Glory in a Camel's Eye: A Perilous Trek Through the Greatest African Desertby Jeffrey Tayler
Marvelously entertaining and frequently harrowing, Glory in a Camel's Eye recounts the American travel writer Jeffrey Tayler's dangerous three-month journey across the Moroccan Sahara in the company of Arab nomads.
Glory in a Camel's Eye gives us an intimate, often surprising portrait of Saharan Africa: the cultural conflicts between native Berbers and
Marvelously entertaining and frequently harrowing, Glory in a Camel's Eye recounts the American travel writer Jeffrey Tayler's dangerous three-month journey across the Moroccan Sahara in the company of Arab nomads.
Glory in a Camel's Eye gives us an intimate, often surprising portrait of Saharan Africa: the cultural conflicts between native Berbers and Arabs, the clashes between devout desert-dwelling nomads and their city-dwelling counterparts. Fluent in Arabic, Tayler assembles an image of modern life very much at odds with our Western assumptions. He observes and reports "with eloquence and an eye for the improbable" (Outside).
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Read an Excerpt
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
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, Cordoba 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 differed 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 Meknès, 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
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."
"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
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
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 Dadès 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
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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For those adventurers who enjoy reading about the culture in which they are traveling, this book is a must read while visiting Morocco. Beside telling a thrilling tale, Tayler does a competent job of describing contemporary Moroccan society and the history of the Western Sahara. Along with Sheltering Sky, I highly recommend reading before traveling to Morocco.