Arizona Spends Nearly $367K to Honor Muslim Syrian Immigrant

Hi Jolly's monument in Quartzsite.
Hi Jolly's monument in Quartzsite.

How's this for irony?

One month before Governor Doug Ducey issued a statement calling for a halt to the placement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Arizona, the Arizona State Transportation Board voted in favor of spending about $367,000 in public funds to honor a Syrian Muslim immigrant.

The mostly federal money, administered by the Arizona Department of Transportation, will go for signage to point travelers the way to Quartzsite's pyramid tomb of Hadji Ali, a subject of the Ottoman Empire who traveled to the United States in 1856 to assist the U.S. government in an ill-fated experiment with camels in the desert Southwest.

Better known by his American nickname "Hi Jolly," Ali was a legendary figure in the history of Arizona and the West, a camel driver and scout who aided an expedition to California in the years before the Civil War trying out dromedaries imported from the Middle East as possible beasts of burden for the U.S. Cavalry.

As cool an idea as that may seem now, camels were ill-suited for the difficult terrain that they had to traverse, and they spooked the other animals, according to some sources. As a result, the project was spiked.

Hadji Ali with his wife Gertrudis Serna in Tucson, circa 1880.
Hadji Ali with his wife Gertrudis Serna in Tucson, circa 1880.

Ali remained in territorial Arizona, attempted to use some of the leftover camels for a business venture that failed, and ultimately released his remaining camels into the wild.

He also did some prospecting, delivered mail, and married a beautiful Tucson woman, Gertrudis Serna, with whom he had two children. 

According to a 2011 Arizona Capitol Times article, in 1880, the same year of his marriage, Ali "became an American citizen, using the name Philip Tedro," and indicating that he was Greek, though the article casts doubt on that as Ali's nationality.

Other sources say he was of Greek-Syrian parentage. The pyramid of local rocks that ADOT erected in 1935 declares him to have been born "somewhere in Syria," though in the 19th Century, Syria was an area in the Ottoman Empire, part of the geographic region known as the Levant. 

The WordPress site Arabs in America, a project overseen by a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, identifies Ali as a "Lebanese Christian," and says "Hadj Ali" was just something Philip Tedro made up to impress the Yanks.

In any case, Ali eventually settled in what later became known as Quartzsite, where he died in 1902.

ADOT's monument for Ali, topped by a metal camel, is perhaps Quartzsite's most famous attraction, and may give ordinary travelers reason to stop in the RV-mecca, other than to refuel their vehicles en route to or coming from California.

Hence the $367K, which according to ADOT's request for proposals, covers, "landscaping, installing Hi Jolly Monument signage and other related work."

ADOT spokesman Steve Elliott explained to New Times via e-mail that of the total spent on the project, "94.3 percent is federal funds with the remaining 5.7 percent paid by the Town of Quartzsite."

With any luck, workers will have the signage up by January, when Quartzsite holds its annual "Hi Jolly Daze," with a parade, camel races, and, no doubt, the singing of the '60s folk song "Hi Jolly the Camel Driver.

A unique event, particularly given the current angst over Syrian refugees.


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