Friday, August 26, 2011

My Travels in Arabia Desertia (How I Was Saved by Berber Nomads)

Pajamas Media has an interesting article on the role of Berbers in the battle for Libya.  Berbers, an ethnic minority that preceeded the Arabs in North Africa, have been of interest to me since they saved my life in the eastern Sahara in 1988.

Having finished an enlistment in the Air Force, I was shocked to find that, four years after my first attempt at college, I was no better prepared for a second try.  (It pains me to admit this now, but I spent those years industriously applying myself to the hard work of not growing up.)  What does one do when one's military obligation has ended but one has made no plans for the future?  One takes to the road.

I had been stationed on the island of Crete when I left the Air Force, and it was from there - the port of Iraklion - that I caught a ferry to Alexandria, having sold everything I owned aside from a mountain bike, some spare parts, and some camping equipment.  From Alexandria, I made my way west, following the paths of Rommel and Montgomery, past al Alamein to Marsa Matruh, where I registered with the Egyptian Military Police for permission to enter the desert.  (The Libyan Frontier is a "controlled" area.) 

I spent an hour in that sweltering office, drinking tea and watching a gecko make his precarious way across the ceiling in search of flies.  It was apparent from the one-sided phone conversation I was hearing that, a. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for my presence in the desert and, b. Everyone concerned was in complete agreement that I was Megnoon (crazy).

Maybe because I was considered crazy, the prospect of arguing with me seemed even more odious than that of searching for my dessicated remains at some undetermined point in the future, so I was presented with my Tusrih (permit) and sent on my way.

My first exposure to the Berbers was in Siwa oasis, which I reached after three days of riding due south.  After days of various earth tones, the green of the oasis is a shock.  It is probably a good thing that, as the road winds and descends past tall sandstone formations, one catches only glimpses of that fertile ground.  By the time I had wended my way to the bottom of the depression, I'd had the chance to adjust to seeing plants and life again.

Siwa is bordered by a freshwater lake in the East, and a highly saline lake in the West.  All available space in between the two is crowded with date palms, olive trees, and, if I recall correctly, grape vines.  A tiny island in the center of the salt lake is graced by a hot spring.  The spring feeds a bath, the stones of which were laid to accomodate Cleopatra, who came to visit the oracle for whom the oasis was known.  I spent some very pleasant hours lazing in the bath, dappled by the shade of palm trees, soaking away the desert dust.

One afternoon, I was walking through the village at the center of the oasis, a village referred to by Alexander the Great as ancient.  The villagers, at least when I visited, were still living in some of the same buildings that had impressed Alexander with their age, although some of them had been damaged by the area's only recorded rainfall, which was in 1956.  As I turned the corner of one of those buildings, I ran smack into a little grey-haired man, who was dressed very smartly in a tweed sportcoat, grey slacks, and a tie.  It had been so long since I'd seen anyone so attired that, had I not knocked him down, I would have though he was a mirage. 

Far from being a mirage, he was a Berber language expert from Switzerland, who had developed an alphabet for the local dialect, and had spent a large part of his career in Siwa, learning the language and, when I was there, sitting with the last living Berber poets, and capturing their epic recitations in letters.  When I met him, (His name was something like Visicheylle, but I haven't been able to find him online yet.) he was on his way to the little store, to buy a couple of Cokes.  Apparently, the World's Oldest Berber Poet liked to drink Coke while he recited.

I'm out of time for writing now, but I'll complete the story of how I was saved by Berber Nomads as soon as I can.  I'll also see if I can dig up some of my old photos and maybe even find the correct spelling of the name of the linguist I knocked over.

Studies have shown a direct correlation between the speed with which I return and the number of comments I receive on my blog, so if the suspense is killing you...


Ran said...

...there's more than one story here.

Steven Givler said...

Yes, the hard part is keeping focused on the one I'm trying to tell.