The camel driver goes to America

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The camel driver goes to America

This surprising story from 1961 covers the accidental invitation of Bashir Ahmad, an illiterate camel driver to America by the then Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Fascinating. Times certainly have changed, he would never get through security now.

In the course of his tour of Asia last spring, Vice President Lyndon Johnson stopped on a Pakistani roadside to greet an impoverished, illiterate camel-cart driver who had a grin as wide as his handlebar mustache. A true Texan, the Vice President casually invited Bashir Ahmad to "come and see us, heah?"

A Karachi columnist picked up the invitation and ran with it: "My, Bashir is certainly lucky. He'll stay at the Waldorf-Astoria." Almost before Johnson could say L.B.J., he realized that his invitation had been accepted, and he was stuck with it. Last week Bashir jetted into New York, speaking not a word of English and wearing shoes for the first time in his life.

Two Prayers to Allah. At the airport, Johnson was pale and apprehensive. But as Bashir materialized like a genie in the plane's door, he soon let his host know that there was nothing to dread.

Wearing a jaunty karakul cap, a trimly tailored frock coat and a 500-watt smile, the camel driver accepted the onslaught of press and public with the nonchalance of a Mogul prince. Nervously, Johnson apologized for the chilly weather. Replied Bashir: "It is not the cold; it is the warmth of the people's hearts that matters."

In response to L.B.J.'s welcoming speech, the camel driver responded in his native Urdu: "Since I had the honor and good fortune of meeting you. I prayed to Allah for two things: One, for the good health of the American Vice President, and two, that I be allowed to come to America. Allah, as you see, has fulfilled both wishes."

Bashir recalled that when scoffers back home had predicted he would die of a heart attack in the excitement of his first jet ride, he had replied: "Then I will have died while going to see a friend."

Everywhere that Bashir went, his fluent comments flowed like a Rubaiyat. In Kansas City, Harry Truman was so flabbergasted that he referred to the camel driver as "His Excellency." At a barbecue on the L.B.J. ranch in Texas, Bashir remarked that his little daughter was his favorite child (only four of his eleven children are living) because "a daughter in a family is like spring among the seasons."

Asked about his camel (who was reported to be pining away for him back home), Bashir thought a moment, then opined: "A camel is like a woman—you never know what it is going to do next."

Falling Petals. Said the camel driver to a newspaperwoman: "Each time you smile, petals fall out." Standing on the floor of the U.S. Senate, he observed: "When a lot of minds are applied to a problem, you get a better solution than when one mind is applied to a problem.''

In the Lincoln Memorial, gazing up at the statue of Abraham Lincoln, he said: "When a person sacrifices his life for his country, the country appreciates his services and makes a monument like this that will last forever." Wherever he went in his week's journey, from the plains of Texas to the office of President Kennedy, to the final, bewildering stopover in Manhattan. Bashir continued to drop his petals and to charm the natives.

Finally, just as he was about to depart from the U.S. on his jet-propelled magic carpet ride back to Pakistan, Bashir got a telegram from Lyndon Johnson that moved him to tears. Wired L.B.J.: "Since your return to Pakistan takes you so close to Mecca, arrangements have been made through the People-to-People program for you to visit there." Cried Bashir Ahmad: "Allah be praised!"

So wise and well phrased were the utterances of the unlettered camel driver that some newsmen were skeptical. But State Department Interpreter Saeed Khan assured them that he was having a hard time matching his English translations with Bashir's Urdu eloquence.

Many observers wondered if the camel driver had not been well coached for his journey; he tended to repeat his most popular lines in the different cities he visited. But what ever the explanation, there was no gainsaying that Bashir was a smash hit where-ever he went. And if a tentmaker could be a poet, many asked, why not a camel driver?
By netchicken: posted on 26-11-2008

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