17 Camels: Can a Sufi Tale Heal Our Broken World?

America has now degenerated into a nation that cannot walk and chew gum at the same time!

This has become painfully clear as, suffering from collective ADHD, we have focused our attention from the Newtown massacre, to the manufactured “Fiscal Debt Crisis,” to Lance Armstrong’s confessions, to NRA and Fox News harangues about a deliberately tortured reading of the 2nd Amendment, to France’s bombing of Mali, to a hostage crisis in Algeria, to Manti Teo’s non-existent girlfriend, veering to the all-important question of whether Beyonce lip-synced that War of 1812 paean to a flag. Is it any wonder that, in this flood of distorted news and non-news, the average man or woman loses his/her mojo?

We’ve lost the “narrative line” and cannot keep more than one plate spinning at a time! There are so many “narratives” spewed in the commentariat, generic Justin and Taylor can’t punch their way out of a paper syllogism—can’t get from A to C, without swiveling hips around W, L and P and winding up at O (that’s zero, btw!).

As I watched the recent run-up to, and spill-over of, the “Fiscal Cliff,” my mind kept returning to a tale I’d read in a book by the Pakistani writer, Indries Shah, some forty years ago. The story goes something like this:

Upon his death, a wealthy caravan trader has bequeathed to his three sons his hard-working camels. The eldest is to receive half of the bequest; the next oldest 1/3; and the youngest, 1/9. The problem is that there are 17 camels in all. The sons are befuddled. They go to the wise professor at the university who tells them that their father must have meant camel meat! If the camels are slaughtered, the meat can be distributed according to their father’s wishes. (The meat can be preserved, and it will feed their families and can be bartered for other goods!)

But, this is an unsatisfactory solution. The sons’ father was a gentle man who would never have sanctioned slaughtering his faithful animals. Besides, camel meat is not that tasty!

The sons consult a soothsayer who tells them that all the camels should be sold, and the money distributed according to the father’s formula. This is more satisfactory, but their father had often expressed his wish that his sons would continue the family business.

Other wise men and women offer solutions, but all of them prove untenable. Finally, the sons make their way to the strange man who keeps to himself, makes his own way in the world, but somehow exudes an aura of kindness and wisdom. They sit in his humble hut, smoke a hookah [okay—that’s my innovation!], eat some hummus on pita bread… and the man solves their problem.

“I have one dear camel,” he tells them. “It is my sole means of support… and, my friend. … But…, I will give you my camel. …Then you will have 18 camels in all. The eldest son will take half of them—9 camels. The next son will take 1/3—6 camels. And the youngest will have 1/9—2 camels. Now… 9 and 6 and 2 are 17 camels. You will have one camel left over. That is my camel, which you will return to me.”

When I remembered this tale, I related it to my own best friend, “Woof”—my genius, psychic, telepathic border collie. Woof was in my backyard, burying a bone when I hailed him later that day. “I’ve solved the American debt crisis!” I told him. “We don’t need to cut a single social program. We just need to re-direct our thinking!”

“Easier said than done,” Woof assured me said with his eyes, settling back on his haunches, cocking his head with curiosity. “And what kind of byzantine re-directing will this entail?” he queried. “Shall I think Borges… or Brecht?”

“Neither. … Or, both. … Or, think Sufi. …it’s all about giving something away… which will come back to us anyway. Maybe in a different form. Everybody wins!”

“Wrong premise, already,” Woof telepathed. “The rich and powerful don’t want everyone to win. They want most people to lose so that they remain exceptional–being rich and powerful! But, still listening,” he assured me again.

“Look… just hear me out. … ‘Nothing would ever get done if all possible objections had first to be overcome.’ Samuel Johnson said that!”

“Still listening,” he telepathed.

“Okay. … I’m giving you paradigms here. Just hear me out. … What’s more bloated than the US military budget? We spend half of all our money on our military—a zillion bucks–more than the next 50 countries put together—something like that–and what do we get? We’re creating more enemies all the time—meaning we need to spend even more on the military. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Woof pawed the ground, signifying he understood, but would like me to put things together.

“So… we cut our military budget in half, and we bring home half of our armed forces! That’s a lot of people and a lot of equipment that we’re not spending exorbitant fees overseas to support. We’re gonna save money just by having our troops at home! Then, we’re gonna employ our armed forces in repairing our infrastructure—which has been neglected for decades! While we’re repairing, we’re training all these troops to for useful work. We’re gonna shore up our coasts, preparing for the next Hurricane Sandy. We’re gonna fix our roads and bridges, and we’re gonna build a high speed rail system to rival the best in Japan or France or China! We’re gonna improve public transportation in all of our cities so our people don’t have to waste time and energy in the daily commute—and we’ll cut down on pollution as well. We’ll rebuild our communities!”

“But… won’t the other countries take advantage of America’s retreat from the world?” Woof wondered.

“That’s right out of The Godfather, number 1,” I tell him. “Remember when Robert Duvall tells the Godfather if their family doesn’t get into illegal drug-dealing, the other families will, and with the extra money they’re making they’ll come after don Corleone’s family?”

“That’s right,” says Woof, furrowing his forehead. “It’s a pretty sick rationale for how to run a country, isn’t it?”

“Exactly! But that’s what we’ve been doing forever—us and all the other goddamn empires. So… we’re gonna show these other guys how it’s in their best interests to help us change our stars and stripes. We’re gonna be straight with them. If we cut half our forces, we will expect them to do the same! We’ll work it all out in treaties. And we’ll use our surveillance systems to make sure everyone follows the rules.”

Woof wags his tail, getting a bit excited. “You could sweeten the pot,” he says. “You could let those other countries invest in America’s reconstruction! They’ll profit from reducing their own military forces, and they’ll profit from America turning its spears into pruning hooks!”

“Thank you, Isaiah!”

“Touche!”

I pet Woof and give him a hug. “How else might we apply this way of thinking?” he wonders. Then, he barks excitedly. “Social Security!” he exclaims. “That 18th camel is in front of our wet noses!”

Now I’m confused. “How do you mean?”

“Well… people giving something up… only to have it come back in a better way. Like the wise man in the story. He gives up his camel temporarily, but it comes back, and he’s earned the good will of the rich man’s sons.”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve often wondered,” telepaths Woof, “about your Social Security System. Let’s face it: it started in 1935 when people were lucky to live to age 65! Now, you can get early retirement at 62, and most people are living into their 70s and beyond.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, the point is a lot of people retire, and they don’t know what to do with themselves. They get bored, they get restless; they even die. People can die when there’s no purpose to their lives. People think life is about happiness, but it’s not. That’s okay for your average dog… but, for most people—who are a little more evolved—it’s not.”

“I’m listening. …”

Lying on his stomach, Woof folds his paws in front of him. “Well, suppose people changed their way of thinking about retirement… and about working? Suppose, at age 62 or 66, people got 40-60% of what they get now for Social Security, but they’re allowed to continue working where they are now with a 2-3-day work week? They get paid at the old hourly rate—but they’ve now got extra days to recover from the daily grind. And, they’ve got extra money coming in from Social Security benefits—but the pay-out from the System is going to be a fraction of what it is going to be now!”

Now I sit with my hands folded in front of me. “Aren’t employers going to balk? Aren’t they going to complain about carrying “dead wood,” and not being able to hire younger workers for much less pay?”

Woof shrugs in that unique way of his. “People always complain—until they see how their interests are served. What I’m saying is, we’ve got to be thinking how to move into a Transitional Age! Nobody has really thought that through. It’s time to pause and think it through. With Social Security, for example, employers get to keep some of their best employees—and they’ve got lots of jobs opening up—lots of hours to fill. The older employees can train younger ones—they’ve got the experience, and they don’t have to worry about training someone who’s after their job—because they still have their job, just less of it! Think of all the college kids who are mortgaging their futures right now with student loans because they can’t find jobs to get them through school! Those kids can take those part-time jobs and get hands-on training from the ultra-skilled. It’s a re-balancing, and a win-win-win. We need to re-configure our whole system so that experienced people become teachers and role models for the younger generations! We’re in a Transitional Age… and this is a major way of thinking about it. We need to become a nation of teachers and learners!”

I whistle. It’s not a Humphrey Bogart whistle like after Lauren Bacall has kissed him for the first time in “To Have and Have Not.” But, it’s a pretty good whistle.

“By the way, Chief,” Woof says. “I haven’t had my walk yet today!” For appearance’ sake, Woof brings me his leash.

*****

After our walk, Woof and I are still excited, wondering how we can apply the lessons of “17 Camels.”

“How ‘bout Immigration?” I ask, tossing a frisbee, which Woof catches in his usual, show-off backward-somersault way.

“Okay. I’ve thought that out, too,” he says, tossing the frisbee back at me. (I did mention that he’s an exceptional dog, didn’t I?)

“Yeah?”

“Well, it’s thorny, but here’s one way: We’re not going to tamper with the 2nd Amendment—we’re going to enforce it! The amendment is all about ‘a well-regulated militia,’ and we’re going to encourage the formation of well-regulated militias! (Of course, we’re not going to allow assault weapons because nobody was thinking about assault weapons in 1789—in the age of the Musket when everybody knew who the town ‘crazy’ was and kept an eye on him!) Anyway, we let these militias train and patrol along our southern borders! Yeah, I know, I know, it’s risky.”

“I don’t think the Mexicans are going to like that!”

“That’s because you’re not thinking about the 18th camel! First of all, we’re not going to bother anyone who is already here! Second, fact is, people have got to feel secure in their borders. Everybody wants that. We’re not going to build a Maginot Line across our borders, but we can use the enthusiasms of the gun lobby in a creative way. And, the trump card is–we’re going to have a kind of Marshall plan for Mexico! I mean, a real Marshall Plan this time—not the phony CIA-distorted plan that sold out the European left for the sake of the propertied classes here and ‘over there’! What I’m saying is: we substantially improve living conditions in Mexico so Mexicans don’t have to feel they have no option but to cross the northern desert into the US!”

“Okay. We did take half their country away from them… so—”

“So, we help them re-build! We’re late coming to the party this time… and we should apologize for being late! But we’re going to help them because by helping them, we’re helping ourselves, too! The 18th camel! The money that we’re saving by cutting our defense forces in half, plus the money we’re saving on infrastructure re-building, and Social Security savings—we plow that into Mexico the way we once plowed money into Europe, and voila!—after so much plowing, we all start to reap!”

“It seems too good to be true!” I tell him. “Too sensible… too… I don’t know. …”

“I don’t know, either,” Woof sighs. “It’s far-fetched, but what the hell do we have now? Are we going to ride this Great Collapse into a Great Abyss? Cause that’s where we’re headed now, pal. Into a Trough we’ll never get out of. We need a chiropractic re-alignment of the world’s moral backbone or we’ll soon be in a very bizarre world of androids and the super-elite and the ravaged, desolate masses—all patroled by drones!”

“We’ve got to think about population, too,” I said. “If we don’t get a handle on that. … If we can’t control our numbers. …”

“Again, it’s about re-direction, re-configuration. The 18th camel. China would be a basket-case today if Deng hadn’t initiated the one-child policy back in ‘79! Instead of tax-exemptions for kids, we could start taxing people after they’ve had their “replacement” kids! Instead of abortions, we’ll encourage sterilization! If we start taxing people for consumption—especially conspicuous consumption—we’d cut down enormously on this whole consumerist ethos. If we cut down on our working hours, driving to and fro in traffic, we’d cut down on the pollution that ultimately fills so many hospitals, sickens and kills so many and raises our health care expenses.”

“I just don’t know if people can do it. … We’ve been so conditioned, conditioned to consume, conditioned to excess, conditioned to compete and to fail! You’re asking for a whole new way of thinking.”

“I didn’t say any of it would be easy.”

“People are going to have a hard time thinking this through.”

“And they’ll find holes in it. You know, if you re-read Plato’s ‘Dialogues,’ you can find holes in Socrates’ logic, too. The great thing about that barefoot gadfly is not that he taught people what to think, but that he taught us how to think. I don’t mind people finding holes. Sometimes, that’s where the light shines through!”

“You read ‘The Dialogues’?”

Woof smiles in that knowing way of his. “It was one of my kind that inspired ‘The Dialogues,’ inspired Socrates.”

I whistle again.

“I’d just like to see your species survive,” Woof says. “You’ve really screwed up this planet, but I still think you’ve got potential! And, I need a frisbee partner!”

I throw the frisbee towards a place Woof can’t possibly catch it, but he performs his “triple-action-paradigm-shift” move, leaps into the empyrean, and gnashes it with his incisors.

“So,” I ask. “You think there’s hope for us?”

He’s panting a little. His eyes gaze through me. “I don’t believe in hope,” he transmits. “I believe in clear thinking, courage, and a good heart.”

Gary Corseri's work has appeared at Dissident Voice, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, the New York Times, Village Voice and hundreds of other venues. His dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta and he has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum. His books include novels and poetry collections. He can be reached at: gary_corseri@comcast.net. Read other articles by Gary.