Monday, September 13, 2010

Back into the desert

On Friday I wrote that perhaps only Charles Doughty’s loving, detailed, ornate descriptions of the desert could convince me, a lifelong Midwesterner, of its charms and enchantments. But moments after I posted that, I remembered that I’d recently encountered another writer who had done nearly so well at that task: Dorothy Dunnett.

In Scales of Gold (1991), the fourth book of her House of Niccolo series, Nicholas and his friend, Umar, a former slave who is Nicholas’s great friend and has been his host during a journey to Africa, head north through the desert from Timbuktu towards Arawan with a caravan of some two hundred and fifty camels and three hundred or so people. They set out:
There are few wells in the Sahara, and the journey between them depends on navigation as exact and as strict as that employed by a captain at sea, venturing out of sight of his port, and into waters unknown. In time of clear skies, the Sahara caravan makes its way as the birds do, and the captains: by the sun and the stars, and by whatever landmarks the sand may have left. But the winds blow, and dunes shift, and the marks left by one caravan are obliterated before the next comes. And so men will wander, and perish.

The guide Umar had chosen for Nicholas was a Mesufa Tuareg, and blind. For two days, walking or riding, he turned the white jelly of his sightless eyes to the light and the wind, and opened his palpitating black nostrils to the report of the dead, scentless sand which was neither scentless nor dead, but by some fineness of aroma proclaimed its composition and place. At each mile’s end, he filled his hands with the stuff, and, rubbing, passed it through his brown fingers. Then he smiled and said, “Arawan.”

“Umar,” Nicholas said, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Though Dunnett doesn’t underplay the risks that face the caravan--like any good adventure novelist, she takes full advantage of them--at the same time she portrays the quiet of the desert, with its cool nights and tapestry of stars, as a potential healing force, drawing Nicholas, for once, away from the constant plotting and battling that have engulfed his life:
To begin with, they spoke very little. With the rest, they walked through the first night and part of the day, halting rarely. Sleep was brief, and taken by day. During the worst of the heat, they lay with the camels under the white, shimmering sky, and ate, and rested. . . . On the long transit to Taghaza, walking under the Andalusian vaults of the stars, there was time to talk again now and then--and a need. The clarity of the desert demanded something as rare; demanded truth, vision, honesty of those who walked in it.
T. E. Lawrence, in his introduction to Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, which I quoted from on Friday, makes much the same (admittedly essentialist) point:
The desert inhibits considered judgments; its bareness and openness make its habitants frank. Men in it speak out their minds suddenly and unreservedly. Words in the desert are clear-cut.
I know that in my heart I’ll always prefere the decadent ease of an early autumn day in the northern forests over that harshness, but don’t they make it sound at least a bit tempting?

Finally, since I’ve been wandering the desert the past couple of days, I figure I might as well link to the commonplace book–style piece I put together for the New York Moon a couple of years ago on the topic, in case you haven’t seen it. The Moon’s editors got some great illustrators for it, and the result, I think, is a lot of fun. Pour yourself a tall, refreshing glass of iced tea and enjoy!

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