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is a big bush, the leaves of which give off the penetrat-
ing, almost nauseating odour; but camels eat them
greedily. Its seeds are small and globular in bunches,
and, although they too have a sour and peppery smell,
they are edible. They are dried and soaked in water
for hours, which produces a liquid like dark red wine
with a not unpleasant flavour. The Touareg are fond
of it.

Between the 2Oth and the I5th Parallels is the Air,
the first and most northerly village or collection of
villages of which is Iferouane (which, in Targui, means
a " tree-covered place ") in the valley of the Irhazar
(in Targui " valley or river ") and has several hundred
inhabitants. A very few huts are of clay and rectangu-
lar as in the Northern Sahara; but the majority are
round, made of mats of the stalks of the nirokba or
thin sticks, with roofs of various shapes, flat, conical, or
flattened cones, and are usually surrounded by a hedge
of interlaced branches. Huts used as granaries are
built on stakes four feet from the ground as a protection
against insects.

Sometimes three or four dwellings are grouped in
the same enclosure. The fences are generally made
of korunka, the wood of which bush is light but of little

In the bed of the Irhazar are date-palms producing
poor and scanty fruit; but under them are hedged
gardens of millet, barley, sorghum, a little wheat, and
the korna or jujube-tree and an occasional big gum-tree.

The natives water their gardens from wells by
dipping-poles worked by hand or by zebus (small oxen).
Small quantities of vegetables are grown onions,


carrots, peas, Soudan haricots, tomatoes, pumpkins and
water-melons also a little tobacco and henna.

The villagers possess some cows and zebus, the
Saharan sheep called demmane with hair instead
of wool, goats and hens. To caravans they sell fresh
and sour milk in calabashes, the cheese of the country
known as kemaria, camel-saddles, vegetables and
wooden spoons, and ask for payment in malti (an
inferior English cotton stuff, apparently manufactured
for barter with the people of the Sahara and the

The men of the Air generally wear blouses of the
blue cotton of the Soudan called Saye and long trousers
of blue or white cotton. Children, negroes and half-
castes wear generally only breeches made of a piece of
tanned leather wound round the waist, brought between
the legs and up behind and fastened by a belt, the
almost universal garment of youths and negroes in the
Air ; though a few wear as well a large, wide but short,
sleeveless shirt made of cotton manufactured in the
Soudan. Others are quite naked. Children and boys
go bare-headed, the hair cut either very short or in a 4
sort of crest from forehead to nape of neck. I have
seen little children in Marrakesh in Southern Morocco
with their hair trimmed in this latter fashion.

The Timgue or Timdje Mountains, between 2,500
and 3,000 feet above the Irhazar Valley, are a compact
and isolated mass ; and east of them lies a formidable
region of dunes, waterless and without vegetation, which
must be crossed by the caravans that go periodically to
Bilma for the salt that is there produced and sent every-
where through the Sahara.

Several days' march south of Iferouane is a city of


sun-dried brick, Agadez, ruled absolutely until the
coming of the French by a Sultan who called himself
" The Prince of Believers." And south-east of Agadez
the more or less fertile region of the Damergou dotted
with villages of straw huts, stretches to Lake Chad.
And below the Damergou is the Soudan.

Many hundreds of miles west of Agadez the River
Niger the city of Timbuctoo almost on its most
northerly loop flows through a region of dense jungle
in the beginning of its long and leisurely progress to
the Atlantic Ocean, leaving behind the land where the
once powerful Songhay Empire flourished and where
in our day the remnants of the Songhays were enslaved
and plundered by the Touareg until the French came
to give them safety and freedom.

Between it and Morocco there long existed a
regular caravan route with wells at regular intervals,
over which armies passed, constant intercourse was
kept up, and an important import and export
trade of slaves and other commerce flourished for

This cursory description of the Sahara along a route
more than a thousand miles from north to south will
give some idea of its vastness, its variety and the
diversity of its soil and natural features.

Daring French explorers paved the way into
this great desert for equally courageous military
and naval officers for the Navy had its share in the
conquest of Central Africa, and a lieutenant with a
small gunboat pushed incredibly far up the Niger and
in boats attacked and captured Timbuctoo. From
Algeria the Army gradually made its way down, and
its heroic officers advanced with apparently totally


inadequate forces, constructed and held absolutely
isolated posts for long and weary years, fought cruel
and treacherous enemies, and eventually won for their
motherland the empire of the Sahara.

In the Northern Sahara the inhabitants, nomads
and sedentary, are chiefly Arabs or Arabised Berbers
who have long lost sense of their Berber descent. In
the centre and extending to the south are the tribes
of the strange Touareg race ; and in the south towards
the Soudan there is much negro blood, although negroes
are found in all parts of the Sahara.

The sedentary Arabs inhabiting the northern oases
cultivate and sell their dates, grain, vegetables and
fruit to the nomads in exchange for live stock or for
other necessaries, clothing and luxuries brought by the
wanderers. They live in yjllages of huts of sun-dried
brick, build mosques and possess a certain amount of
civilisation, especially where they are in touch with

Certain inhabited districts or groups of villages, cut
off from the rest of the world by long stretches of desert,
are practically islands in the sandy ocean of the Sahara ;
and their populations are naturally very insular in their
manners and customs, differ from Arabs elsewhere, and
lead a life of their own. The region of the Touat
(west of In-Salah and between the 2 5th and 3Oth
Parallels), the administrative centre of which is Adrar,
furnishes a good example. It consists of a number of
ksour (plural of ksar) or fortified villages split up into
nine districts and having a total population of between
fifteen and sixteen thousand divided into the Ahrar or
whites (Arabs) and the Omfane or blacks. The latter
are formed of negro slaves and of the harratines, who


are the descendants of freed slaves, and may have some
Arab blood in them.

Until the coming of the French the Ahrar were
lazy proprietors of the soil which they compelled the
O us fane to till for them; and even now, regarding
labour as derogatory, they refuse to toil and are letting
the land slip from them through purchase by the
industrious harratines.

Intercourse with the outer world is maintained by
caravans of nomad Arabs and Touareg. The latter
exchange their sheep before the French came they
brought negro slaves for dates, tobacco and " dokalis,"
a sort of large haiks or head-shawls. The Arab traders
bring from the Tell wool, butter, corn, barley, dried
flesh and money in exchange for the dates.

From the merchants of Adrar the Touatians pur-
chase European goods cloth, sugar, tea, soap, oil,
candles, etc. They sell their corn, tobacco, raw cotton
and henna to the neighbouring territories of the M'Zab,
El Golea, Aoulef, Tidikelt and others, and buy from
them woollen goods, cloth and food.

In the ksour of the Touat the manufacture is carried
on of dokalis, gandauras and other garments, of clumsy
jewellery, embroidery, crude pottery, and baskets. In
the gardens of the oases shaded by the tall date-palms
barley, corn, onions, carrots and other vegetables are
cultivated in spring, cabbages, haricot-beans, sorghum,
maize, grapes, melons, henna, tobacco, and cotton in
summer. In autumn figs, dates and tomatoes ripen ; in
winter, lentils, luzerne, flax and a second henna crop.

The Touatians breed a certain amount of sheep,
goats, donkeys and a few camels.

All the inhabitants of a ksar of the same race regard


themselves as members of one family. The young
girls have more freedom than elsewhere among Arabs
and move about freely unveiled and with one shoulder
bare. When a man desires to marry he sends his
parents or goes in person to demand the hand of the
maiden from her parents ; and if they accept him as
a suitor he is allowed to frequent his betrothed's house
and join in the family meals in her presence. When
the wedding day is fixed he sends her dowry which
varies from thirty to fifty francs for the better class and
less for the harratines and negroes and her trousseau
of garments, ornaments, purse and perfumes. On the
day of the marriage the bride goes to his parents'
house ; and the bridegroom follows her in, having
arrived himself with a sabre to show her that he can
protect her. Then the happy pair do not separate for
the seven days of the honeymoon with the Arabs-
three with the harratines and negroes.

The wife is expected to bring to her new home one
or two goats and all the cooking utensils. She gener-
ally has no rival ; for, owing to their poverty, polygamy
is rare among the people of the Touat.

A widow's mourning is marked by some strange
observances. On the day of her husband's funeral she
sits at home and receives visits of condolence from the
villagers. As each one enters she bites a silver ring
held in her hand and presents it to the visitor to bite,
too. On the fourth day of mourning she swathes her
head in a fragment of her late husband's winding-sheet
and goes into seclusion for two months and ten days,
abstaining from seeing anyone, from perfumes, the
wearing of jewellery, etc.

At the end of the cu&tomary period of spurning


she washes herself, changes her garments, and leaves
the house preceded by a woman beating an old sauce-
pan and crying out that " So-and-So has finished her
mourning. Hide yourselves. Get out of her way L
lest her glance should fall on you and bring you ill-
fortune." Then the widow goes to a spot called " The
Hole of Mourning " and there buries the piece of the
winding-sheet that she has worn round her head. Then
in the evening she returns home and resumes her
normal life.

The nomad Arabs roam with little apparent plan
about the desert with their herds of camels, sheep,
goats, and donkeys, their movements regulated by the
necessity of finding grazing for their beasts. They
live in tents formed of strips of camel-hair or woollen
cloths sewn together, supported on low poles and held
down by cords to pegs or stones. If they purpose to
remain in one spot for any length of time a back wall
of earth or stones is built up and a hedge of dried
thorn to keep out intruders and keep in their flocks is
erected around.

About them savage, semi-wild dogs maintain
effective guard, sleeping by day unless a stranger
approaches, watching by night. Their fierceness has
to be seen to be appreciated. I had once a very narrow
escape from being badly mauled, if not killed, by a troop
of these brutes when I incautiously approached a cluster
of nomads' dwellings.

A number of tents of members of the same family or
community may be formed into a square, openings in-
ward, enclosing a central space for their live-stock and
surrounded by an outer zareba. This is called a douar.

These wanderers do not confine themselves to the


desert. Their encampments may be seen on the Hauts
Plateaux where they come to graze their animals, and
even farther north. The beauty and picturesqueness
that poets and artists find in the tents of the Arabs are
not evident to the prosaic-minded observer who sees
their filth, squalor and wretchedness.

The Arab is no fit subject for romance. The
unwashed and vermin-covered Bedouin may look pic-
turesque in his flowing burnous, gun slung on his back
or lance in hand, as he sits on a lean, desert-bred
stallion, half-starved but full of endurance. His bold-
eyed, unveiled women are often handsome even to
critical European eyes. But a closer acquaintance with
Arabs destroys the illusion. They are as a race
vicious, immoral, treacherous, thieving, bloodthirsty,
cruel and cowardly. This is a crushing indictment;
but I am certain that it will be endorsed by everyone
who knows them intimately.

Brought up from childhood to steal they would
plunder their nearest relatives and rob the corpses
of their dearest. A husband will tear the ornaments
from the still warm body of his dead wife lest her
family should claim them. Children will pilfer from
their parents; and the latter might only praise them
for their dexterity in thieving, for a father is proud
to call his son a skilful thief and a clever liar.

In a douar the men from a tent will sneak in the
dark to steal from the neighbouring one belonging to
a friend ; and, if one of them gets shot in the process,
the rest will swear, by the Prophet, that this friend
came to rob them and slew the unfortunate wretch when
he tried to guard their property. And then they will
claim the blood fine.


The children from the earliest age are no strangers
to any vice; for no attempt is made to conceal the
knowledge of evil from them. For the Arabs are
immoral to the core. Venereal disease is universal.
To minister to their vicious desires old men purposely
marry girls who have not reached the age of puberty.
Married women are as unfaithful as the fear of their
husbands' wrath will let them be.

The courage of the Arab is rated very low by those
who know him, so that he has not even this redeeming
quality. To sum up I have found no one not even
Arabs themselves who had a good word for the

In an Arab family the father's word is law; and
wives and children are cruelly punished if they fail to
obey him. The best of everything is reserved for him.
At meals he eats alone or with other male adults of the
family ; his spouses (for he may have several) and off-
spring must wait until he has finished. The children
receive no instruction whatever and from an early age
are sent out to herd the goats, sheep and cattle. All
the menial work is performed by the females of the
family, who in addition weave the cloth for garments,
tents and rugs, while the lord and master sits and
smokes in the sun.

The food of these nomads consists of dates which
are carried pressed into a sticky mass in goat or
sheepskins, milk of camels or other animals and cheese
made from it, and couscous. The base of this last-
named universal Arab food is semolina or other flour
worked between the hands into the finest dust, then
steamed and if there be any available made pala-
table by the addition of vegetables or even meat. But


meat is a rare luxury to the poorer Arab. Only at
wedding or other feasts is a sheep slaughtered and then
for the diffa, or banquet roasted whole on a spit over a
fire built in a shallow trench. This dish is called
meckoui, and is greedily devoured by the f casters. I
have tried it at more than one caid's house, but was
not impressed by it ; for owing to the method of cook-
ing portions of the meat were charred, while others
were half-raw. But couscous can be very appetising.

The sheikh of a tribe or a rich man can have
separate tents for each of his sons and their families and
for each of his own wives and her children ; but a poor
man must be content with one shelter for all, the
women sleeping one side, the males the other.

As with all Easterns the family is the unit; and
all the members of it stand together against outsiders,
whatever be their internal dissensions.

The position of women amoung Arabs is far from
enviable. A maiden must accept the husband selected
by her father, who disposes of her to the highest bidder ;
so that usually a very young girl becomes the wedded
slave of a rich old debauchee. When his passion is
sated and he tires of her he can divorce her by a simple
pronouncement or else relegate her to join the other
wives that she supplanted and be, like them, merely a

A divorced woman, even if she returns to the
paternal tent, has the right to be consulted if it is
proposed to marry her again.

The religion of the Saharan tribes is Mahommed-
anism ; but they are very ignorant and know little of
the teachings of their faith which never restrains them
from indulging in any vice or committing any crime.


At the statutory times of praying one sees the desert
Arabs wherever they are spreading their mats on the
sand outside their tents, near their flocks or beside their
tethered camels, kneeling, bowing to the ground, pros-
trating themselves, rising and kneeling again and
muttering what they know of the prescribed prayers.
For the ablutions they use sand instead of water. They
are superstitious and firm believers in witchcraft; and
it is interesting to realise that the European beliefs in
witches flying on broomsticks through the air, casting
spells on human beings and animals, causing persons
whose deaths were desired to surfer and to die by
making wax or clay figures of them and sticking pins
in their images, all have their counterpart in the Arab
superstitions, from which indeed they must have been
derived. For all these originated in the East and are
found to-day in India and Burma.

Before quitting the subject of the Sahara I must
record two interesting facts concerning it. The first is
that a French savant, M. Ch. de la Ronciere, of the
Bibliotheque Nationale, has recently made the remark-
able discovery by means of researches in Genoa and
elsewhere that Timbuctoo and the principal oases of
the Sahara were known to and visited by Europeans in
the Middle Ages. From the thirteenth to the six-
teenth century commercial relations were established
with the great centres of the Niger and of the Soudan.
Spanish merchants and Italian artists were acquainted
with the Saharan routes that were thought to have first
been discovered by nineteenth century explorers.
Andalusian architects built, and Genoese painters
adorned, palaces on the banks of the Niger, palaces
that have long ago disappeared, but of which the sites



and foundations have been traced. M. de la Ronciere
has shown me maps made in those far-away centuries
that plainly indicated the Hoggar, Adrar and other
spots in the Sahara, the discovery of which in the
nineteenth century was hailed as a great triumph of
modern exploration.

The second fact is not less interesting and is more
profitable. Hitherto the sole means of transport in the
great desert has been the camel, slow, insecure and
unreliable. The French are planning a Trans-Saharan
railway; but many years must elapse before it comes
into being. The automobile held out no hope of being
useful over the sand dunes into which its wheels would
sink deep, the rugged mountains, the waterless spaces,
and in the torrid heat in which petrol would evaporate
too quickly. But a French firm, the Citroen Company,
has evolved a type of motor-car which has achieved
the impossible. Three of these vehicles, in which the
two rear wheels were replaced by four smaller ones
provided with caterpillar bands, on which four small
pulleys on either side work, went into the Sahara
from Tougourt in the beginning of 1922, covered over
20,000 kilometres in several months' trials, purposely
seeking out the worst possible ground, the spaces of
softest sand, reaching In-Salah and the Touareg
country, and in awful heat returning safely to Algiers,
where I saw them defile before the President of the
French Republic at his review of Algerian cavalry.

Inspirited by their success the head of the firm, M.
Andre Citroen, has sent out in the winter of 1922-23
four lo-h.p. three-seater automobiles of the same type
to attempt the crossing of the Sahara from Algeria to
Timbuctoo. To help them in their task three similar


cars have been sent by sea to Dakar, on the West
African Coast, to go by land to Timbuctoo, and from
there continue north to lay out supplies of petrol and
other necessities at posts as far as the boundary between
the Niger Territory and the Territory of the Saharan
Oases. Other cars are going south to do the same at
the posts of Ouargla, Inifel, and In-Salah.

Then the four expeditionary cars will be left to their
own resources for a stretch of over 3,600 kilometres.
Each will carry 300 litres of petrol in two reservoirs ;
and they will have between them 120 litres of water to
enable them to cross the desert of Tanezrouft, " The
Land of Thirst," where no wells are found. The
twelve members of the expedition will be armed with
rifles and two aeroplane machine-guns ; the cars will
carry food, spare parts, medicines, and folding tents,
while one is fitted up with a complete cinema-
photographic apparatus.

It is hoped to effect the journey between Tougourt
and Timbuctoo in a month. If the expedition is suc-
cessful as there is every reason to hope that it will
be the Sahara will have been conquered at last ; and
before long regular automobile routes will be estab-
lished, and traversing the Great Desert be no longer
a superhuman feat. And France's North and West
African territories will be effectually linked up.

Since the above was written the Sahara has been
vanquished. The cars of the Citroen Mission under
MM. Haardt and Audouin-Dubreuil, which left
Tougourt on December i/th, 1922, reached Timbuctoo
on January 7th, 1923, having traversed 1,700 miles of
desert in three weeks.



DEEP in the heart of the Sahara are the tribes of the
strange, almost legendary race of the Touareg, the last
of its nomads to submit to French rule, which as yet
sits lightly on them. Until this generation they were
hardly known to the outer world; although a few
travellers brought back tales of the veiled men who
scoured the desert on swift white camels and spread
terror, ruin and desolation as they passed.

The German explorer Barth penetrated to them
early in the nineteenth century, and lived to return;
and Duveyrier reached the Azdjer Touareg in 1861
and actually resided with them for two years. From
these men first came reliable accounts of this race
of bloodthirsty robbers who raided from Timbuctoo
to the confines of Algeria, plundered and enslaved all
other peoples and kept the seclusion of the desert
almost inviolable.

The two travellers mentioned were singular in
gaining their friendship ; for, fearing the extension of
French influence and clinging fanatically to their
freedom, the Touareg usually murdered any explorers
that the Sahara had spared. Colonel Flatters and ten
European companions with a weak escort of native



soldiers were massacred by them in 1881 ; the Marquis
de Mores and his Arab friends and servants were
treacherously slain in 1896 and these were but two
of several.

It was generally believed that their strength and
prowess, aided by the extraordinary difficulties of the
country, would render their conquest an almost impos-
sible undertaking. But a French civilian named
Foureau, who had spent years in the Sahara learning
their language and ways and exploring the approaches
to their territory, induced the Government of the
Republic to entrust him with the leadership of an
expedition consisting of several white officers and some
hundreds of Algerian native troops with camels, horses
and two guns, and conducted it safely from Ouargla
to the Soudan, eventually reaching the coast of West
Africa and returning by sea. He passed right through
the regions inhabited by the Touareg, who only
once ventured to attack and were then so severely
handled that they never again interfered with the

Foureau's success showed not only that the Sahara
could be traversed by large bodies of men, finding
subsistence in it for themselves and their animals
history had long before proved it but also that
the Touareg were not formidable when opposed to
disciplined and well-armed troops.

But even then the French Government was slow to
move, being loath to engage in what seemed a profit-
less expenditure of men and money; and not until the
twentieth century had almost dawned were the gallant
officers of the Algerian Army, who had long chafed at

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Online LibraryGordon CasserlyAlgeria today → online text (page 15 of 18)