Glory in a Camel's Eye: Trekking Through the Moroccan Saharaby Jeffrey Tayler
Though no stranger to
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Hailed by Bill Bryson and the New York Times Book Review as an emerging master of travel writing, Tayler penetrates one of the most forbidding regions on Earth. Journeying along routes little altered since the Middle Ages, he uses his linguistic and observational gifts to illuminate a venerable, enigmatic culture of nomads and mystics.
Though no stranger to privation (having journeyed across Siberia and up the Congo for his earlier books), Tayler is unprepared for the physical challenges that await him in a Sahara dessicated by eight years of unprecedented drought. He travels across a landscape of nightmares - charred earth, blinding sky, choking gales, and what is fittingly called the Valley of the Dead. The last Westerner to attempt this trek left his skeleton in the sand, and even Tayler's camels wilt in the searing wastes.
But his remarkable perseverance, as well as his fluency in classical and Moroccan Arabic, helps him find here a bracing purity. The Saharawi Bedouin among whom he journeys are ur-Arabs, untouched by the modernity or radicalism that festers elsewhere in the Arab world. By revealing their ingenuity, their wit, their unrivaled hospitality, and more, Tayler upends our notions of what is, and what is not, essentially Arab.
"Chronicl[es} the changing Saharawi culture with eloquence and an eye for the improbable..." -Outside Outside
"Unassuming, extremely informative and even entertaining." -Publishers Weekly Publishers Weekly
"A fascinating and informative book." -Booklist Booklist, ALA
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1 Other Lives to Lead The Road to the Drâa Valley
In 1986, while in graduate school writing a master’s thesis on famine in the Soviet Ukraine, I discovered two books that pointed me toward transformational peregrinations in the Arab world. The first was Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, the great British explorer’s account of his postwar travels on foot and by camel with Bedouin tribesmen in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula. Though hired by the Middle East Anti- Locust Unit to search out locust breeding grounds, Thesiger pursued a personal quest while in Arabia, a quest intimately related to the nomads with whom he lived: he hoped to “find the peace that comes with solitude, and among the [Bedouin], comradeship in a hostile world.” The spirit of the Bedouin, he wrote, “lit the desert like a flame.” Traversing much of Oman and Saudi Arabia in their company, he at first felt like “an uncouth and inarticulate barbarian, an intruder from a shoddy and materialistic world.” So poor were the Bedouin that they wore only smocks, loincloths, and daggers, yet they never stole from him. Indeed, they proved themselves paragons of desert virtue, and, during the five years he spent roaming the sands as their guest, they became his closest friends. Thesiger emerged from the Empty Quarter hardened by heat, hunger, thirst, and tribal raids, and forever after felt himself a stranger in “civilized” company. He had, in sum, found what he was looking for among the Bedouin, and it had transformed him.
When I read Sands, I was studying Arabic, having had an inkling that adventure another life, even awaited me in the Arab world. Sands introduced me to the Bedouin, who were masters of terrain in which one needed stamina and courage to survive. I read and reread the book, dreaming of journeys in the Empty Quarter, but Arabia had changed much since Thesiger’s day, as he himself had written. In the 1970s he had revisited his old haunts and found them an “Arabian nightmare” of oil money and skyscrapers, of Bedouin who had abandoned their camels for Land Rovers. Sands was really an elegy, a travelogue that would, he hoped, remain a “memorial to a vanished past, a tribute to a once magnificent people.” Soon after finishing Sands, I came across the other book that fired me with passion for the Arab world: Philip K. Hitti’s History of the Arabs. Every word of History rang with the author’s love of Arab civilization, the Islamic era of which began in the seventh century with the eruption of Arab armies, largely composed of Bedouin tribesmen, out of Arabia. In the name of Islam, the Arabs conquered all of North Africa; in Europe, they overran Spain and reached France; in Asia, they made it to China. “Around the name of the Arabs,” Hitti wrote, “would gleam the halo that belongs to world-conquerors.” To the Bedouin, “the Arabian nation is the noblest of all nations (afkhar alumam). The civilized man, from the Bedouin’s exalted point of view, is less happy and far inferior. In the purity of his blood, his eloquence and poetry, his sword and horse and above all his noble ancestry (nasab), the Arabian takes infinite pride. . . . The phenomenal and almost unparalleled efflorescence of early Islam was due in no small measure to the latent powers of the Bedouins, who, in the words of the Caliph ‘Umar, ‘furnished Islam with its raw material.’” From Hitti I learned that the Bedouin were not only the archetypal wanderers, but also the co-originators of Islamic civilization, which was once one of the most progressive civilizations on earth. From the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, while Europe recovered from barbarian invasions and suffered seignorialism and feudal rule, Córdoba of the Umayyad dynasty and Baghdad of the Abbasids rivaled Constantinople in splendor. While Western Europe was largely illiterate, the Arabs were conquering the Middle Eastern and North African territories of Byzantium and absorbing Hellenic culture; Arab caliphs were reading Aristotle; and Arab thinkers were syncretizing Hellenic and Islamic philosophies and transmitting Greek scholarship to Europe, thus eventually fostering the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages Arabic became a language of science and literature and, by way of Medieval Latin, contributed to English a wealth of now common words, among them “alcohol,” “algebra,” “syrup,” and “coffee.” From the eastern realms of their empire, the Arabs brought back Hindi (“Indian,” later called “Arabic”) numerals and passed them on to Europe; the Indian concept of zero permitted the birth of modern mathematics and science. The Arabs kept alive the ancient Greek notion that the earth was round and, through a work in Latin, delivered it to Columbus,, thus aiding his discovery of the Americas.
Hitti’s work taught me that the Arabs were the exponents of a civilization that differrrrred fundamentally from that of the West. Whereas in the West commercialism and multitudinous creeds, religions, and philosophies flourish and in their cacophony offer no single answer to our existential quandaries, in most of the Arab world one religion, Islam (which translates as “submission” to the will of God), dominates all aspects of life, demanding of its followers discipline, self-abnegation, and the observance of ritual. In the concept of Umma, the Islamic Nation, are a refutal of Western individualism and an antidote to loneliness and alienation. Moreover, and this was crucial to me as a traveler, the cities that gave birth to this civilization bore some of the most exotic and alluring names (Baghdad, Marrakesh, Damascus) that I had ever heard.
After reading Hitti, I threw myself into the study of Arabic, spending six hours every day learning grammar, listening to tapes, and meeting with my Jordanian and Palestinian instructors. A year later, in 1987, I quit graduate school, flew to Portugal, and sailed from Algeciras in southern Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco, from where I intended to make my way east across the entire Arab world, my destination Baghdad.
This was a grand idea that owed more to rash enthusiasm than to planning. A few days after arriving in Morocco, beneath the soaring minarets and earthen ramparts of Mekncs, I ate a bad kebab and it nearly killed me with a fortnight of nausea, vomiting, dizzying headaches, and diarrhea. But along with food poisoning I confronted other impediments. Darija, the Arabic dialect of Morocco, proved almost completely unintelligible to me, bearing little resemblance to the classical Arabic I had been studying. I thus found myself able to recite chapters from A Thousand and One Nights while having trouble understanding directions to the bathrooms I so often needed. There were also faux guides who set upon Nasranis (“foreigners,” or more exactly, “Nazarenes,” “Christians”) in the streets. Day after day, as I staggered out of my hotel to buy yogurt and Lomotil, I was accosted by unemployed youths demanding I hire them as guides for tours of the medina. Few took kindly to rejection. One youth whose services I declined grew irate. “You won’t hire me! Then you’ll rot in a Moroccan prison!” He turned to passersby and shouted, while pointing at me, “Drug dealer! Drug dealer! This Nasrani’s trying to sell me drugs! Police! Police! Drug dealer!” There were no police about, though, and I slipped back into my hotel, shaken up and uncomprehending. More incidents like this followed.
Previous travels in Europe and Turkey had not prepared me for Morocco. Still sick, I gave up and staggered aboard a plane in Casablanca, bound first for Rome and then for familiar haunts in the eastern Mediterranean. My plans for the Arab world would have to wait. I would have to prepare myself better if ever again I attempted to tread in Thesiger’s footsteps.
After seven months of rambling around Italy, Greece, and Turkey, I ran out of money and returned to the States. I pursued my study of Arabic at a language institute in Washington, D.C., and wondered what to do next. Having no other ideas but wanting to return to an Arab country (any Arab country but Morocco, that is), I applied to join the Peace Corps and was called in for an interview. The Peace Corps occupied an old building in the center of town. Fans chopped the air above desks cluttered with amulets and native trinkets from West Africa and Central America; posters of smiling African children and Bolivian peasants in colorful shawls hung on yellowed walls. There was an earnestness about the besandaled employees there that I found disagreeable.
The recruitment officer to whom I spoke was a perky young woman in a frumpy dress. Scribbling and hunched over a mess of papers, she asked me to explain why I wanted to be a volunteer. I sensed that I needed an altruistic motive along the lines of Thesiger’s locust research to win her over, so I said something about wanting to help people in developing countries better their lives. This platitude elicited smiles and comments about how my undergraduate degree in psychology (a discipline I had renounced) would suit the Peace Corps just fine. She scribbled away.
“Sooo . . . is there any place you’d prefer to go?” “Since I speak Arabic, I’d like to go to Yemen or Tunisia.” I paused. “The only place I don’t want to go is Morocco.” “Peace Corps is not a travel agency,” she said, in a tone that sounded like it portended my imminent disqualification. “You can’t choose your country of service.” “Then why did you ask me where I wanted to go?” “You can state your preference, that’s all. You should be ready to serve in whatever country we offer you for the good of the people . . .” A few weeks later she called me. “We have an opening.” “Where?” “In Morocco.” “But . . . you have nothing else?” She told me that Morocco was all they had available in an Arab country at the time, and reminded me that if I turned her down I might lead her to believe that I saw Peace Corps as a travel agency. I thought it over for a few minutes. My money had run out, and I had no other prospects for employment. I accepted her offer and was soon on a plane for Morocco.
After three months of instruction in Moroccan Arabic and culture in Rabat, I was given a two-year assignment in Marrakesh, working with a school for the blind and with the parents of handicapped children. Dating from the eleventh century, Marrakesh is an imperial city of souks and snake charmers and hash-scented alleys largely enclosed in earthen walls on a burnt-out plain, beneath the snow-mantled peaks of the High Atlas. I took up residence in the casbah (from the Arabic qasaba, or citadel) district, far from other volunteers; I adopted an Arabic name, Jelal, because I found that few Moroccans could remember my own. There were no Bedouin in the casbah or elsewhere in Marrakesh, but there were many faux guides. Now that I was a long-term guest in their country, I was compelled to reach a sort of modus vivendi with them. I could not escape them, and they were, after all, just poor youths in a country where there was little work. But I never allowed them to intimidate me as they had the previous year. When necessary, I adopted their blustering tactics and threatening postures and used them against them. The only time I have ever hit anybody was while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Marrakesh.
In any case, I discovered a distraction that brought me closer to Moroccan life than any job with the Peace Corps ever would: Moroccan women. The first year I didn’t dare engage them; the second year I found I couldn’t resist. They glided down Marrakesh’s alleys of dung-leavened dust, their kohl-daubed eyes alert, their breasts swinging under the silk of flowing djellabas, their hair glinting with the warm tints of henna. The prospect of marrying a rich (to them) American made me attractive enough, as did the chance to dabble in pleasures of the flesh with a forbidden Christian; they knew that Nasranis would not despise them as whores for sleeping with them.
This was new territory for me. During training, Peace Corps instructors had warned female volunteers of the trauma they could expect to suffer in adjusting to the second-class status Islamic society would impose on them, but they said nothing to male volunteers about the magic Moroccan women practiced to trap a mate (though they did warn us that irate brothers and knife-wielding fathers made “dating” an exceedingly dangerous business). The instructors said not a word about the evening paseo, during which single men and women strolled the downtown avenues, arranging trysts after exchanging little more than stares and smiles. They certainly didn’t mention sbagha (painting), the practice whereby a Moroccan woman, desirous of maintaining her virginity yet determined to get off with her lover, vigorously “paints” her clitoris with the tip of his erect penis. Nor did they tell us anything about the prevalence of prostitutes, often veiled, who worked the crowds of big cities at dusk, searching for clients as the call to prayer sounded. The word qahba (whore) was not even in the Peace Corps manual of Moroccan Arabic, though it was one of the more frequently used words in the language.
So I did my time in Marrakesh, conducting trysts, evading brothers, reading Arabic literature, and yearning for even more adventure, more escape, something along the lines of what Thesiger had described in Arabian Sands. Then, at the very end of my tour, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Just as I was preparing to travel to the Middle East to try to start a career in photojournalism, another volunteer told me of a valley in Morocco’s remote south called the Drâa. The Drâa was, he said, the desert wasteland from which, in the sixteenth century, warriors of the Saadi dynasty had emerged to halt the advances of the Portuguese and the Ottoman Turks. In a shivery flash of insight I saw that the Drâa was what I had been searching for all along: there, gazelles fleeted and oases of palms shimmered like seas of emerald; there, Morocco ended and the no man’s land of the Sahara, vast and ready for exploration, began; and, most important, there dwelled Bedouin, unspoiled Bedouin who knew nothing of the pampered lifestyle of their oil-rich brethren in the east. Whereas much of the Arab world had been modernized, even radicalized, beyond recognition since the end of the colonial era, the Drâa, from what I could tell, had remained a sort of ur-Arab paradise.
As I packed to leave Morocco I read up on the Drâa. The valley begins 150 miles southeast of Marrakesh, on the Saharan side of the moonscape crags of the Atlas, where the red clay wadis (seasonal riverbeds) of Ouarzazate and Dadcs converge. Watered by underground springs and the April melt of Atlas snows, the Drâa River cuts its way for 160 miles southeast across the 6,500-foot-high Saghro massif (an offshoot of the High Atlas) and enters the Sahara proper through Beni Slimane pass in Jbel (mount) Bani to reach the oasis village of Mhamid. From Mhamid the Drâa veers west and snakes for 375 more miles through the desert, along the base of the Anti-Atlas, to debouch into the Atlantic. The six palm oases of the Drâa’s upper reaches (from Ouarzazate to Mhamid) rest on fertile loam and support ancient agricultural communities dwelling in elaborate, towered casbahs and walled villages known in Darija as qsars (from the classical Arabic qasr, or palace), made of ochre-hued adobe bricks hewn from the river’s banks. The French dubbed this part of the valley the coude du Drâa, a metaphor hinting at the origin of the Drâa’s name: a corruption of the Arabic word dhira’ (arm). About the lower expanses of the valley beginning at Mhamid and extending to the Atlantic I could find no information.
From the ninth through the fifteenth century, the Drâa served as one of the main caravan routes between Europe and Timbuktu. The desert- wise Bedouin, or Ruhhal (from the Arabic rahala, “to wander from place to place”) in the Arabic dialects of North Africa, were the master navigators of this eleven-hundred-mile channel across the sea of sand. After making the two-month crossing of the desert, lengthy, plodding caravans arrived in the Drâa bearing ivory, gold, and slaves. The last of these were among the most profitable of the caravans’ commodities: the Africans whom Ruhhal traders bought from dealers in Timbuktu for fifteen to twenty talers could fetch ten times more in Marrakesh. In exchange for slaves and gold, the Ruhhal took to West Africa leather goods and textiles, and, eventually, guns; they also spread Islam in the Sahel, which is Muslim to this day. The last slave caravan, it is said, crossed the Sahara in the 1950s.
The valley was, historically, a wilderness not only of sand and rock but also of raiders and rebels. The Drâa belonged to the bilad al-siba (the land of dissidence), the domain of anarchy and tribal rule where the writ of Moroccan sultans held little sway, and where local chieftains known as qa’ids and sheikhs reigned in qsars and casbahs, suffering frequent attacks from Ruhhal tribes. The Ruhhal of the Drâa, especially the ‘Arib tribe, earned themselves a formidable reputation as warriors. The ‘Arib subdued the indigenous Sanhaja Berbers, whom they terrorized into payment of tribute. They eventually crossed the Atlas Mountains and penetrated the Sous Valley, and for a while even raised revolt against the sultans of Marrakesh.
Bilad al-siba, I repeated to myself. The Land of Dissidence. Intrigued by this history of battling tribes and desert warriors, I left Morocco for the Middle East, vowing to one day travel the Drâa.
In 1996 I visited the Drâa and made a serendipitous error that nearly cost me my life. Accompanied by a teenage Ruhhal guide, I drove my Peugeot eleven miles off the cracked tarmac of the Drâa’s only road onto a piste, or desert track, to camp for the night on the dunes, near a tent owned by a Ruhhal named Ali Daimin. At midnight a wind (called a Shirgi, I was to learn among the Ruhhal every wind has a name) howled in from the torrid wastes of Algeria to the east. By sunrise the Shirgi was flaying the entire valley, blowing sand at ninety miles an hour and raising temperatures to 120 degrees; it covered the piste and disoriented my guide on our drive back to the tarmac. Having no water, food, maps, or radio with us, and suffering a punctured radiator as we bumped over stony tableland in search of the road, we could have remained lost and died of thirst. But five hours later we ended up back where we started, and came upon indeed, nearly ran right over Ali’s tent. Ali took us in. When the wind subsided, he guided us back to the tarmac. I offered him money as compensation but he refused it.
Ali impressed me. Not only did he know the desert, but he radiated modesty and had an inherent dignity that I would later come to associate with the ‘Arib. He was in his mid-thirties. He was high of brow and aquiline of nose; his features hinted at Yemeni ancestry. (The ‘Arib claimed to be descended from Yemeni Bedouin who arrived in the Drâa in the twelfth century.) Like most ‘Arib, he wore a black turban called a firwal and a white smock known as a fouqiya. He tended flocks of camels and goats and preferred the peace of life on the sands to the tumult of the cities, but unlike most of his tribesmen, he was educated: he had studied history and geography at a university in Marrakesh. His intellect and pride in his Ruhhal heritage marked him as someone with whom I wanted to keep in touch, and I left the Drâa understanding I had made a friend who would one day play an important role in my life.
Two years later Ali arranged and accompanied me on my first real expedition in the Drâa a two-week trip by camel and on foot in the coude region, ending just to the east of Mhamid at the dunes of Shgaga. This outing gave me a glimpse of the valley’s unsettling beauty, but most of all it whetted my appetite for more. Under the red sky of dusk, standing atop a dune at Shgaga, I conceived a desire to push on to the Atlantic a distance of some 350 miles. I asked Ali to research the possibility of my making a descent of the entire valley at another time. He agreed, but did so cautiously. From Shgaga to the Atlantic was Ruhhal land, yes, but wells in that distant stretch of valley were said to be days of walking apart, the routes between them known to only a few. Without the protection of the Saghro range, the heat and Shirgi-driven sandstorms would be terrible in that part of the Drâa (which bordered the open Sahara), and both Westerners and Moroccans had lost their way and died of thirst there. Literature on the lower part of the valley was scant: French colonial officers stuck to the coude and had little reason to travel into the wastes beyond it.
There were other reasons for caution. After 1912, when the French established their protectorate over most of northern and central Morocco, the country’s far south remained undemarcated bilad al-siba where thousands of spirited Ruhhal rebels fought the colonialists in vicious desert wars. Only in 1934 did the French manage to subdue the Drâa. It was not until 1956 that the French, in an attempt to prevent Algerian independence fighters from basing themselves in Morocco, built a series of fortresses from Figuig in eastern Morocco along the Drâa to Tarfaya, on the Atlantic, thereby making the valley Morocco’s de facto if not de jure southern border.
Morocco and Algeria never recognized this makeshift border. A dispute soon developed between them (and Mauritania) over the hundred thousand square miles of phosphate-rich desert to the south of the frontier. This land, now known as the Western Sahara, had belonged to Morocco from the 1500s until the Spanish seized it during the colonial era. When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, King Hassan II of Morocco launched a march of 350,000 civilians across the border to “reclaim” the Western Sahara, and his army occupied the region. The Ruhhal of the Western Sahara, aided by Algeria and Libya, formed the Polisario (the National Front for the Liberation of the People of the Western Sahara) and took up arms against the Moroccans. A long guerilla war ensued. Although the polisario and Hassan II concluded a truce in 1991, stipulating that Morocco allow the conduct of a referendum on the Western Sahara’s future, no vote had been held, and periodically the frustrated guerillas threatened to take up arms again. The Drâa border region, thus, remained a potential locus of conflict, and in places it had been mined. One part of the valley, in fact, was said to be a forbidden military zone where the Moroccan army hunted guerillas and smugglers and allowed no one, whether Moroccan or foreign, to enter.
Despite these risks, the Drâa exercised a pull on me, and I was as determined as ever to travel it. Whereas most of Thesiger’s Bedouin had settled decades ago, Drâa Ruhhal still roamed the sands, and questions arose in my mind. Was there any valor left in their way of life, or had it become an anachronism? The Drâa Ruhhal regarded herding animals as their cherished occupation and considered agriculture and trades the work of “inferior” villagers and townsmen. Now that animal products were mass- produced on farms, were the Ruhhal degenerating into parasites of the people they disdained? A drought had afflicted southern Morocco since 1997. How was it affecting the Ruhhal, who depended on fragile desert vegetation to pasture their herds? Could lack of rain move the Ruhhal off the sands as oil money had prompted Thesiger’s Bedouin to settle?
During the autumn of 2000 Ali sent word to me in Moscow (where I live) that my expedition would be possible, if not without risk, in the following winter and spring (when the weather would be relatively cool). Suddenly, all my time in Morocco and trips to the Drâa seemed like a prelude to the chance to realize a dream I had nurtured for fifteen years, ever since reading Arabian Sands and History of the Arabs.
Copyright © 2003 by Jeffrey Tayler. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
JEFFREY TAYLER is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and a contributor to Condé Nast Traveler, Harper’s Magazine, and National Geographic. He is the author of many critically acclaimed books, including Facing the Congo, Angry Wind, and River of No Reprieve.
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