Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series
Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
While reworking Desert Travels ahead of a small reprint, I came across this video from 2005 about an Italian expedition that set out from Bamako for Oualata north of Nema. Oualata was once as celebrated as nearby Timbuktu for being a place of Islamic learning, and the video spends a lot of time depicting the intricate bas-relief patterns for which the houses of Oualata are famous. As DT recalls, when I was there in 1989, no time was allowed to have a good look around, far less stay over.
Then, amazingly to me at least, the Italians manage to track down a surviving Nemadi family, a survivor of the pariah-like tribe of dog hunters mentioned in Bruce Chatwin’s semi-fictional Songlines study of nomads. They live in what the vid calls the ‘Sarakolle’ desert. Not heard that designation before, but it seems Sarakolle also means Soninke, a tribe who live along the Malian border but who are indigenous to Africa and not Moors. Some sources attribute or connect them to the Imraguen fish catchers north of Nouamghar, also outsiders in Mauritania’s Moorish culture. Wiki makes a link for the etymology of ‘Nemadi’, something to do with Azer or dog master, but I just assumed it means ‘people from around Nema‘, like Saharawi.
As you can see, the guy doesn’t wear the usual blue robe and his tent is not a Moorish raima, but more of a bent wood humpy. His camel too has no saddle to speak of and it looks like he sits behind the hump. But other items like the three-legged tea table are also used by Moors. At no point in the vid is Nemadi man separated from his ancient rifle.
I thought the Nemadi used to live along the Dhar Tichit beyond Oualata. There is a place call Aguelt Nemadi (Ogueilet en Nmadi) about a hundred miles NNE of Tidjikja or 300 miles NW of Oualata. That might mean ‘Nemadi waterhole’ but lost in the dunes, it looks a pretty lonesome spot on the map, perhaps a watering hole on the old caravan route between Tichit and Ouadane.
The video has no commentary, a few Italian subtitles and some great music. It looks like they set out to cross the 400km to Araouane in their Sixty-series Tojos, but something broke so they came back. The Nemadi guy appears at about 25m.
Michael Asher’s thriller is set in the Spanish Sahara of 1953 when, shortly before being garrotted, a mysterious stranger informs a grieving father in the UK that his son, Billy, survived a plane crash over the desert seven years earlier.
Both father (as well as more sinister agents) then set off in search of the boy who has since been brought up as a Reguibat warrior-hunter, because Billy holds the clues to the location of buried Nazi gold…
By p.27 you pretty much know how the yarn will pan out – maybe that’s the idea with this genre – and the final showdown in the quicksands is statistically a little far-fetched and unsatisfying. Nevertheless the journey to this point is entertaining and informative. Asher bestows the Reguibat (a Moorish tribe of Yemeni origins who make up today’s Saharawi people in Western Sahara) with many of the better qualities and customs of the Bedu of Arabia with whom the author spent many years.
Untypically, Stirling, the boy’s father is a pacifist who did time for his beliefs during WWII, while the baddies are not all scar-faced Nazis, but include other figures closer to home. The real heroes of course are the proud and honour-bound Reguibat nomads who despise our flabby and crass Western values. Like his mentor Thesiger, Asher cannot resist painting them as noble nomadic raiders wanting nothing more than peace with the despicable neighbouring tribes. At one point the Reguibat join forces with the pagan, dog-hunting Nemadi (also a real if extinct tribe, and a long way from Nema, it seems) and there is an amusing exchange tinged with truth when Muslim and pagan nomads belittle each others’ customs, language and dress.
The big themes in Sandstorm are betrayal, courage and loyalty among nomads and westerners alike – ‘honour’ in a word – and in telling its tale, Sandstorm avoids the worst cringe-making clichés of this genre (on which I’m not an expert) while opening a window on a little known people and part of the Sahara. It compares well with Desmond Bagley’s Flyaway (see review) and is much better than Cussler’s dreadful Sahara. Asher generously credits John Mercer’s Spanish Sahara (see review) for much of his information .