Saabir, a young Iranian lad, scrambled under his blanket, behind a cluster of drums. He hoped he was safe hiding there at the back of a yurt in the caravanserai. Last night Faisal screamed foul words at him, growling that he was too slow at his tasks. Faisal was the khabir, the leader of the camel train.
He had beaten Saabir with his camel switch again and yelled at him, “Get out of my sight and do not come back.”
Saabir shook with fear. He knew no-one at this place, Turfan, way out in the west of China. Although he was alone and only a young boy, he swore he would never return to his vicious master; he would rather lie in the sand and die.
It was many years since he had a home, his parents he did not remember. They had deserted him when in Dunhuang, across the mountains from Xi’an, the start of the Silk Route in China. He had been homeless there, when an old Tibetan couple had taken him in, along with two other Iranian children. They treated him as a slave until they sold him to Faisal.
Carefully, Saabir poked his head around the canvas to find out what was making all the noise. Another merchant had arrived with his lengthy line of loaded camels and workers, as Faisal’s group moved off.
Would this new trader be the same as Faisal? He wondered.
He watched him dismount and talk quietly with his camels and the entourage. Faisal had never done that. He just barked orders at everyone including the animals and then strode off. Saabir smiled with hope. The next morning, he rolled over from his blanket, keen to see the trading. Once activity started, he snuck into the back of the group and watched them handling the lacquerware and porcelain, feeling the silks and brocades with dyes that dazzled in the sunlight. Brilliant coloured feathers from peacocks and pheasants sang to him. The aroma of tea leaves, he had never tasted, filled his nostrils, followed by the pungent smell of different spices from the east. The buyers were excited and shouted over each other. Exhilaration rippled over his skin and Saabir loved the rush that quivered through his body. What a thrilling thing to be the big trader, he thought.
Whilst the bargaining continued, Saabir edged over to the camels wanting to make friends with them. He had learned some tricks and now used them to his advantage. He held out a little rock of salt and spoke in a low tone. As he crooned a lament, he sidled in closer to the lead camel, gently massaging the hairy skin, showing his love and respect. The camel leaned his long neck over and nuzzled against Saabir.
The trader had been watching and wandered over to the boy.
“I am Bakhtawar, the headman of this caravan, the khabir,” he said and then asked, “you like my camels?”
Saabir was shy but nodded.
“Do you live here?” asked Bakhtawar.
“No, the last trader left me here.”
“You must have caused him distress then.”
Saabir hung his head, silent, whilst the camel continued to nuzzle him.
“I don’t understand, if my camel likes you, you cannot be a wicked boy.”
Saabir rose and in doing so the lash marks on his legs were visible.
“I see you were punished severely; I will trial you as my boy because I recognise you have a way with animals. Are you fit to travel?”
A grin spread across Saabir’s dirty face and he answered, “Oh, yessir, yessir.”
“Tell me your name, boy. And do you vow that you can behave?”
“I am Saabir and I will be good.”
“A magnificent name signifying a patient person, we shall see if you live up to it. Now, go wash and I shall provide you with clean garments.”
Saabir bowed and accepted his gift of clothing. He could not believe this was happening. Allah had shone on him.
Two days later they set off on the next part of the route. Bakhtawar explained to Saabir they were going on an extensive journey and may face troubles as they travelled. They were going all the way to Samarkand in Uzbekistan, further than they had been before. Horses and ships were now carrying goods that competed with their sales. This made it harder to sell all of their things, so they had to seek out new markets. Bakhtawar told him old stories of the Silk Road. How easy it was to become lost like some caravans had done in the past. He spoke of merchants who overloaded their animals and perished in the harsh conditions. Saabir was keen to learn all he could, and Bakhtawar enjoyed teaching such a willing scholar. Each day Bakhtawar checked Saabir’s memory and when he was ready, he shared more. They studied the evening stars in the sky with Saabir learning their names and how to read them. During daytime, Bakhtawar taught him landmarks and watering holes on the desert route. Saabir followed the sun position and tried to recognise the landscape even when the sand dunes all looked the same. He soon knew which way the winds blew during the day and at what time of the year. The sand ripples had to be observed to learn which angle Bakhtawar chose to approach and cut across them. It was important for him to be able to read the shadows of the dunes, to remember which areas had certain pebbles and rocks and where mirages would be visible. The hardest he found was keeping in his mind the special textures of the sand and the unique smells of the vegetation. He also had to understand the proper rules of desert hygiene, old-style remedies to treat scorpions and snake bites, the healing of sickness and mending of fractures. His brain was busy all the time asking questions and seeking understanding.
Saabir knew how valuable camels were in this country, that they travelled over land too difficult for horses and donkeys and could carry bigger loads, go longer distances without water, food and sleep, and live to an older age.
But Bakhtawar revealed to him how the insides of a camel worked; how it survived the severe desert conditions by storing fat in its hump which would provide food in lean times. He described how camels regulated their heat and water to keep themselves cool and hydrated.
“We stop whenever we come to wells or rivers down in the valleys. There is feed there, from the tamarisk and acacia trees. I plan the route that way, I must look after our camels that do such hard work.”
This pleased Saabir as his last master had been cruel and pushed his animals to go fast, even in dangerous terrain. With Bakhtawar the caravan moved comfortably along at about the pace of a walking man, this way they completed about 25 miles in a day.
Saabir asked, “Do the camels ever get sick of sand in their eyes and noses?”
Bakhtawar said, “It is a strange thing that they have two sets of eyelids, as well as big bushy eyebrows and long heavy eyelashes. Can you imagine that? The extra eyelids wipe sand away like little brooms. And they have a magic trick for their noses too, they can shrink in the sides to a narrow slit. These things protect them from the blowing sand.
Saabir smiled, pleased for the camels. He said, “Allah has looked after the camel by giving him these special body functions, and you are looking after me by teaching me how to look after myself in the desert. I thank you, master.”
Bakhtawar beamed and replied, “Allah has also given the camels wide padded feet to keep their balance on the rocky paths and walk across sand without sinking, or else we would be doomed. You must train your feet to be like the camel’s.”
They rode and walked at night and slept during the scorching days under the sky, when between towns. One morning, as soon as Bakhtawar had woken, he was aware of a stirring in the air. He decided to keep camp, in case of a sandstorm. Sure enough, only ten minutes later, the storm hit with violent winds and sand swept above them up high, covering everything in its dust. They would wait it out, whether it lasted a few minutes or days. He had lost animals and people previously in such tempests. As the storm developed further, Saabir felt a ball of fear rising in his throat.
With his blanket around his head and body, he crept over to Bakhtawar’s side and asked him, “Will the dust and wind blow us right away?”
“We have survived these many times my friend, burrow down next to your camel and hang on tight. Make certain you pull your headscarf down over your eyes, mouth and ears and that your whole body is covered,” he told Saabir.
No ground was visible. A vast cloud of orange was forming a new sky, making it hard to know where land finished, and the old sky began. It was an hour before things settled down and another half before they were mobile.
The entire group sat subdued as the camel train swayed forward. Bakhtawar started singing a couplet from one of the cameleer’s songs. The driver behind him joined in the refrain and sang the next couplet and so the refrain was repeated, with two verses being added on by each driver in turn, whilst it continued down the line till the last driver. Spirits rose as they all sang together. The camels felt the mood lift and they picked up speed.
On the edge of the sandy desert, a herd of horses appeared. Beautiful golden chestnut animals, their manes flying, they raced by. Some bore bare-back riders. It was like a dream; they were there then gone in a flash. Saabir had seen nothing as graceful and fast or men so brave. Too quick for me though, he thought. I love the slow plod of our camels.
Over the next nights they stayed at guarded monasteries, forts or caravanserais where lodging, meals and stables were available. When there were oases Bakhtawar made sure they camped there too, for the camels’ replenishment of their water supply and feed of palm fronds. In the desert the temperature could reach up to 50 degrees centigrade and yet on the coldest nights in some places it swung down well below freezing point. Saabir became used to changes in temperature and always kept his warm over-robe handy. On the icy evenings, they lay on their mats beside fires burning camel dung. They stored the dung as it was naturally a dry fuel product and was saleable at the markets. When they arrived in the largest towns, they stayed longer. They used the opportunity to rest and to trade. Time was spent caring for their animals, fattening them up in readiness for the ongoing expedition and if some were worn out, they were traded for fresh ones. Saabir followed the camel drivers and learned that they spent time in the brothels or in groups smoking hashish. He asked Bakhtawar about this and was told that to be a skilful driver, you should not smoke as it affected your mind. In time you lost concentration in your work. The brothels, he said, were for adult men who missed their women, and Saabir had no need for them.
Whilst trekking along the northern rim of the Taklamakan Desert, they skirted the Tien Shan Mountain range. Sometimes a snake slithered off the track ahead, as it felt the lumbering vibration of the oncoming line of camels and people. The sun was burning, and everybody was lethargic as they pushed themselves forward. A sudden loud cry interrupted the peace. Everyone looked up to see it was Saabir who had fallen to the ground. A cameleer ran to his aid. He saw a scorpion scuttling away.
“Quick, quick, Shafa the healer, the boy has been stung,” called the driver.
“Lay him on that rock and suck the poison out,” Shafa ordered, “and bring me some warm wine and garlic. We have to get Saabir to swallow this before he sleeps. Look how he is sweating; his leg is swelling up and turning red. I must use my sharp knife to cut the wound for it to bleed out the venom.”
Saabir was fading and whispered, “Am I dying?”
“You are sick, my boy, but we have used our traditional medicines to save you. You need to lie down for a while to get better. I am putting some special resin on the sting and then hot sand, which will help you,” Shafa replied.
Meanwhile Bakhtawar had another camel driver tie a blanket under his mammal to act as a hammock for Saabir while they continued their journey. They had to move on, for they were behind time to get to their next stop. Shafa lifted his patient into the suspended bed and walked beside him, checking his condition as they proceeded. Two days passed before Saabir fully awoke. He had been dreaming that he was on a ship tossing back and forth in the waves. He was a cabin boy but worked his way up to captain very quickly. The rest of the crew showed their jealousy of him by carrying out pranks to have him dismissed. However, the past ship’s captain had moved into Saabir’s cabin and helped him survive all these bitter acts. When the cook thrust boiling fat on his leg, he awoke with a start. But what he saw was the healer patting fresh hot sand on his lesion. Saabir shook his head to clear his mind, as the warmth spread over his body. He had stopped sweating and felt better. He spent another day and night in the hammock and then moved up to riding his camel again. Shafa explained how lucky he was to have survived the scorpion attack and be alive.
Saabir sighed with relief when the camel train stopped to feed on the scrub and thorn bushes along the way. He could stretch his body and give his weakened leg some exercise. He watched the camels chewing thorns and waggled his head from side to side, amazed that their thick tough lips were not pricked or hurt.
It was always comforting to arrive at a town. But this was Kashgar, the same oasis Faisal said he was travelling to. Saabir clung close to Bakhtawar and the others just in case the horrid man was also around. However, when he found out that Faisal had already passed through, Saabir relaxed and could laugh again. The tribal people in Kashgar were called Uighurs. Old men at the market had brown wrinkled faces that ended in long white wispy beards. They were selling livestock and walked about displaying their yaks, goats and camels on ropes. That night Saabir was tired when they went for their meal. The noodles they ate reminded him of his sad days with the old couple in Dunhuang. However, now, his body felt a warmth inside with happiness that he was not back there still.
All refreshed at daybreak, they started the tough route passing through the Pamir Mountains. Tall majestic peaks covered in snow reflected the bright and beautiful colours of the sunrise. As they trudged along a rugged rocky wall between two alps, Saabir looked down at the deep drop and his stomach fell to his feet. Clouds were starting to move in and made the river gorges appear even more scary to Saabir. It took about 18 days to traverse that mountainous track, so everybody worked together to prevent any troubles. The tramping had turned the icy trail to mud with very slippery patches, making it difficult to pick their way. Coming down from the heights, they crossed a freezing stream and stepped up onto the bank. Ear-splitting yells met them as bandits jumped from behind rocks. Saabir trembled as he stayed out of sight. The camel drivers surged forward in one line, waving their swords and daggers. They had experienced this before and were prepared. They forced the bandits back into retreat, cursing as they disappeared. When the caravan pulled away, everybody sighed gratefully for surviving the attack.
Saabir asked: “Will they come back? Will there be more of them?”
Bakhtawar said, “If they attack us from the back, we have a bell tied on the last camel to alert us. When it goes silent, we know that thieves have separated it off from the train.”
He continued on, telling Saabir of past adventures and the importance of every person to always stay watchful of renegades lurking near the trails.
After the long trip they arrived at Samarkand and entered through the city gates into a bustling town. This was where the Sogdian inhabitants ran an extensive trading network. There were so many distinct cultures that they used translators to explain the merchants’ languages. Some spoke ‘lingua franca’ a link language the Sogdians used as a bridge to link between mixed conversations. With oases and canal systems, green feed was plentiful to nourish the camels. The cameleers tied them to wooden stakes to prevent them wandering away. Once again, Bakhtawar traded some tired ones for new animals, to leave with a healthy and well rested train.
Saabir wanted to show his thanks to the healer, so Bakhtawar helped him find an appropriate gift. They decided on a short slim-bladed dagger with semi-precious stones on the hilt and scabbard.
Saabir explained: “It should be most helpful for Shafa to cut someone else’s leg if they have a scorpion or poisonous creature bite.”
Bakhtawar laughed, “I pray there will be no more of those.”
Wandering through the market, Saabir was surprised to see so many types of fruit. There were melons, pomegranates, peaches, apricots, apples, mulberries, figs, dates, and a variety of nuts, legumes and grains. The fruity aromas, combined with the fragrant incense, pleasantly hid the messy smells of life. Saabir took a deep breath, thanking Allah for sparing his life.
Saabir’s leg ached that evening and he left for bed once the men started talking. He did not understand the things they spoke about long into the night – politics, economics, religion, philosophy, and science. He wondered if he would get involved like Bakhtawar, when he was a grown man. Bakhtawar was friends with all the heads of the places where they camped and familiar with the tribes they met in their travels. He explained that Saabir would learn these as time passed.
It was time for the return journey and Bakhtawar called Saabir to him. “Do you wish to continue with us?”
“I want to, if you will keep me,” Sabir said.
“Of course, boy, you have proven yourself and have even defeated the scorpion, a most dangerous beast. You have brought good luck to our trading, and therefore at dawn we shall all leave.”
The loads on the pack camels were high with blankets, food, salt blocks, grain, bales of hay and the new valuables they had purchased. They had such a lot of items now, gold, silver, precious gems, copper, ivory, cotton, luxury goods and hides for trading on the way back. Loading was a gruelling job as the camels did not want to be part of it. They were content lounging around and did not want to be disturbed. They kicked and grumbled, growling as their load grew heavier and their ropes were tied. If the bundles were unbalanced, they howled in discomfort until things were righted. Saabir always felt sorry for them and sang quietly, trying to calm them down or offered them dates to chew. Cargo racks above the coloured blankets were full of goods reaching for the sky. The cameleers inspected all ropes and felt padding on the camels to ensure safety and comfort. A check of the food supplies showed there was a sufficient supply of bread and tea for the journey.
Ready to go, Bakhtawar raised his arm and quoted a verse from the Koran to guide them on their way. The usual noises of rattling cooking pots and creaking cargo began as things settled into place and the camels lurched forward to the pull of their connecting rope. Everyone had enjoyed their break and was happy to be heading homeward. They sang and chatted away for some time as they walked. Once tired, they mounted their riding camels. Later the wind came up and they covered their faces, which brought silence to the group.
So it was that Saabir had become a member of the long trading caravan which continued over and back through the desert and mountains. He thought about his travels and realised he enjoyed the deserts best. He loved watching the shifting coloured sands, changing from gold to ochre to rust as the sun moved across the heavens. Some dunes seemed as high as the distance they stretched ahead. During the hottest time, the middle of the day, they stopped and rested in shady tents until late afternoon when they started up again and travelled well past dark. In the evening the cooks prepared soups or stews, using pasta or grain with vegetables from the purchases. In the morning, the leftovers provided their breakfast. Wherever they were, Saabir made sure he kept a supply of dates in his pocket to chew on during the journey.
Their destination was Kashgar and it was over 20 days before they arrived. It was a relief to reach the oasis and they organised lodgings for the animals and themselves as quickly as possible. When they went for dinner, Saabir received a shock this time to see Faisal and his fellow men also having a meal. Saabir told Bakhtawar he was terrified and that he was going to his bed. As he turned, Faisal noticed him and strode up to Bakhtawar, demanding he hands the boy back to him. Saabir trembled with anxiety and watched from a hiding place near the doorway. Bakhtawar explained that now Saabir was his, but Faisal was furious and drew his dagger. The cameleers came to Bakhtawar’s aid, but he held up his hand and said he only wished goodwill. Faisal swore that if he did not receive payment, he would kill the boy. Bakhtawar agreed to an amount and paid him off. Saabir ran away crying. He was very mixed up, sad and scared, but happy too. Bakhtawar sent Shafa the healer to find the boy and bring him back for his meal.
“Saabir,” he said, “you are safe now and will stay with me until you are a man, and then for as long as you desire.”