Naweza kumpapasa? (Can I pet him?) Jina lake nani? (What is his name?)
Ndiyo, waweza kumpapasa. Huyu ni rafiki mzuri. Anaitwa Jamal. (Yes, you can pet him. He a good friend. He is called Jamal.) I realize, from his name that, of course, he is Muslim.
As I hesitantly stroke Jamal’s head (he is sitting, not standing, for this tactile interlude), I looked into the one huge brown eye on the side of his head where I am standing and wonder what he is thinking about me, if anything. He has the longest eyelashes I have ever see in my life, presumably they come in handy in a sand storm. He seems completely unimpressed by my demonstration of affection, whereas I am fascinated by his nonchalance, not to mention his impressive stature. Not only is this the first time that have ever pet a camel, I don’t believe that I have ever seen a living camel before. He is really amazing.
Jamal, presumably transplanted from his original desert home somewhere in northern Africa or the Middle East, comes to the beach each day adorned with a two-seater (one seat behind the other) chair covered in bright colored fabric that perches on his single hump. Maybe it is not a chair on his back. Maybe it’s a saddle. It looks like a chair, thought. Much to my surprise, I discover that I am at a bit of a loss with regards to camel-related vocabulary. I also realize that don’t even know if has has feet or hooves, so I dutifully go home and ask Google to enlighten me.
According to the internet, camels do not have hooves. Their feet are actually large leathery pads in which the bones of their two toes are embedded. This is, apparently, why they walk so quietly, pad, pad, padding silently across the desert. I wonder if anatomically, their toes aren’t more like our fingers, than the hoof of a hoofed mammal, despite the fact that they look like an odd sort of hoof to the camel novice. Since he was sitting on his feet at the time we met, I didn’t really get a good look. Suddenly, I have many unanswered questions about my new acquaintance, and it is clear that he has no intention of answering any of them for me. I’m on my own when it comes to becoming camel literate.
When Jamal is not sitting, he strolls along the beach in the hopes of enticing some adventuresome tourist to pay for the privilege of having his escort them back and forth along the beach on his cheerful chair. It doesn’t seem to be a booming business as I have yet to see anyone climb onto Jamal’s mountainous back. Even I am not interested in riding him myself, but I’d love to see someone climb up and watch him stand up with them on top.
Well, if I am being honest, I would like to ride him, but not along a beach filled with tourists and Africans who would wander alongside hoping to get me to buy some of their wares under the assumption that if I have money to burn on a camel ride, there must be more where that came from. You see, Jamal and his owner are not alone on the beach in front of my hotel. There is also quite an array of street sellers who display their local crafts on large tarps, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting tourist who thought it would be nice to take a walk on the beach and try to persuade him or her to buy something. Riding a camel in such an inauspicious setting seems somehow beneath us both, Jamal and I. We should be walking through the desert towards the towering 4500 year-old pyramids of Giza, at least.
Watching Jamal fold his long lanky legs, first by bending his foot back at the ankle joint, and kneeling on it, then dropping down onto his actual knee, to kneel on that, then other limbs just seem to naturally gracefully collapse into folds as he settles onto the ground, to his resting position, sitting on his haunches and folded front legs looking like the majestic mythical Sphinx, is awesome. Standing up is no less inspiring, although it looks like a little more work on his part. Whether his standing up or sitting down, Jamal is never in a hurry. What’s more, either up or down, he has mastered the art of doing nothing.
Doing nothing is not the same as waiting, although they may look the same to the uninformed. It is also not the same thing as meditating. Waiting and meditating are purposeful; there is some intention on the part of the individual to engaging in the activity, whether it is to eventually to start something (waiting) or become free of the concerns of conventional reality (meditating). That is, they are activities that someone does. But doing nothing is not something that one does. I’m not sure what it is, which may be why I am not very good at it. Whenever I do nothing, I become narcoleptic and cannot stop myself from dozing off no matter how hard I try to stay awake.
People can, and do, master the art of doing nothing. I am just not one of them, at least not yet. For example, MaFatu, my Swahili mother, has mastered the art of doing nothing. She sits for hours each day in her seat in the family living room. When people arrive, she is happy to see them, of course. And she listens to their conversations, and participates sometimes. But often she simply sits in silence and when she and I sit together in silence, I am aware of how unfamiliar doing nothing is for me. I remember that one of my most memorable insights drawn from my first forays into Swahili culture was to realize that doing nothing was not “wasting time”. I sometimes wonder what she is thinking, if anything, but then, when I do this, I realize that I am no longer doing nothing with her. Instead, I am thinking about what she is doing when she isn’t doing anything.
I spent my first few days in Mombasa sitting and doing nothing with her. I kept falling asleep. Lucky for me, there is a Swahili tradition of kupumzika (resting) after the midday meal, which MaFatu does, which allowed me to hide my lack of skillfulness in doing nothing by lying down and sleeping, although sometimes I could not wait as long as she could for chakula kuteremka (for the food — lunch — to descend) before I went off to pumzika. By the fourth day, I began to feel trapped, and so I took a break and stayed at the hotel on the fifth day, both relieved to have some time to myself to do something and embarrassed that I could spend time doing nothing without getting impatient or falling asleep. I went back for another day and did nothing again, as best I could. This may be the last time I will have the chance to do nothing with her, I remind myself. Why can I not cherish each moment of simply being with her? The next day, I broke down and brought a book and, on the third day, I spent another day at the hotel.
Doing nothing for several hours a day day after day is simply not in my skill set. Still, I haven’t given up. When I spend the day at the hotel, I try to take lessons from Jamal. I just sit and feel the wind whooshing around me, the warmth of the sun caressing my skin, and the thundering of the waves as they crash along the shoreline. I wonder if this is what he is aware of when he is sitting and doing nothing on the beach. Both he and MaFatu seem to have smiles on their faces when they are doing nothing. Perhaps what looks like doing nothing to me is really just being content with oneself and the world.