Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Quartzite is a tiny town in La Paz County, Arizona. It’s one of those bright, gone-in-an-instant flashes along Interstate 10 that feels utterly roofless — all sun and open sky — and yet, somehow, simultaneously full of secrets. During winter months, a glut of gem shows draws streams of vacationing snowbirds to its main thoroughfare. Pride of place in its solitary graveyard belongs to a squat, brilliantly tiled pyramid, a mausoleum whose shape might strike blow-ins as odd, but not especially out of place. Pyramids, after all, belong in the desert. So do camels — and this particular pyramid happens to be topped with the rusty silhouette of one of those. To an unknowing visitor, the whole ensemble might look like just another piece of desert kitsch.
In truth, however, this unlikely monument is the “last camp” and final resting place of a man identified by the grave-marker as “Hi Jolly.” Born Philip Tedro in 1828, he earned this delightful moniker upon his 1856 arrival in Texas, where “Hadji Ali”, the name he had adopted after making the pilgrimage to Mecca, proved unpronounceable. His memorial plaque goes on to establish that he was “born somewhere in Syria” (to Greek and Syrian parents, themselves Ottoman subjects), and first set foot in this country, together with several compatriots and a small herd of dromedaries and Bactrian camels, as a member of the U.S. Camel Corps, a bizarre and all-but-forgotten experiment intended to test the feasibility of using camels as pack animals in the military’s exploration of the Southwest.
It might surprise you to learn that, for a region with such a fixed mythos, the American West is bursting with such obscure oddities. The particulars of this one bowled me over a few years ago. I was struggling through the second draft of a new novel, feeling happier with the research — which involved visiting tiny regional museums all over Wyoming and South Dakota — than I was with the story, the bulk of which, I could already tell, was doomed. And then: an unexpected mercy. An episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Missed in History Class
— popular with nerds like myself, who like to make sense of the present from the past’s weirdest minutiae — spun a turn-of-the-century fireside yarn about two homesteading women who find themselves beset by an unidentifiable apparition on their Arizona ranch. What they see is impossible — unless, of course, you know about the Camel Corps. Which they did not. And, until that moment, neither did I.
It’s like that, America. Its ghosts seem to haunt from both the past and the future.
Having dedicated so much time to researching the history of the West, I couldn’t believe this information had eluded me for so long. A camel in the Southwest? What a thing
, I thought. How did it get there?
I think it’s fair to say I started writing Inland
the moment I asked myself that question — though in truth I gave my previous book another half-hearted go for another month. All the while, Inland
’s questions kept goading me. Who were the two women in the house? Were they sisters? Friends? How long had they been living there? What minutiae of their lives did this bizarre encounter disrupt?
It’s a funny thing, the writer’s obsession. You never know what’s going to run away with your whole existence; and once something does, the only thing to do is follow the questions wherever they lead. Personally, I never do so expecting to arrive at any conclusions; one of writing’s reigning pleasures is the inevitability that any glimmer of an answer will immediately spawn more and more unknowns. So there I found myself, abandoning a pretty much completed manuscript and setting off down the road toward the characters I wanted to learn about: Lurie, a Balkan immigrant and former outlaw who finds himself joining the Camel Corps; and Nora, a homesteading woman whose town is desiccating in more ways than one while she waits for her newspaperman husband to return with water; and, eventually, Hadji Ali.
Over the four years I wrote Inland
, I often asked myself why a former Yugoslav who grew up in Cyprus and Egypt felt so irresistibly drawn to the West, on the page and in life. I think the answer lies with wanting to understand more about my adoptive country than the facile cowboy myths I was fed growing up; with wanting to understand more about my Bosniak grandmother’s womanhood than I knew; with feeling homesick for the beauty of the landscape and drawn to the communities at the periphery of legend; and, maybe above all, with the man buried under that strange pyramid, out where the arid vein of Highway 10 meets Highway 95, a place, like so many in America, that I bypassed countless times on my way to some more alluring destination, never suspecting how much it would one day mean to me.
It’s like that, America. Its ghosts seem to haunt from both the past and the future. And though Hadji Ali is not the book’s principal specter, he was nevertheless the thing that most haunted me: an Ottoman subject caught between his old empire and his new one, not quite belonging anywhere; the warden of creatures that were utterly pedestrian to him, but a source of endless fascination to everyone who encountered them. Did he feel unexpected pride, caring for such controversial charges? We know he was a prideful man; once, many years after his time with the Corps, he supposedly crashed a camel-drawn cart through a party in protest of not having been invited; I have also found at least one instance of his visiting an Arizona newspaper office to remind everybody not to forget the Camel Corps — to no avail.
We don’t know whether he was a decent man. We don’t know whether he considered himself Greek or Turkish or Syrian or American. We don’t know whether the sins of empire troubled him when he followed the army across Native lands. We don’t know whether he considered himself a loving husband or father, though we do know his wife left him when he refused to give up wandering. Whatever else he may have been, I believe he was restless, caught between his old self and his new, belonging less and less to his own past as the years wore on, but somehow, inexplicably, never getting closer to home.
Hadji Ali lived in Tyson’s Wells, not far from his resting place, until his death in 1902. His pyramid, I’m told, is the most visited place in Quartzite.
When last I went to see him, I stood for a long time beside my mother on the dirt road leading to his tomb. It was April. The golden hour in western Arizona — so full of light and shadow it defies description. In my haste to pack for this last-minute trip, I had forgotten to bring Hadji Ali an offering. I tried to affix some meaning to the broken pens and dried-out chapsticks strewn about the bottom of my purse. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to tuck a Metrocard between the stones of his grave? Anything to not come all this way and leave nothing behind. Then, to my amazement, my roving fingers caught the edge of a magnifying glass — small, plastic, quite ordinary save for being one of several that, for some unspecified reason, my grandmother had been tucking into the folds of my wallets for as long as I could remember. I hadn’t used any of those wallets for years. They were all back home in New York, wrapped in tissue paper, too precious to carry around and risk losing now that she was gone. How this magnifying glass found its way into that particular purse, on this particular trip, I’ll never know. I am certain, however, that when she plucked it out of some tchotchke jar at the Kalenic greenmarket in Belgrade, or off some roadside stand along the Dalmatian coast, she could never have imagined it might end up here, of all places: thousands of miles away, in a blistering and unfamiliar desert, on the grave of a stranger who left this world 34 years before she entered it.
But that’s exactly where it is.
÷ ÷ ÷
's debut novel, The Tiger's Wife
, won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was an international bestseller. Her work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories
, The New Yorker
, The Atlantic
, Harper's Magazine
, and Zoetrope: All-Story
, among many others. Originally from the former Yugoslavia, she now lives in New York with her husband and teaches at Hunter College. Inland
is her latest novel.