Read Sahrawi Writer Bahia Mahmud Awah's "How My Grandfather Almost Starved to Death"

Saharan sandstorm
Saharan sandstorm | © Burze Piaskowe

Books and Digest Editor

A nomadic herdsman and his camels are caught in a Sahara sandstorm in the Sahrawi Republic selection from our Global Anthology.

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Detu would tell us the fascinating story of what happened to her father in the desert. My maternal grandfather Omar, who passed away in 1959, as my uncle Mohamed Moulud used to remind us, once got lost in the middle of a terrible sandstorm which separated him from his family and his herd of camels, and he survived. It happened while they were traveling in a caravan to go and set up camp in an area which had a lot of grass and good wells for the animals. This is the story of how my grandfather and, indeed, his whole family were pushed to their limits and were forced to put into practice the knowledge that they had acquired from their ancestors on how to survive in the desert.

One day, when my mother was little, my grandparents decided to gather their herd and move to the southern region of the territory in search of grazing land and water. During the night, they prepared the dromedaries, one-hump camels that carried their personal effects, and they fed their six children. They took down their jaima¹ and then proceeded to load their belongings onto their emrakib².

The dromedaries were upset because their period of rest in lemrah³, after a long day of grazing, had been interrupted; a confusion of nervous mothers and kids searched and hollered for one another in the darkness. Meanwhile my grandfather was shouting “ohh, ohh, ohh” the sound that was used to calm down the animals. The emrakib were lying apart from the rest in front of the jaima. Each one of them, with his jzama⁴ attached to a silver ring on the upper part of his flared nostrils, ruminated calmly while the first pack saddles was placed on his back.

Nisha, my grandmother, was placing and fastening her amshakab⁵ saddle on Zerig, her favorite dromedary, with the help of my uncles Ladjar and Alati. Alati was thirteen years old at the time and the oldest of the children. Meanwhile, Omar was trying to finish loading the bulk of their property onto the three pack dromedaries: Sheil, Lehmani and the powerful Arumay. Arumay always carried the larger loads, such as the jaima, its sheets and all the ercaiz⁶. He was a dark brown robust male, with shaggy shoulders and muscular feet. He was also a very obedient and elegant animal thanks to his expert trainer, my grandfather. My grandmother loved it when he grunted because she said that he was loyal even when he was in heat; in that condition these males’ hormones would run riot and they would have a falling out with their owners as they sought freedom and privacy with their females.

My grandfather Omar knew that grazing land was abundant in the southern part and that it was the best place for his family and ibil⁷. In the desert lajabar⁸ travels by word of mouth among the shepherds and the deyarin⁹. He had, therefore, gathered enough information through their seasonal migrations and in their encounters with Bedouins who were always on the lookout for places where there had been rain.

My grandparents would take advantage of good weather and the darkness of the night to cover several kilometers in the hope that, at daybreak, they would find themselves at a place that was likely to offer them the absolute peace and tranquility of nomadic life. Everything was ready that night and the livestock was set to travel in a southerly direction—on the double—with a view to arriving at a camp in a week.

However, on the third day, they were hit by an unprecedented sandstorm at dawn. Omar was not familiar with the place where they were headed and blowing winds from the south made it impossible for even a desert man weathered by that hostile environment to see beyond his outstretched arm. My grandmother was screaming at Omar to remain with the group and not go after any of the livestock that lagged behind. Meanwhile, he was running from one place to the other trying to keep the herd together and prevent the young dromedaries who could not keep up with the adult ones from wandering off.

Suddenly, the dark silhouette of Omar riding on the back of Elbeyed disappeared. My grandmother tried to locate him among the herd at the farthest end but she could not see him nor hear Elbeyed’s quiet lowing. She called out “Omar, Omar, Omar, where are you?!” and over and over again she would let out that visceral cry of pain, sadness and helplessness at the drama that was unfolding around her: “ina lilahi!, ina lilahi!

The oldest of the children riding next to her in his amshakab saddle kept asking “but where is my father? I can’t hear him calling the animals.” To calm him down, Nisha prudently replied that his father had stayed behind to look for a straggling huar¹⁰ and that he would catch up with them soon, without any problem. Meanwhile she continued to stay with the herd and worked vigorously to keep everything together and on the move. From time to time she would go “esh, esh, esh” to draw in the straying ones and keep them all huddled together and marching on in the same direction.

The wind was getting stronger and stronger, and the children were crying because it was time to set camp and have their meal of milk or kisra¹¹ if possible. Stunned by the weather conditions and the disappearance of her husband, she drew strength from the innermost core of her Bedouin identity and forged ahead because she knew that if she stopped, even for a second, everything would fall apart. She absolutely did not want to lose the animals that were carrying the water and so she decided to keep going until the storm died down.

Meanwhile Omar had gone in a completely unfamiliar direction, and seeing that he had lost his bearings, he stopped for a moment and went towards some shrubs to find out if they had any signs that would guide him. Alas the strong winds had destroyed all the signals: the tops of the shrubs were bent in another direction and the little sand dunes often found on their leeward side, shielded from the northerly winds, had disappeared. The sun was invisible and it was dark all around him. Omar’s experience and the fifty years that he had lived in the harsh desert environment were of no use to him at all in that sudden outburst of nature. He knew that it was an indomitable phenomenon which was simply the will of God.

He wandered nonstop on his dromedary that whole day, searching for tracks and animal excreta and listening out for grunting, the whimpering of children or the voice of his wife. He called out to Arumay many times hoping to use the dromedary’s response to find his bearings and he let his Elbeyed run free in case his instincts led him to the rest of the herd. All this to no avail; meanwhile the storm raged on. Omar was exhausted and his dromedary needed to graze and regain his strength to keep going.

Disconcerted by the situation of his wife and children, Omar thought of the water and the provisions that they were carrying on the humps of the dromedaries and wondered how Nisha and the children would be able to reach them. He looked at the opaque sky convinced that God was everywhere as he had learned as a very little child from his father and exclaimed in a conciliatory tone, as if he were praying, “dear God, now I really leave Nisha, Alati, Jadiyetu, Ladjar, Yeslem, Moulud and Jueya in your hands! You would know where they are! Please take care of them! Guide those instincts that you gave me at the age of five when I looked after my family’s small herd. The drought has evicted me from my land and hunger is devouring the bellies of my children, my wife and my dromedaries. Please stand by me at this crucial time.”

He had gone without food and water for too many hours as all the provisions were on Lehmami and the water and a few sacks of barley were hidden in Nisha’s tezaya¹². Thanks to the cool winter season he did not crave water. However, he had begun to feel the first symptoms of going without food for two days. His knees buckled when he tried to get off his dromedary to gather some wild plants for food. In any case he found very few plants and they hardly provided him with nourishment.

Whenever it was time for one of the five daily prayers, Omar would look for a place that had a little bit of foliage, casting his eyes over the terrain from his perch atop Elbeyed. This way he could give his dromedary a break while he performed the rituals that were required of him as a believer. Since he could not see the sun, he calculated time according to the way in which Elbeyed behaved at certain times. If it was already nightfall the animal would make gentle grunting noises and walk more slowly as a sign that he wanted to rest. Omar would then order him to stop and he would climb down from his rahla.¹³ After that he would look for an acacia tree or some other shrub to protect himself from the horrendous guetma¹⁴.

The third night, the two of them rested protected by the crown of an acacia tree that had been uprooted by the wind. That was the best gift from nature after three days without food. There were a few eljarrub¹⁵ still attached to their branches, which had otherwise been stripped bare by the wind. Elbeyed ate the tender parts of the crown and Omar collected the few pods of eljarrub and chewed on them slowly. Unfortunately they were bitter as they were not yet dry.

As he thought about his family, Omar felt a sense of calm because he had always had a blind faith in his wife, especially in times of difficulty when they had to make life and death decisions. He prayed again for the safety of everyone. When he finished praying he tied up his dromedary securely. In order to shield himself from the cold and the winds, he slept huddled against Elbeyed’s shoulders. Meanwhile his stomach rumbled all night long.

The animal shook his head because of the dust that had accumulated on his body. My grandfather understood that unmistakable sign at once: another day with the sandstorm raging on; another day of hunger and thirst; another day for a man of the desert to be thrown off course by the harsh force of nature. The dromedary was beginning to get weak after several weeks of being on the move with the family, with no food and hardly any rest. My grandfather remembered what he had been taught to do in those situations: the survival principle among the men of the desert was to remain calm and stay put until the weather cleared. Luck was not on his side because he was in a strange place with little vegetation. He tried to figure out where he was by collecting stones, dried roots and some plants and examining them carefully to identify the geography of the area. However, he was too hungry to concentrate; his legs were trembling and his vision was cloudy because he was dehydrated.

He got up and dragged a few branches of the acacia that had been protecting them towards his dromedary; Elbeyed devoured the green, thorny branches with strong bites. Omar remembered that there could be some moisture in the acacia roots so he looked and with some difficulty he pulled out some roots that still contained very sweet sap and he began to chew them. His stomach began to feel better after the severe pain that he had suffered from eating those bitter pods the previous night.

In the meantime, Nisha and their six children had been walking southward for six days. She knew her bearings and she had absolute control over the situation, although when they had to camp or set off again she struggled to load and unload the water tanks mounted on Lehmami’s saddle.

By the following day Omar had absolutely exhausted his strength; he was hallucinating and nauseous but he had to try and survive at all costs. He loved his dromedary, Elbeyed, an animal that he had chosen and trained himself. Elbeyed had various tempos to the way in which he trotted thanks to his well-developed hairy tail and his well-proportioned physique. He was a gem of an azzal,¹⁶ a dromedary that had been castrated to withstand hunger, thirst and long journeys. For all these reasons the inevitable decision that Omar had to make pained him so much.

Despite his weakness, Omar dug out a hole about half an arm’s length deep; he surrounded it with stones and filled it with some dry sticks that he had collected from around the acacia tree. From the pocket of his darraa,¹⁷ he took out a small iron bar that had been treated specially to produce sparks when it was rubbed against flint stone. He placed a fine cotton wick on top of the flint stone and he rubbed the little bar against it two or three times until the sparks lit the cotton wick, which he then placed gently among the fine branches and the firewood. The flames started to give off smoke and heat. Omar took out a sharp mus bleida¹⁸ from his belt and stuck its fine blade into the fire.

At that moment he realized how much he and his dromedary needed each other in that extreme situation. Without stopping to think, he used the red-hot knife to slice off Elbeyed’s tail. He simultaneously used the same blade to cauterize the wound so that it would not haemorrhage. Following that, he looked for a plant with healing properties, chewed its leaves and applied it to the two vertebrae that remained of Elbeyed’s tail. After that Omar patted his head and kissed his neck several times, saying to him “you and I have no choice but to summon our strength to look for our family.”

That night Omar had some meat and with that, and the moist acacia roots, he regained some energy to continue his journey. The following day he decided to travel in the direction against the wind, seeing that it had not changed since the first day; the wind was blowing from the south and he headed in that direction. Each time he came across any green pasture he would stop and allow Elbeyed to replenish his energy. Eight days later he saw excreta left behind by an encampment of animals and he stopped right there to examine this sign of life carefully. He determined that his family had camped there approximately a week prior, based on the number of marks that each dromedary had left and the humidity of the animals’ excreta.

Omar survived ten more days on the rest of his dromedary’s tail and the roots that he found. By the second week the weather had begun to clear up. There was some rain which left puddles of water from which Omar and Elbeyed drank. My grandfather had begun to find his bearings, and would come across shepherds and dromedary finders with whom he exchanged information about his family and the damage caused by the sandstorm of am elguetma, the “year of the sandstorm,” which is the name that the Sahrawis gave to that year.

That night Nisha, with the help of the oldest of her little children, was milking the dromedaries for supper near their camp fire when she heard Elbeyed’s melancholic lowing as he knelt down in the sand. Omar climbed down from his back and called out to his wife and children “are you all okay?” The little ones emerged from the jaima and flew into his arms. Nisha, emotional on seeing the physical state of her husband, went towards him with a bowl of fresh milk and offered it to him: “Drink this first.” She asked her children to let go of him so he could drink it. From that night on Elbeyed was no longer called Elbeyed but rather Guilal because of his sliced-off tail. My grandfather did not starve to death because of his dromedary’s tail. Through the story of his heroic survival, he and Nisha taught us not to give up in the face of adversity.

This story sounds like fiction but it is really true, as people in my family well know. I heard it from my mother many times when I was a child and at the time I thought it was one of those endearing Shertat¹⁹ tales. But as I said, it really happened and my mother continued to narrate it on many occasions, even when I became an adult.

¹ Camping tent used by North African nomads.
² Dromedaries trained as pack animals.
³ The place, situated opposite the family’s jaima, where the dromedaries rest each night. These are the traces that are left behind by a family after several weeks at a camp site: excreta of the herd, remains of the fireplace, acacia branches, the three stones that support the pots that are used to heat the meals and the bones of animals that were consumed during the camping period.
Braided leather reins that are used to direct the dromedary.
Camel saddle for women.
The poles that hold up a jaima.
A herd of camels.
The plural of deyar, someone who searches for missing dromedaries.
¹⁰ A dromedary calf.
¹¹ Unleavened bread baked in hot sand and eaten by nomads.
¹² Dromedary skin bag in which women keep provisions.
¹³ Camel saddle for men. In the Western Sahara it is made from a shrub called ignin and it is covered with dromedary skin.
¹⁴ A windstorm that is very well known by desert inhabitants for its terrible consequences.
¹⁵ Acacia pods that are edible when dry.
¹⁶ A male riding dromedary that has been castrated and trained to carry loads.
¹⁷ Traditional wear for Sahrawi men.
¹⁸ Traditional knife with handle encased in two plaques of ivory used by nomads.
¹⁹ A mythical character in Sahrawi oral tradition whose stories are used criticize bad habits in the society.

Translated from Spanish by Dorothy Odartey-Wellington. This story was originally published in the Savanah Review and was taken from Awah’s memoir “La maestra que me enseñó en una tabla de madera” (The Woman Who Taught Me on a Wooden Slate).

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