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Captain's Bio

This was taken from a copy of a letter I sent to friends and family on April 20, 1967. I was barely able to salvage it because it had turned brown and was fading..

Letter From The Sahara

Salaam Alek'oum!

So goes the ritual greeting in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, where life continues as it did a thousand years ago, occasionally bumped, but never or rarely scratched, by the twentieth century. "Peace be with you," it means, and peace there is. But little else.

A short week ago I slipped through the veils of time and passed a fedw days with the nomadic Moors, eating their food and sleeping under their stars. How can I describe the constant sense of unreality? I felt like an actor in a movie.

Imagine yourself going back, back, back into the hazy past. You step out of your time machine (which looks remarkably like a Land Rover) and shield your eyes from the glaring desert sun. You didn't arrive by road. You have a vague impression in your mind of sand and rocks and thornbushes, but you are dead certain you didn't arrive by road. Ahead of you is a black wool tent with one side opened wide to the west. A young boy comes out and invites you in to its cool shade. It is early afternoon and the men are relaxing away from the murderous heat of the sun. Under the tent it is cooler than you expected and you greatefully take off your shoes, lie down on the brightly-colored rugs, and lean your arm on a straw-stuffed leather pillow. It is the chief's tent, and he calls out orders to bring refreshments for you and your companions. Black-robed women scurry up out of nowhere and busily begin to scrub brass trays with sand and wash treasured glass cups with water you'd prefer not to think about. The chief himself serves you, first with a metal bowl of grayish liquid that turns out to be curdled camel's milk, laced with sugar and thinned with water. It is the water that makes it gray. Next, as a special treat, you are served a bowl of crushed, pitted dates wrapped in goatskin, and two cups of rancid butter to use as a dip. While you have been eating this a young man in a well-worn, once-white robe has been sitting in front of you, engaged in the peculiar Moorish ritual of preparing tea. Using tea from China, fresh mint leaves, and chunks of sugar groken off a foot-high cone, he is now ready to present you with your first demitasse of green-gold boiling liquid. This you drink in short, slurping sips to avoid scalding your tongue amy more than you have to. Comes the second cup, the thrid, each progressively sweeter, and now you can lie back and relax for a couple of minutes until they serve the "mishwi" - fresh roasted lamb and a glutinous concoction of boiled grains of whole wheat. The chief joins you and your companions for the meal and you all scoot up to the central bowl and pick out the choice pieces of meat with your right hand only. After each piece of meat you dig your fingers into the wheat "cous-cous" and squeeze it into a bite-sized ball which you pop into your mouth, trying not to notice the grains of sand that keep getting between your teeth. Finally the welcome is over and the chief invites you to come and see the dam his people are contructing entirely by hand to hold back enough water during the next rains for a little cultivation; for these are semi-nomads who must eke out their precarious living with a few crops in addition to their herds of animals.

At the dam site, which is about 1000 yards in length, the activity is surprisingly vigorous. There under the blazing sun men, women and children are working harder than you expected them to be able or willing. The strongest men are hacking away at the hard, dry earth and a loud "Hunh! accompanies each stroke. Another group of men is shoveling up the loose earth and dumping it into straw baskets which are quickly picked up and placed on the heads of old men, young men, women and children who then step off at a brisk pace - some of them even ran - to unload their baskets on the dam and rush back for more. All these workers are encouraged by thirty or so women and girls nearby who are dancing and singing. Their "song" is a high-pitched, ululating wail joined by small drums and a low, blubbering howl by one of the diggers. As the women dance their dark robes swirl and their arms and hands trace graceful movements in the dusty air. Occasionally a hood will fall back to reveal a pretty smiling face topped by black hair, piled high and decorated with pieces of gold and carnelian. The whole scene is almost festive, yet there is an undeniable sense of urgency there, too. Why are they working so hard in this terrible heat, working so hard that the sweat rolls off in streams, whre no one hold a whip over them and njo one can see if they shirk? Because they are working for themselves; because they are working for their lives. The rains come in two months, rains that fall as if huge vats of water were being turned over in the sky. Here the rains mean life or death - life if they finish in time... death if they don't. There aren't enough animals this year to tide them over. They must finish in time. You look at them carefully and get the feeling that they will. They are a hard people in a hard land and they intend to survive. But they are not completely hard. The chief and the elders in their flowing blue and while robes and turbans have gathered around a small tree growing right in the middle of the dam. An animated discussion begins and several workers are called over to take part. It seems they don't want to cut it down, though it could cause a weak spot in the dam which might ruin the whole project. The discussion goes back and forth until the real reason for their reluctance comes out. The tree is pretty; it is a thing of beauty in a place whee beauty is scarce. It pleases the poetic soul of these outwardly hardened Moors, for whom poetry is a natural gift. Finally they face the inevitable: the tree must go. But they will miss it.

Now the sun is nearing the horizon and it is time to get back to the tent for tea. Once again you take off your shoes and stretch out on the rugs, glad for the informality. The movements of the ancient tea ritual occupy y9our attention until you are handed the first bitter cup. Then you lean back on your pillow and sip. like everyhone else. There is little conversation. The sun is setting the horizon on fire and you and the others are sunk deep in your private comtemplations, living briefly in a world of unknowable thoughts. As night falls several riders arrive on camels from some mysterious errand and settle their balky mounts down for the night. A fire is lit and the "mishwi" and "cous-cous" are served again, as well as a bowl of fresh, warm cow's milk, while the shadowty forms of women and children huddle on the other side of the fire waiting for their share. After the meal there is conversation and as the white-haired, white-robed father of the chief talks and gestures, his old, deeply-lined face reflecting the firelight, you are reminded of an Old Testament scene from the Bible. Strangely exhausted, you decide to crawl into your anachronistic sleeping bag. The men of the tribe have commenced their evening prayers towrd Mecca. Just before going to sleep you take another look around - at the ridiculous shape of the camel hunched by the fire, at the sweep of the tent barely outlined against the nightr sky, at the bloated goatskin with its legs still sticking out hanging by your head and full of wter in case you get thirsty. You lay your head down and start to close your eyes. The last thing you see is a meteor flashing across your star-speckled roof. The last thing you hear is the muyrmuyring of the Koranic prayers. The last thing you think is .. it can't be real.

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Copyright 2002 by Serge King
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