The 35 Camels

This summer I have been rereading a book written by a Brazilian writer dealing with a fictitious Arab  mathematician who lived in ancient Iraq. I have read this book several times because of my love for mathematics.

Unfortunately, this book has never been translated into English. For this reason, millions of people are deprived from reading the story of this great mathematician whose name was Beremiz Samir. The book contains several stories in which Samir reveals his prodigious mathematical mind to resolve difficult problems dealing with numbers.

Below is one of my favorite stories in the book. Since it is difficult to offer a literal translation of the story from Portuguese to English, I will make some adaptations of the story into English without losing the main focus of the story.

Here is the story of the 35 camels. Enjoy it.

Beremiz Samir was walking on his way to Baghdad when he decided to spend the night at an oasis. As he was resting under a palm tree, a stranger stopped at the oasis to spend the night with his camel.

Beremiz and the stranger began to talk and the stranger realized that Beremiz was a man who could deal with numbers and could make fast calculations in his mind. They talked all night and in the morning the stranger offered to take Beremiz on his camel to Baghdad. So, the two of them hopped on the camel and traveled together toward Baghdad.

They traveled all day and at night they stopped at an oasis to spend the night. When they arrived, they saw three men fighting over a group of camels. Beremiz approached the three men and asked them what the problem was.

The older brother explained to Beremiz the reason for their fight. “We are three brothers,” he said. “Our father died and left us 35 camels and he told us to divide the camels among ourselves according to his wishes.”

“My father said that as the older son, I should receive half of the camels, my middle brother should receive one-third of the camels, and my younger brother should receive one-ninth of the camels. The problem is, we cannot agree how to divide the camels.”

“I should receive half of the 35 camels. Half is 17 and a half camels.”

“My middle brother should receive one-third of the 35 camels. One-third is 11 and a half camels.”

“My younger brother should receive one-ninth of the 35 camels. One-ninth is 3 and a half camels.”

Beremiz said to the older brother, “If you allow me to help you, I assure you that I can solve your problem and the three of you will be very happy.” The brothers agreed.

Beremiz then turned to his friend and told him, “Let me borrow your camel.” The friend was not willing to loan his camel to Beremiz because that was the only camel he had and he was not willing to walk to Baghdad. Beremiz told him, “Trust me and all will be well.” So the friend gave Beremiz his camel.

Beremiz called the three bothers together and said that he was going to add his friend’s camel to the 35 camels and then divide the 36 camels according to their father’s wish.

Beremiz told the older brother, “You should receive half of the 35 camels, which would be 17 and a half camels. Now you will receive half of 36 camels, which is 18 camels. As you see, you are now receiving more than you would receive before.”

Beremiz told the middle brother, “You would receive one-third of the 35 camels, which would be 11 and a half camels. Now you will receive one-third of 36 camels, which is 12 camels. You too are receiving more than before.”

Beremiz told the younger brother, “You would receive one-ninth of 35 camels which would be 3 and a half camels. Now you will receive one-ninth of 36 camels which is 4 camels. You too are receiving more than before.”

Then Beremiz told the three brothers, “All of you are receiving more camels than before. Are you happy with this division?” The three of them agreed that the division was fair and that they were happy with the result.

Then Beremiz told them. “Now if you add 18 camels plus 12 camels plus 4 camels you have a total of 34 camels. One camel belongs to my friend and one camel is my payment for helping you. Do you agree with this arrangement?”

The three brothers recognized that each one had received more with the 36 camels than they would have received with the 35 camels. So they agreed with the division.

Thus, Beremiz and his friend journeyed to Baghdad, each on his own camel.

Note: This story has nothing to do with the Old Testament except that old Iraq is located in what used to be ancient Mesopotamia, one of the lands of the Old Testament.

UPDATE: My friend, Aren Maeir from Israel, sent me a note saying that the book has been published in English. Here is the Wikipedia link to the article on the book (Thank you Aren for the information).

The Man Who Counted

First published in Brazil in 1949, O Homem que Calculava is a series of tales in the style of the Arabian Nights, but revolving around mathematical puzzles and curiosities. The book is ostensibly a translation by Brazilian scholar Breno de Alencar Bianco of an original manuscript by Malba Tahan, a thirteenth-century Persian scholar of the Islamic Empire – both equally fictitious.

The first two chapters tell how Hanak Tade Maia was traveling from Samarra to Baghdad when he met Beremiz Samir, a young lad with amazing mathematical abilities. The traveler then invited Beremiz to come with him to Baghdad, where a man with his abilities will certainly find profitable employment. The rest of the book tells of various incidents that befell the two men along the road and in Baghdad. In all those events, Beremiz Samir uses his abilities with calculation like a magic wand to amaze and entertain people, settle disputes, and find wise and just solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.

In the first incident along their trip (chapter III), Beremiz settles a heated inheritance dispute between three brothers. Their father had left them 35 camels, of which 1/2 (17.5 camels) should go to his eldest son, 1/3 (11.666… camels) to the middle one, and 1/9 (3.888… camels) to the youngest. To solve the brothers dilemma, Beremiz convinces Hanak to donate his only camel to the dead man’s estate. Then, with 36 camels, Beremiz gives 18, 12, and 4 animals to the three heirs, making all of them profit with the new share. Of the remaining two camels, one is returned to Hanak, and the other is claimed by Beremiz as his reward.

The translator’s notes observe that a variant of this problem, with 17 camels to be divided in the same proportions, is found in hundreds of recreational mathematics books, such as those of E. Fourrey (1949) and G. Boucheny (1939). However, the 17-camel version leaves only one camel at the end, with no net profit for the estate’s executor.

At the end of the book, Beremiz uses his abilities to win the hand of his student and secret love Telassim, the daughter of one of the Caliph’s advisers. (The caliph mentioned is Al-Musta’sim, and the time period ends with the Abbasid dynasty’s collapse.)

In the last chapter we learn that Hanak Tade Maia and Beremiz eventually moved to Constantinople, where Beremiz had three sons and Hanak visits him often.

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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