Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors
Unexpected Help, With a Trade-off
We were preparing to settle down for a parched and hungry night when a green Land Rover pulled up beside us, and out jumped a young Libyan Army lieutenant who offered us his canteen. No genie jumping out of a lamp could have materialized at a better time.
The lieutenant was an instructor at a desert camp near the Egyptian border, about 50 miles distant, where he taught guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency techniques, demolition, traps, and sabotage to a band of commando trainees. He’d been home on leave to Benghazi to visit his wife, he explained, and was returning to his camp when he saw us.
I asked if he had any food, and he thought for a moment, then pointed south, into the desert. “We will get food from the nomads. They are passing through here on their way to summer pasture in the hills. I visited their camp a few days ago.”
“But aren’t the nomads dangerous? Don’t they beat up strangers, and rob them?” Woodrow asked.
“Only the nomads with the five-sided tents; even I stay away from them. But these are different, and they will not bother you if I am with you.”
“You mean they’re afraid of the army?” Al asked.
“Not at all. We have no control over them. When we got our independence, we promised the nomads they could come and go as they pleased. We let them keep all their guns. They have no passports; they cross the borders as they wish. Our country is trying to persuade them to settle down and become farmers, but it will take years. It is difficult to build a nation when half its people are never in the same place from one month to the next. But they are too proud to be told what to do. It was their great-great-ancestors who destroyed the towns along the coast when the Romans left, and it was their sheep and camels a thousand years ago who pastured on the farms and ate all the grasses and pulled down all the forests. Our legends tell us that once a man could walk all the way from Tripoli to Tangier in the shade of trees and gardens, but these nomads destroyed them all. They want to stay with their old ways. Every year more of them die. When there is no rain and no grass, you see everywhere the bones of their baby sheep and goats. The herds get smaller every year. Many of the families have only enough left to keep alive.”
“Then how will they be able to help us?”
“The Bedouins here do well. They are near Cyrene and the hills, where there is always rain and grass. Their goats and sheep survive.”
“Then why don’t all the Bedouins come here?”
“It is forbidden. It would be war. The Bedouin tribes graze where they have grazed for a thousand years. In this desert, each tribe has a boundary. If they find another tribe on their grazing land, they kill them.”
“That doesn’t sound like a very charitable attitude,” Al remarked.
“The Bedouins are not known for their charity.”
“Then what makes you think they’ll give us food?” I asked.
“You will give them a present, of course. Some clothing is always good, or jewelry. Also bring your rifles; we must show the nomads you are armed so they won’t come back and rob you when you sleep.”
“The only extra clothing we have is shoes, and we don’t have rifles, just bows and arrows,” I answered.
“That will do. The nomads wear shoes. And they will respect you as warriors if you bring bows and arrows, for their fathers used them before the British gave them guns in the war.”
We drove about four miles straight south into the desert before the lieutenant stopped us: “We will walk the rest of the way,” he said, “so that we don’t disturb their animals.”
It looked like the middle of nowhere, but soon I could see black tents against the blackness of the desert night. What seemed like open space between the tents was crisscrossed with guy ropes, and by the time we’d stumbled our way through them, the whole camp was aware of our presence. Sheep and goats pulled away, chickens and children scurried in front of us, tethered camels snorted beside the huge hide tents. The scent of tea and baking bread was fragrant on the night air.
The lieutenant led the way to the sharif’s tent, at whose threshold we laid our bows to show we came in peace, and bowed to the smiling old Arab who bade us enter. We removed our shoes and left them outside, save for the pair we brought to barter. The lieutenant, after a round of Arabic courtesies and formalities, explained the purpose of our visit, pointing to our gift. The Arab in turn pointed to our bows on the threshold, whereupon they went into a long discussion before seeming to reach an agreement.
In the meantime, I’d been inspecting the surprisingly comfortable tent. It was about 40 feet in diameter and fifteen feet high, with a floor of bare earth covered with straw mats and thick rugs. The top, which showed wide holes at the seams where air and light came through, certainly wasn’t rainproof, but in a country where it sometimes doesn’t rain for a year, I guess that wasn’t a consideration. As we entered, someone drew a curtain across one part of the tent: this was the women’s quarters and the kitchen. When strangers are about they are hidden so as not to see or be seen.
The most amazing thing about the tent was its contents. Stacked against half the length of the wall to a height of three feet were dozens of folded rugs, each exquisitely embroidered, each worth a fortune. The chief proudly displayed them to us. I saw something protruding from one of the rugs that looked like a rifle butt. The chief caught my gaze and pulled out an ancient Italian rifle wrapped in rags. I looked up to the center post, which was crisscrossed with cords and burlap, and there hung other rifles. There was even a rifle tucked under the chief’s cushion. Four or five chests stood beside the stacked rugs, each a sturdy trunk studded with decorative nail heads;
I could only guess what was in them. The old man opened a smaller chest to pull out a box; inside I caught a glimpse of sparkle and shine and heard the clinking of coins. From the box he withdrew four small glasses with gold rims. One of his wives came from behind the curtain, bringing an old British Army canteen filled with steaming water; she was shy and hid her head from us a bit, but she was too curious to hide completely. She was about sixteen, dressed in a scarlet skirt and white blouse with gold bracelets on her wrists and ankles. She was full-breasted and seemed full of life, and I found her quite appealing, save for some bluish tattoo marks on her chin and between her eyes. It was hard to hide our admiration from her husband-and our envy of him. I found something overwhelmingly compelling about this old man and his nomad life. It was a life with no bonds and no borders, no bosses and no timeclocks, no PTA meetings and no Chamber of Commerce. It was moving with the sun, blowing with the wind, making love in a great airy tent on an empty desert beneath a canopy of stars.
The old man began an elaborate tea ritual. It reminded me of the Japanese tea ceremony, and what he lacked in the grace of a geisha, he made up for by the obvious love he put into his labors. Another of his wives came in with a flat piece of tin that held burning coals. The old man poured the canteen of water into an iron pot placed on the coals. He added a handful of tea. Then a pinch more. Then came the sugar. One heaping spoon, two, three, four-endless spoons of sugar into a pot that held little more than a pint of tea. He mixed the brew, then poured tea into each glass, then back into the pot, then back into the glasses and back again into the pot, caressing the glasses, stirring the pot, for fifteen minutes. Each time he poured, he held the pot higher; soon it was two feet above the tiny glass, but he poured without spilling a drop. When at last he considered it suitable for serving, it was as sweet as honey, thick as blood, and hot as fire. The nomad drank his without cooling it, and the lieutenant told us to do the same. It blistered the lips, melted the teeth, and warmed the soul. The chief pressed another cup on us, then another. There was no refusing.
When the tea was finished, the chief clapped his hands. The two wives came from behind the curtain laden with food which they placed at our feet: a big porcelain pitcher of thick goat’s milk, a pile of flat brown bread, and a metal bowl holding several dozen small eggs. “That’s a good haul for a pair of shoes,” Al said when we were clear of the camp. “You’re some bargainer, lieutenant; I wish we had you with us for the whole trip.”