In the Fall of 1990, on a whim of the gods, I was in Tunisia, touring the ruins of ancient Roman colonies with some Italian students. Saddam Hussein had just decided to reclaim Kuwait (believe it or not, he had some historical precedent) and the long litany of dares and double-dares had begun. Most of the Arab speaking world backed Saddam in this, albeit halfheartedly, because they thought of Kuwaitis as selfish and spoiled. Poor people rarely like rich people.
In any event, Americans, such as myself, were viewed warily, especially unusual ones. First of all, I stood literally head and shoulders above most of the population. Secondly, I was traveling with Italians, and it was clear that I spoke Italian. Everyone knows Americans don’t speak Italian unless they’re up to no good. It was obvious to discerning Tunisians that I was a CIA operative, in Tunisia during the Gulf crisis to – what? The fact that no one could imagine what such a person might be up to there only confirmed their suspicions. Lucky for me, they are, for the most part, a gentle and amicable people, but it did take awhile to get accustomed to knowing smiles and the occasional glare.
All things considered, I was left a bit dubious of the critical thinking skills of the hoi polloi. And so it happened that, on a break from run-down Roman baths and fora. we visited Douz, once the fabled trailhead for Timbuktu and points beyond, nowadays a hive of hucksters and tourists longing for a one or two hour Lawrence of Arabia experience. Typically, one wanders out into the Sahara on a camel led by a guide on foot, has lunch, and returns for an extended photo op. I thought the camel ride seemed pointless, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching the friendly clash of cultures.
Suddenly, my pondering was interrupted by the loud and repeated braying of a camel. Camels, of course, are among the rudest animals humans associate themselves with, but this outburst had an unusual urgency about it. I looked over and saw that four or five men had wrestled a camel to the ground, and were holding it down. Nearby, a wood fire burned, with a long iron rod reddening in the heat. I walked over and asked one of the camel drivers standing nearby what on earth was going on.
“Ah,” he said, “this camel refuses to eat. He will die soon, unless something is done.”
As he said this, a man pulled the iron, now white hot, out of the fire, walked over to the prostrate beast, and began searing three parallel lines on the animal’s throat.
“This will make him hungry, and he will eat, and all will be well,” my new friend cheerfully informed me.
Poor benighted bastards, I thought. If only they had access to modern veterinary practice, instead of relying on this absurd medieval ritual! I wondered what they would do when they realized this wasn’t working, maybe exorcise demons? The men concluded their torture and let the camel stand on its own.
Whereupon it immediately walked over to a clump of grass, and began enthusiastically devouring it.