Posted in Reviews

Guest Review: Jamal’s Journey by Michael Foreman

Foreman, Michael, Jamal’s Journey, illustrated by the author. Anderson Press, 2016, preschool-grade 2 (Bedouin)

A small Bedouin camel train, consisting of only three camels and their small loads, their drivers, and the drivers’ hooded falcons, crosses the desert to what appears to be an international market in Dubai. Each falcon sits on a saddle horn, a boy rides behind one of the drivers, and trotting behind the caravan is a young camel calf. Together, the number of camels and their small load seems hardly worth a trip across the desert.

On the CIP page, a short note from Foreman that tells how this story came to be appears to be the sum total of his research:

And when I discovered the word for “beauty” in Arabic is jamaal, the root of which means “camel,” a story began to form in my mind.

The camel calf’s name is “Jamal,” and he is the focus of the story. “Jamal” or “Jamaal” is the Arabic word for “beauty.” It’s a boy’s name, but it’s not usually a camel’s name (1). In Arabic culture, according to an article in Gulf News General (2), camels are named for their ages and are assigned different names each year. A one-year-old, for instance, is called “Hewar,” a two-year-old is “Fateem,” a three-year-old is “Haj,” and a four-year-old is “Liggi.”

It also doesn’t make sense that Jamal, the baby camel, would be calling to his parents in Arabic and English—“Mama! Baba! Where are you?”—rather than in the language of camels. (Baby camels call their mothers with a “baaa,” like a lamb. And they don’t call their fathers.) And because Jamal the baby camel is the only character who talks, rather than seeing things through a camel’s eyes, he seems to have adopted a European child tourist’s breathless ideation:

“Oh!” cries the camel. “I can see a great city, far away, and beyond that, the shining sea!”

As Jamal trails further and further behind, he gets tired. He compares himself to the “lucky” falcons:

Jamal looks at the Falcons. They are lucky, too—the birds get carried everywhere, except when they soar through the sky, hunting the small creatures of the desert. But Jamal is a little camel, and camels have to walk, walk, walk.

More about the falcons soon, but one wonders why one species of animal would envy another species of animal. And no: camel calves do not have to “walk, walk, walk.” And they do not follow caravans. Camels are considered members of the family and are treated like children: they are loved, fed, and talked to. Pregnant camels are taken to the desert, where it is safe and quiet, to have their babies; and they come back after about a month. Camel calves begin training at three years, and then they are taught to follow with a rope (3).

Back to the story: Suddenly, there is a sandstorm. Sand is “whooshing and whirling in the wild wind!” Jamal has “sand in his eyes. Sand in his nose. Sand in his ears….sand in his mouth.”

No, again: The author’s alliterative literary devices notwithstanding, camels are built to withstand sandstorms. They have bushy eyebrows, three sets of eyelids and two sets of eyelashes to keep sand out of their eyes. They also shut their nostrils to prevent inhalation of sand, they shut their lips to prevent sand from getting into their mouths, and they have thick fur that lines their ears as well.

“He turns his back to the howling wind, making himself as small as possible.” Jamal is lost. Fortunately, he meets a kindly falcon, who guides him towards “a great city,” and beyond that, “the shining sea!” As the falcon “is whirling and looping in the air with the other falcons,” Jamal reunites with his camel parents (and the human boy, sort
of).

OK, here’s the thing about falcons: They’re beloved by the Bedouin people and are a symbol of the Bedouin culture. And, as with Bedouin people’s camels, their falcons are a source of survival. Falcons have an amazing ability to see great distances, and because they can catch wild birds and small animals such as rabbits, they are traditionally trained for hunting. When they are traveling with their owners, their eyes are hooded to keep them calm and not focused on potential prey.

According to the Dubai Tourism & Travel Services,

In the old days, the falcon was caught, trained, used for the season and set free again as they are migratory birds. It would come back to its owner in the next season. Today falcons are kept year-round by their owners (4).

Bedouins do not set their falcons loose to look for lost baby camels and navigate them home. What is it about the author’s idea of Bedouin life, culture or history that might have led him to crate a trio of specially trained Bedouin “search-and-rescue” falcons?

Together they all set off toward the faraway city. Jamal stays close to his “Mama” and “Baba,” and the boy walks beside him: he doesn’t want his camel to get lost ever again. When they arrive at the market, Jamal, the baby camel, has learned an important lesson in geography:

Now Jamal knows the world is more than just sand. When his legs are long and strong, he wants to see it all.

No, no, no, and no: Camels do not see their homes as “just sand” and “the world” as “more than just sand.” The desert, with all of its flora and fauna, clear skies, and sand beneath his hooves, is Jamal’s world. While wanting “to see it all” might be on a European tourist’s bucket list, it’s unlikely that camels have such yearnings—even exuberant camels with “long and strong” legs.

And on that page, the unnamed boy runs to his baby camel with a brand-new halter he has purchased at the market, ostensibly to ensure that Jamal doesn’t wander off again. But. Camels are not trained for their tasks until they are three years old, which is not the case here. And they’re trained with a rope, not with a halter.

On the final page is an illustration of the future. Jamal (now a grown camel, dressed in traveling camel gear) and his rider, the nameless boy (wearing a Bedouin vest but who still looks about the same age as he was when Jamal was a calf), are traversing the desert. And one of those falcons is flying above them:

One day, the boy will ride on him. And Jamal will walk, walk, walk, far and wide, from gleaming cities to shining seas. and he will always take his friendly falcon along, just in case they get lost.

(I read this passage several times, and still don’t get it. Is the author saying that Jamal, the camel, now owns “his friendly falcon”? Has the camel trained the falcon who had led him back to the convoy? Have they become friends? Is there a sequel—Jamal’s Falcon—in the works?)

The cultural and economic reality is that camel calves are far too valuable to lose. For people who live in the desert, camels are a major source of survival—without these animals, they would die. Camels are financially valuable as well (5). They may be given to a bride as her dowry, they may be part of an inheritance, they may be given as Zakaat (a gift to charity as a religious requirement during Ramadan), and they are sometimes used in lieu of money. Some of the hadiths—the set of teaching stories and sayings of the Prophet that remain a source of Islamic religious law and practice—feature camels. (In a particularly well-known hadith, for instance, the Prophet cautions, “Trust in God—and tie your camel.”)

Jamal’s Journey is all about a camel calf. This camel calf has a name, while none of the humans is named. The animals have wide eyes and expressive faces, while the humans have virtually no faces. They look the same. They dress the same. And there is only one woman—a tiny figure in the background of one illustration.

Jamal, the camel calf, gets left behind. Jamal, the camel calf, gets lonely. Jamal, the camel calf, gets tired. Jamal, the camel calf, gets caught in a storm. Jamal, the camel calf, gets rescued by a falcon from the convoy, who swoops down to guide him back. Jamal, the camel calf, gets reunited with his “Mama” and “Baba”—and the unnamed boy.

A reviewer from Publishers Weekly wrote: “Children should find it easy to identify with Jamal’s frustrations at his limitations, fears upon getting lost, and relief and excited curiosity once his journey is back on track.”

No. Jamal’s Journey is oversimplified, confusing and culturally ridiculous. Would this lost-and-found baby animal story have gotten positive reviews had it featured instead a colt who jumps the fence on a horse ranch in Montana, gets lost in a rainstorm and is saved by a friendly hawk who leads him home?

One might think—and one would probably be right—that Jamal’s Journey was produced to garner “diversity” points.

That a young camel calf would be portrayed as trotting behind a Bedouin camel train, getting swept up in a dust storm, and finding his way back (guided by a “friendly” falcon)—or that Bedouin drivers would abandon, lose, or forget about a camel calf—is one giant hackneyed cliché about the peoples whose lives depend on camels. (And the fake “Arabic-style calligraphy” on the cover and title page doesn’t work, either.)

Non-Arab or non-Muslim children reading Jamal’s Journey will learn nothing real, and Arab or Muslim children will once again be disparaged in the classroom or library.

—Beverly Slapin

  1. Although the Prophet named his own camel, this is not a common practice today.
  2. https://gulfnews.com/news/uae/general/camels-a-key-part-of-uae-s-rich-heritage-1.603548
  3. https://www.thebedouinway.com/bedouin-blog
  4. https://dubai-travel.ae/story-about-the-arabian-falcon/
  5. In fact, a new camel hospital, first of its kind in the world—with “pristine operating theaters and state-of-the-art medical equipment”—has just opened in Dubai. For this fascinating story, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?y=UoUjz3BKdPQ.

About our guest reviewer: Beverly Slapin is a long-time education activist and lifelong learner. As co-founder and former executive director of Oyate, Beverly co-edited Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children, and A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. She is currently the editor of De Colores, a blog modeled after Broken Flute, and reviews and critiques children’s and young adult books about Raza peoples throughout the Diaspora. 

* Muslims usually follow the name of a prophet with a salawat – a salutation or greeting. This often takes the form of “ʿalayhi s-salām (عليه السلام),” meaning “peace be upon him,” (often abbreviated to “PBUH”) or the fuller “ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayhi wa- ala ālihi wa-sallam (صلى الله عليه وعلى آله وسلم‎),” meaning, “may the blessings of God be upon him and his family and peace” (often times abbreviated to “SAW” or “SAWS”).