regifted him a giant silver hamsa to ward off the evil eye and a leatherbound copy of the Torah.
“Are you hungry? I hope you had lunch,” Dr. Cohen says unexpectedly.
“I grabbed a falafel at a stand near the bus stop before I came.” Falafel is now his favorite food along with hickory-smoked bacon and the three-cornered pastries his grandmother baked for Purim.
Shrieking and grumbling come from the shed beyond the bomb shelter. The shrieks grow louder and more pitiful. The shelter is damp and earthy. His grandmother said her deaf sisters were made to stand naked before a huge pit and then they were shot. He wondered if they made any sounds of fear?
A boom and two more thuds, closer this time. Danny presses his palms over his ears to shut out the sound. His tour guide told him he’d learned the best way to mop up blood in the army when he was Danny’s age. When Danny stopped to tie his sneaker, he laughed. “That’s all you have to do is learn to tie your laces.”
There is a sudden series of short beeps now. Dr. Cohen gets to his feet, “All clear. All clear.” As soon as the door is unbolted, Danny sprints toward the shed, the handlers behind him.
He grabs the rein of the dromedary he has befriended and reaches up to pat him. The animal’s eyes bulge. Danny speaks in a low murmur, trying to regain his trust. He speaks calmly and patiently. The camel slides his mouth back and forth, his gums huge and pink. He spits. Danny taps his hind legs lightly with the stick. “Koosh. Koosh.”
The one-humped animal looks at him for a full minute, his tiny ears perked. Then he bends his hind legs behind his enormous bulk and kneels. “Good boy.” Danny pats his head. He can’t help grinning.
Dr. Cohen peeks into the shed now, taking in the scene. “All the training you get,” he says. “You’re a camel tamer now. And as a bonus, I hope you learned about your heritage.”
Back in the office, Dr. Cohen looks at him sternly. “Time for you to hop on the bus back to Jerusalem.”
There is no escape, Danny thinks. After he goes to summer school for math, he’ll study for his bar mitzvah. He’ll get some Hebrew tapes and memorize his Torah portion. If he’s a Jew Dog, it might as well be official.
Dr. Cohen sighs. “You should be in Jerusalem in three hours. The demonstrations are over. Tires set on fire, shouting and stone throwing. No one injured, thank God.”
Danny reaches up and adjusts his Yankee cap, the visor to the back. He pictures burning tires rolling down the street, the fumes clogging his nostrils. He is ready to fly home.