I am recovering really well from the medical procedure I had done yesterday and decided to take this opportunity to post this story from the late 1970's. I hope that you enjoy my tale of life in a far away place and time.
A Time of Sands
Thirty plus years ago in a place where time means nothing, I had the distinct pleasure of traveling with members of a nomadic tribe called the “Blue People” by many, although they are more properly known as the Tuareg.
Theirs is a truly ancient culture that has endured many, many attempts to assimilate or swallow it up. The Tuareg have been doing things their way for at least ten thousand years according to the words of the old chief, who lead the talks around the nightly campfire (or inside of the main tent if the wind was blowing or the air too chilled for his liking.)
Their unique turban, or “talgemust” in their language, was still indigo blue in those days and the dye color would often transfer to their skin, (thus the “Blue People” label). This piece of headwear was often ten to twelve meters (or thirty to forty feet) in length and was worn by every male age sixteen and older. Men who were marrying age, (twenty-five) had to wear their talgemust twenty-four hours a day.
In a curious twist to what we have learned to expect, in the Tuareg culture the men must cover their faces, but the women don’t have to. Women are allowed a lot of freedom and can have relationships before marriage and own possessions. The families are matrilineal, meaning that ancestry is followed through the women. The men are the tribal leaders, which is to be expected in a warrior type of society.
The boys are trained to handle the sword and knife from an early age and by sixteen are as skilled as any soldier in hand to hand combat. They are also expert riders of horse and camel, and can survive in conditions that would kill a desert scorpion. The young girls can handle livestock, skin a goat or camel with such skill and precision as would impress any master butcher, and make a meal out of thin air and sand, or so it seemed to me all those years ago.
There is no one physical description of the Blue People. They have accepted many ethnicities into their camp over their long history, some willingly, some captured. They may have blonde hair, or red, or coal black. Their skin under the suntan may be fair, olive or brown. There is one thing that is always present, and that is the fierce pride and passion of the desert tribes. They value honor and loyalty above all else.
Why I was with them, wearing the robes and sandals of a Sahara citizen is a story that may never be told. I will say that while I was not running away to join the French Foreign Legion, I was in their neighborhood. I am pleased to say that I was accepted and enjoyed full equal status with their men, while enjoying a level of hospitality that does them proud in the laws of the land.
In this part of the world tents and clothes are made from camel skin and/or goat skin, or sometimes things are woven from the hair of these two creatures. They are beasts which support the nomads in many varied ways, from providing milk, cheese, and meat, to carrying people and goods, to finally providing their skins to give shelter. There are horses, sometimes sheep, even cows, but the goats and camels are the real life sustainers of the desert people.
Some of the Tuareg settle down and farm, some are tradesmen, some even try working for others, but it just doesn’t seem to work out for them. They are the caravan operators and warriors of the Sahara, they have to follow the stars and wander the unmarked sands. It is deeply ingrained in who they are.
Many cities and routes in northern Africa are there because of the Tuareg; a case in point is the often mentioned city of Timbuktu. When I was a child this city was thought to be a myth, not to be believed, just a joke place that described the farthest place from anywhere on earth. The truth is, the city does exist in modern day Mali. I have been there. The Tuareg founded the city in the eleventh century at the crossroads where their Sahara caravans met the Niger River trade route. Actually from what I have heard, they backed off from the river a ways because of the hordes of mosquitoes that lived in the backwaters of the river.
This camp was maintained and a Tuareg outpost was established to hold their spot against others who would poach their good location. Over the centuries Timbuktu became much more than just a trading crossroads. It was well known as a bastion of higher learning and cultural exchange. There were more highly educated people in this town, than any place on the African continent for much of its history.
So it was explained to me as I sat on a rug under the most magnificent skies anywhere on earth, drinking the best chai (made with camel milk), listening to a mixture of English, French and Tamashek being spoken. I learned that these were not an ignorant people as some westerners thought. Their abilities with languages, mathematics, celestial navigation and deep knowledge of history humbled me.
I have been asked to recount a story (which I have told to a few people,) of an event which transpired during my time with the Blue People. I shall attempt to put it into print here.
As we trekked across the sands of the western Sahara, where everything looks the same for miles and the camels complain at least as much as the young men, I tried to be observant and aware. I watched the older men and followed their lead of when to drink and when to cover my face. Invisibility by sameness was my goal. That and learning as much as possible to survive like a native son.
This particular journey was a “men only” foray and the young men and boys had to take up the duties of the girls and women. Herbivore droppings were gathered as we traveled as there was no firewood and meals had to be prepared for the group. It did do wonders for the appreciation of the very hard working female members and may actually have been part of the education process that was ever ongoing. The Tuareg do nothing without a reason for it, even if the young don’t understand why.
Not everyone rides during a trek, although the horsemen were always mounted. Those of us who rode the camels walked sometimes and rode sometimes, but usually only changed at midday. Just like a railroad train, a camel train (caravan) works best when it moves and takes a lot of time and energy to restart once stopped. Surprise stops made the caravan master cranky as it upset his timetable, which based survival upon how many days it took between waterholes.
So you could well imagine my surprise when the chief called for an unscheduled stop and my own camel dropped without a command from me. I was pretty much in trance from the rhythmic movement and did not expect that to happen.
Camels drop on their front legs first, then their hindquarters, so I was nearly catapulted into the rear end of the camel in front of me. I made a good recovery from my unceremonious unseating, and walked (ran) a few steps like I was stretching my legs, while actually trying to keep from falling on my face.
The young boys near my camel noticed but hid their grins behind their hands, at least until they saw me grinning and they knew it was OK. I think I made a couple of friends by being willing to laugh at myself, and it was funny, no denying that.
The men were all busy pulling rugs off of the loads the camels carried, which was really weird, it was hours until time to make camp and we were not in a suitable spot. Not knowing what to do, or what was going on, I stayed with my camel and watched for some sign from the elders that would help me understand.
A young man named Ben came to me with a rug which he unceremoniously tossed me the end of, and indicated that we should unroll it. Ben doesn’t say a lot, but not because he can’t, the guy was more talented with languages than anyone I knew at the time. I just followed his lead and we unrolled the rug and then pulled it up against the camel.
Since we had stopped working and were just standing there, I finally did ask, “What are we doing?”
Ben just shrugged his shoulders and said “sandstorm”. A shrug of the shoulders in the USA would mean “I don’t know”, but here it just meant that the subject was so unimportant that I should have already known. In a way that was flattering, that he felt that I was such a part of the group that I would already know. But I was too busy trying to figure out what sandstorm to think about the nuances very much.
I looked in all directions and could not see even a dust devil, but I did notice that we all had our rugs on the same side of our camels, and that the precious horses were all on the rug side too. So I knew which direction to look based on that. There was nothing to see or hear that I could discern, but there was no doubting the credibility of the chief and his experience in these matters, so I waited and watched. There were a bunch of men preparing as if for a long wait and like them, I made sure that I had my water bag with me.
Ben seeing my confusion said “Look there” and pointed to the horizon where all I could see was a dark line. I stared at it until my eyes hurt from the glare and I looked away. When I looked back the line was a bit bigger, or taller, and there was a hissing sound.
We were joined by a horseman and his wild-eyed mount and words were exchanged between Ben and the veiled man. I was advised that the man and his horse would be sharing our rug, which was cool, if a little odd. Why were we setting up miniature party groups around rugs, and why was the horse invited?
I looked back at the horizon and the dark line was now a visible dark mass several times the height it had been when I looked last. The hissing noise was now a buzzing like a whole swarm of angry bees.
Ben and the horseman were rolling the rug up from the far side and telling me to pull the opposite edge up to the top of my camel’s hump. Since I was the new guy here, I just did what they said and went around to the opposite side of my camel and leaned over and pulled the rug to me. For my efforts I got bit on the butt by my unhappy beast and laughed at too.
As I rubbed my sore butt and moved back into place with the others, I could hear a much louder sound and glanced towards the horizon. To my amazement the dark line was now a wall of sand, growing taller and more defined as it barreled towards us. The sound was more like the howl of wind during a hurricane and there was indeed some wind, but not of the seventy-five mile per hour variety, at least not yet.
You could easily be mesmerized by the sound and vision of a Sahara Desert sandstorm, and it would be the last entertainment you had, if you were not prepared. The wall of sand was moving a lot faster than I had thought and growing taller at a rate that mimicked a tsunami. This vision was something that was quite overwhelming from a front row seat.
All around us people were scooping out hollows and getting comfortable on the leeward side of the camels and preparing for the sand onslaught. The use of the rug was no longer a mystery to me and I was actively helping to dig out our spot in the sand.
The horseman made his precious animal drop to the ground and then roll onto his side with his back to us. Ben spoke to him and he got the horse back on his feet and moved closer and repeated the procedure. I learned a greater respect for the bond between the little Arab horse and its rider that day.
While the man comforted his horse, Ben and I pulled the rug over them and checked the progress of those near us. It was of no use to try to talk as the roar of the approaching storm was too loud to hear over. It was kind of exciting in a strange way to be the last ones taking cover. Almost like tempting fate.
We were the last that is except for the camels. Of all the life forms in our caravan, the camel was best equipped by nature to deal with sandstorms. They have triple eyelids and nostrils that they can close at will. Their hide is covered with hair that provides a barrier for their very tough hide. I would guess that it still is not pleasant for them, but they just wait it out and do not try to run away.
It took a very loud and long thirty minutes for the storm to pass, which indicates to me that it was miles in depth. When Ben said it was OK we pushed the now sand covered rug up and off of us and continued to pull it away from the complaining camel until the horse and rider were free. They came up out of the sand as one with the rider in the saddle and took off at a gallop. The young man did an awesome job keeping his horse calm and on his side under that rug, especially with all of the noise.
All around us there were people emerging from the sand and they were happy and joking. Nobody complained about the storm, but we did have to make haste to get the rug shook out and re-rolled so it could be loaded onto the camel which carried it. The chief was urging us to hurry so we could make it to a good place to camp. His was the great responsibility of caring for us all and we respected that.
That night as we camped in a nice sheltered valley the songs were more raucous, the music louder and the dancing went on for hours. The Tuareg enjoy life and respect the forces of nature, so when they had faced the great storm and didn’t lose anyone, or any livestock, they felt very fortunate and wanted to rejoice.
I was sad to leave my friends when the time came, but they were turning south into Mali and I needed to exit through Morocco and return to my life in the western world.
It is my hope that these beautiful people whom I lived and traveled with, remember me as fondly as I do them. They were truly unique and amazing hosts and excellent life teachers.