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I was reading the "Life-Line" by Robert Heinlein. His writing is beautifully decorated with allegories and metaphors and it is pretty obvious to me that he refers kneeling of black camel to imply the time of death in the below passage.

"I will repeat my discovery. In simple language, I have invented a technique to tell how long a man will live. I can give you advance billing of the Angel of Death. I can tell you when the Black Camel will kneel at your door. In five minutes' time, with my apparatus, I can tell any of you how many grains of sand are still left in your hourglass."

I did find another reference in a movie from 1931 with the name Black Camel.

Death is a black camel that kneels unbidden at every gate.

Can someone help with the inception of this analogy or the associated symbolism--religious, literal or cultural?

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  • Death is a black camel which kneels at every man's gate (Arabian proverb). Heinlein probably knew of it through the 1931 movie The Black Camel, but it's not generally familiar to Anglophones today. Feb 22, 2018 at 16:30
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about an old Arabian proverb, not the use of English by native Anglophones. Feb 22, 2018 at 16:32
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    The reference comes from a celebrated work by a prominent writer in English. It was his first work and after looking at Laurel's response and considering the camel in the idiom, it seems to have originated from the east and borrowed by Robert. I would propose to not mark it off-topic as it is refering to a relevant phrase from existing English literature. Feb 22, 2018 at 17:17
  • As it happens, I chose Heinlein as the subject for the "dissertation" component of my degree over 40 years ago. But I don't think the course administrators ever really accepted his work as "literature" in the standard academic tradition. Feb 22, 2018 at 17:42
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    I spent decades doing my bit to popularise Heinleins's neologistic verb to grok, but of late I've come to realise that using it just marks you out as being "of a certain age". But grok is still relatively well-known, by comparison with the proverbial black camel. Feb 22, 2018 at 18:10

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The idea of death as a black camel appears to be part of a longer proverb. It's interesting to note that the full proverb is said in the 1929 movie, The Black Camel.

The earliest example I have found is in The Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Ireland), Tuesday, October 3, 1837; Issue 10462:

Turkish Proverbs— [...] Death is a black camel that kneels before every man's door.

Here are some other old sources:

Neither could there be any mistake about this solemn Turkish proverb: Death is a black camel which kneels at every man's gate, in so far at least as that it would be at once ascribed to the East.
The Western Literary Messenger, 1853

"Death," said men of the East, "is a black camel that kneels at every man's gate."
The Threads of a Storm-sail, 1853

There is something manifestly Oriental in these two: — Death is a black camel, which kneels at every man's gate.
The Living Age, 1854

There is nothing out of the common way in this simple recital of our first loss. No doubt almost every one who reads it could tell a similar story, for the proverb is true enough, “The Black Camel kneels at every man's door," but the purpose I have at present before me is to remind such that there is more in the proverb than at first sight appears.

No doubt the notion which the Turks have, and which generally obtains, is that the Black Camel kneels to take up and bear away as his burden what is most precious to us. Such, and such alone, was my feeling when our little girl was taken from us; but I have lived some years since then, and have lived to learn that- there is a. deeper meaning in the saying, worth far more than that which lies on the surface. The Black Camel takes away our treasure; but when he kneels at our door, does he not many a time leave behind a still greater treasure?
The Living Age, 1866

The Turkish collections enumerate these, of which some, at least, seem to be of Arab birth. "Death is a black camel that kneels at every man's gate."
Bibliotheca Sacra, 1881


Recent sources:


I don't speak either language, so it's hard for me to find anything further on the matter. I think the expression in Arabic is (because it's listed here):

الموت جمل أسود يركع أمام جميع البواب

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  • This is wonderful Laurel. Thanks. Did you come across any reference to why kneeling of a camel is considered a metaphor for death? Is it inauspicious or hard to make a camel stand? I am struggling to understand this reference. Couldn't find anything troubling with the way camel sit/kneel. But, it seems to be a recognised idiom. I understand that you may also be hitting the language wall as I am. Thanks a lot for your effort. :) Feb 22, 2018 at 17:37
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    @PratikMishra "[T]he Black Camel kneels to take up and bear away as his burden". The black camel is kneeling so that you can get on its back and be taken to... wherever it takes the dead.
    – Laurel
    Feb 22, 2018 at 17:45
  • I totally missed the perspective of a camel as the carrier to beyond. Considering, it was the only means of transport in that era and landscape this makes perfect sense. Thank you again. Feb 22, 2018 at 17:50
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All the 19th century quotes (thank you Laurel) made me curious. Apparently the proverb became more widely known in the Western world because it was quoted by Emir Abdelkader El Djezairi, who led the struggle against the French after their 1830 colonial invasion of Algeria. After his capture and exile, he met many 19th century Western figures and became a friend to Richard Burton. Quite an interesting story.

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