Last spring my oldest daughter, Ariana, did a two week farm experience with her class at the World Hunger Relief farm in Elm Mott, Texas. We were fortunate to be present for their spring festival where I met Doug Baum who had brought his camels and beautiful camel regalia to the event. We immediately hit it off since we’ve got some common interest in nomads (albeit a very different sort of nomad) and I wanted to introduce you to Doug and let you hear about his experiences becoming a true friend of the Bedouin people.
Tell me about the beginnings of the Texas Camel Corps, how you got interested in camels and how you came to own them.
I first began working with camels as a zookeeper in Nashville, Tennessee. I’d moved there from Texas to get into the music business and needed a day job. Being given the book “Noble Brutes – Camels on the American Frontier” for Christmas was what pushed me over the edge. “Noble Brutes” is about the U.S. Army’s use of camels in the desert southwest in the 19th century and I decided then and there to perpetuate that history via school, museum and library education programs. Though I’d had some success in music, playing drums on Nashville recording artist Trace Adkins’s first tour, the pull of the camels was strong enough that, by 1997, I’d moved back home to Texas and brought two of the Nashville Zoo’s camels with me.
My understanding from reading your blog is that your interest in camels led to an interest in the Bedouin nomadic culture. Can you tell me how you made contact with these people and came to spend time with them?
By 2000, I’d been training camels for other folks for a while (education programs didn’t set the world on fire at first!) and realized that I needed to learn more. There being no camel culture in the U.S., I knew I had to look to those places where camels aren’t so strange. Composing a form email, requesting a traditionally-living family that’d take me in, I sent out over a dozen pleas to tour operators from Morocco to Jordan. Most replied with, “You can book a tour and I’m sure you’ll learn from the guides”. One positive reply, however, came from a small operator in the Sinai desert of Egypt. The manager thought the request was unique and asked for a little time to find the right family. A week later an email came that said simply, “Saleh says let him come”.
Saleh is a Muzeina Bedu of the South Sinai and, after a year of saving the money to travel, I arrived in his home near Nuweiba, on the Red Sea Gulf of Aqaba in January, 2001. I spent an entire month with him and his family and left thinking I’d gotten what I came for. What I didn’t realize was how profoundly the culture of the Bedouin would affect me.
What is your relationship now with these nomads?
After ten years of traveling to the region, the relationship I have with Saleh, his family, his extended family and multiple other families in the Sinai is as close as blood relations. I am constantly in touch with them, even when I’m home in Texas (ALL the Bedouin have cell phones these days!). Each January-April I guide trips to the region and consider these trips my way of giving back to these people who gave, and continue to give, so much to me. Bedouin hospitality is legendary, but you just can’t understand it until you’ve experienced it. It now affects every aspect of my life. I try and honor their culture anytime my family and I have house guests visit our farm.
Obviously, at NuNomad we have used the word “nomad” to describe a very different type of location independent person. While we may be starkly different from most Bedouins, many NuNomads strive to minimize their possessions, free themselves from being tied to any geographic location, and have the ability to travel and live where they’d like because their income sources are mobile. I imagine there is a lot we could learn from the Bedouins who have been truly nomadic for centuries. What do you think might be some insights we could take from the Bedouin people about nomadic life?
The first thing that struck me about nomadic life was the lack of material possessions. Each item has multiple purposes and nothing is duplicated in the “kit” of the Bedouin. There is absolutely no fat in Bedouin culture- no excess.
For people who would like to experience Bedouin culture themselves in a way that’s not touristy and that is authentic, what might you recommend?
The trips I guide in Sinai/Egypt and Jordan are all based on home-stays, that is, there are very few nights in hotels. You LIVE in these places with the people who’ve lived there for centuries. If you like 5-star hotels, this is NOT the trip for you. If you don’t mind runny-nosed babies crying, needing their diapers (if they have ’em) changed, lots of sand and your tea really, REALLY sweet, this might be the trip for you.
I always ask folks, “What’s the worst thing you could do to offend my family in Sinai and make me wish you’d not come on this trip with us?”. This usually weeds out any folks I wouldn’t want to hang out with.