From Hadji Ali to Hi Jolly

Published 25.11.2014 01:42

In 1856, the U.S. Army decided to form a camel unit for the transport of material in the southwest. The camels, known for their strength and durability and nonexistent in the U.S. at the time, were thought to be the perfect vehicles to cross "the great American desert." With the approval of Congress and a reasonable budget, U.S. officials contacted their counterparts in the Ottoman capital. Sultan Abdülmecid I granted permission and presents two camels as gifts.

Around 30 camels were bought in Cairo, Tunis and Izmir and shipped to the port of Indianola, Texas. Of the eight Ottoman citizens employed, the head camel driver was from the Levant - his exact birth of place is still a matter of dispute, but he may have come from Jordan, Syria or Lebanon and some have claimed that he was of Greek origin and had converted to Islam in his youth. The name of the chief camel driver was Hadji Ali, born Ali al-Hajaya, "hadji" meaning pilgrim - a title he must have added to his name, as is a tradition among Muslims, after performing the Hajj to Mecca.

The camels served their purpose completing a successful round trip between Texas and California. But things took a different turn for Hadji Ali when Congress refused to provide any more funding for the Camel Corps on the grounds that these big animals, requiring special care and handling, scared off mules and horses in the army, causing panic and disorder. The end of the American Civil War in 1865 may have played a role in ending this unique and somewhat colorful mission.

Well, it was a unique and colorful experiment for Hadji Ali anyway. After seeing his job terminated and his camels auctioned off or released into the desert, Hadji Ali had to make the most important decision of his life - go back home or stay in this foreign country. Against all odds, he decided to settle in the U.S. and married Gertrudis Serna in Tucson, Arizona. With his camel adventures now in the past, he became a legend of sorts, talked about as a strange yet skillful and funny person running camels in the American desert.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1880, went by the name Philip Tedro and tried his luck in the transport and mining business. Toward the end of his life, he moved to Quartzsite, Arizona where he died in 1902. Since then, people of the southwest remember him as Hi Jolly, as it was difficult for most Americans to pronounce his name Hadji Ali. How Hadji Ali, a perfectly intelligible and normal name in the Islamic world, became Hi Jolly, a rather funny yet still friendly name in American popular culture, is one of the striking examples of cultural dislocation, transformation and eventual acceptance.

In 1935, Arizona Governor Benjamin Moeur had a small monument built for Hadji Ali. The Hi Jolly Memorial, built in the shape of a small pyramid with a copper camel plate placed on top, is one of the most frequently visited places in Quartzsite Cemetery in Arizona today. Every year on Jan. 10, a local festival named after Hadji Ali/Hi Jolly is held around his tomb. The folk song "Hi Jolly" narrates the story of this adventurous Ottoman citizen in the American southwest.

Professor Jacob Rama Berman of Louisiana State University, describes the Hadji Ali/Hi Jolly story as a paradigm case of what he calls the "American arabesque" - a cultural blend that emerges at the intersection of American and Arab cultures. Berman argues that there has been a fusion of these two cultures much wider and deeper in the American context than it is generally acknowledged. The thoughts and sentiments that such words as "Sherezade," "Mecca," "Alhambra" and "the Sahara" evoke point to a long-standing cultural exchange and interpenetration that newspaper headlines about the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or al-Qaida cloud.

From Thomas Jefferson's Quran, which he purchased in 1765, and on which Keith Ellison, the first Muslim representative in Congress swore in 2007 to Lew Wallace's defense of Sultan Abdülhamid against the Armenian claims of genocide in the 1880s and 1890s, a long and neglected history is waiting to be re-discovered and re-interpreted to overcome the "us-versus-them" dichotomies that shape and trouble Islam-West relations today.

As Berman notes, Hadji Ali's contested ethnic background of being an Ottoman Arab or Greek, all at once refers to "the profound cultural multiplicity of the 19th century Levantine context from which he hails." But above all, Hadji Ali remained a devout Muslim and raised two daughters as Muslim - what has survived from his family would be another fascinating story to discover.

Hadji Ali's humble story, preserved today in folk songs, legends and movies underscores the power of self-confidence, imagination and determination. It reveals the multi-dimensional nature of cultural exchange and interpenetration across countries and continents. It also reminds us that real human stories are never as flat and categorical as we may think.

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