North Africa was becoming a habit with me. Taking the boat in Marseilles before noon, I would be in the port of Algiers the next day in time to have a cous-cous lunch in an Arab eating-joint near the marché.
On one of these vacations I went south on a hunting trip with a couple of French sportsmen. One of them owned an open car of a model old enough to have plenty of ground clearance—indispensable in the Sahara. Our destination was the southern oasis of El Golea. Even while the car was in motion these Nimrods took pot-shots at everything they saw—barring only the species homo sapiens. I drove for a few hours, but the strain of listening to barrels being emptied without warning a few inches behind me wore me down. I made my partners move up front, and from then on contented myself with loading their guns. We had a Bedouin with us named Moktar. He was the only real hunter in the party, a professional, and had been brought along to sniff out gazelle. One night we stayed in an oasis called Guerrara, well off the main route.
We passed a couple of women wading in a pool as we drove in. They were wearing the melhafa, a one-plece garment that is open on the side and secured with silver clasps in front. In these parts neither sedentary nor nomad women wear the veil. Passing an infidel they may cover the face with a corner of the haik, but this shroud-like garment is not convenient in the water, so these modest maidens lifted their one-piece melhafas to cover their faces, exposing more intimate parts of their persons in so doing.
There was no hotel in Guerrara, and not an infidel in town. The place was unspoiled. An orchestra of jackals kept us awake that night in the community bordj—the nearest thing to an auto-camp to be found in the Sahara. There was no food to be had at the bordj, and outside of a brace of quail and an elderly bustard whose guts had been blown out at close range we had no provisions. So Moktar got busy and roasted these. Chewing at one of the bustard's legs I broke a gold filling on a grain of buckshot. Around eight o'clock we gave most of the bustard to the douar dogs. But it was too early to go to bed, and then, Moktar had been talking about the Ouled-Nail girls in the Street of the Dancers behind the camel market. We rounded up a couple of them. One was working. The other making mint-tea—Guerrara, a purely Mussulman community, being strictly teatotal. We moved in on her. In an hour or so her roommate climbed down on us by way of a narrow, almost perpendicular stairway, bringing along a boy friend. After he got through fixing his pantaloons and rewinding his turban he recognized Moktar. From their conversation I gathered that he was a camel-dealer from Mesaad, an oasis to the south, at the foot of a four-peaked mountain—the Djebel Amour, where the houris of the Ouled-Nail tribe pitch their black tents—sitriped with red—the color of courtesans the world over. The camel-dealer claimed that gazelle roamed the mountain slopes above Mesaad in herds. But I could tell by the home-town-booster glint in his eye he was piling it on. When Moktar had translated to them, I warned the hunters, but it did no good. Before another sunrise we were headed for El Golea by way of Mesaad and gazelle.
About eighty kilometers after sunup we were following a piste, which was nothing but a camel track through the hamadathe stony desert spreading south to the Djebel Amour. Behind us chunked an old Citroen, piloted uncertainly by the camel-dealer of Mesaad, his Ouled-Nail lady of the previous evening curled and asleep on the planks of the after-deck—the seat being too shallow for tocus-comfort.
We were bumping along at about fifty when one of the sportsmen spotted an eagle. He raised his shotgun, but thought better of it and switched to a high-velocity German rifle with a telescopic sight. Moktar showed signs of agitation—bad luck to kill an eagle!—but, noting its altitude, calmed down. In a few seconds the eagle was taking a nose-dive. He crashed about forty yards to port. The marksman zoomed over the door and rushed to collect the débris. The débris was down, but far from out, it's a tough job to kill an eagle—and zoomed at him in a flurry of feathers and claws that put him on the floor for the count of five. From the ground he fired two more shots into it. It subsided after a sideswipe on the head from his barrel. Moktar was reciting protective Koranic formulas when the marksman dumped the eagle into the back seat where Moktar and I and the spare tires were.
As we went further south the going got rougher all the time and the stones, which strewed the hamada on either side of us, bigger and sharper. We had made about ten kilometers when Moktar stood up in the car, a finger pressed to his nose. He executed a series of gestures and we pulled up.
"Ghezal—gazelle!" he shouted. "Go slow, they'll head into the wind." The motor stalled. Moktar wet a forefinger and held it up, then pointed to the southeast. I could not see a thing, and fished our binoculars from the pocket in the door. After twisting the contraption into near-focus I could count the little animals a few hundred yards to leeward of us: one—two—three...five in all. The starter whirred ineffectually a few times and the bus grated into gear and came near bounding out from under us before we got within range. Instead of making for the hills behind them, the gazelle headed into the wind at rightangles to the track, crossed it well ahead of us and streaked off—all but one. This one, a doe, had gone lame. She did her best to follow the others on three legs, but her team-mates were almost out of sight when we caught up with her. Eagle-Killer yelled to slow down, and I was on my feet to hop out and catch her when he fired two barrels into her little rump at four yards and crumpled her.
"Chameau!" I shouted. "Son of a bitch—assassin!"
I dragged him out of the car. Our partner and Moktar dragged us apart. I had a break not having my knife on me. I would be under the bamboos in French Guiana now if I had not left if at Guerrara.
Blood was pouring from her belly when they picked up the gazelle, staining the white fur of it she was so proud of that she would stand up all night rather than soil it on dirty ground.
Moktar emptied her of guts and unborn young. Then he stretched out her legs and laid her on her belly to drain. I went over to look at her. Her glazed eyes seemed to reproach me. I felt as if we had just murdered a gazelle-eyed Bedouin girl of the Djebel Amour. And all I had given Eagle-Killer was a bloody nose!
By this time the camel-dealer and his Ouled-Nail had come alongside. Eagle-Killer and friend had sniffed blood and were all set to follow the other gazelle.
"For Christsake," I said, "we can't eat four more—and they'll spoil anyway before we get to El Golea!"
I refused to go along, and stayed with the camel-dealer and his joy-rider. The open car bounced off the trail into the stony desert, Moktar and the binoculars on the running board. They were gone a long time. The camel-dealer was getting impatient and wanted to move on without the sportsmen. He wanted to make Mesaad before dark. But I figured he had better stay, they had left their water and their gasoline cans with us. He agreed to wait half an hour. He said if they had not shown up by then he would leave the gasoline and the water flasks on the trail, and I could go along with him or spend the night with the hyenas.
Then, a long way off, we saw someone waving at us. We started the car and drove out across the hamada slowly. It was quite a while before we came to Moktar.
The gazelle had escaped. The sportsmen's car was stalled a couple of miles off and had three flat tires; and the eagle had come to life and chewed up all the inner tubes in the back seat before they got wise to him. Moktar also mentioned that Eagle-Killer had a broken wrist. It appeared that while he was cranking the car, Allah, The Most Just, had intervened and caused the motor to backfire—obviously on account of shooting the eagle.
From what I have learned in Islamic countries, Allah, The Most Just, is also the most unassailable of the gods. Foreign missionaries have poor success with His servants, who tolerate them when their efforts are confined to charity, but smile when they seek to proselyte. Recently, discussing the practice of diverting foreign people from their inherited faiths with a Moslem who had studied at Cambridge and at an American University, I got an Islamic slant on the subject. Said he:
"This proselyting business should really entail some responsibility; but since the only responsibility a missionary takes is one he cannot be called to account for on earth, he is inclined to spread hinself, as you say in America, confident that by Judgment Day the Celestial Supreme Court will have been packed with martyrs of his persuasion."
His comment reminded me of a trip I once made from Algiers to the oasis of Timimoun, many hundred miles south. I spent a few days at Ghardaia, capital of the Mozabites, an Islamic sect that dominates this part of the Sahara. Ghardaia is also the H.Q. of the missionary order whose good works have become a Saharan tradition: Les Pères Blancs. These 'White Fathers' have been discreet. They have gained the confidence of the Moslems through charity and by their knowledge of medicine. They have helped the poor, tended the sick and, on the whole, lived abstemious lives. Their real job has been that of trying to convince the tribes that France is a friend, not a master.
At Ghardaia I was the guest of Monseigneur Noury, chief of the White Fathers. He was a good host. His port was the finest I have ever sampled. The contents of the third glass dissolved my reticence.
"Monseigneur," I asked, "in the forty years you have spent in the Sahara, can you honestly record the diversion of one Moslem to Christianity?"
The Father of the White Fathers pulled on his white beard.
"Are you a journalist?" he inquired.
"No, Monseigneur, just a nosy Irishman."
"What I say is not for publication?"
"No, Monseigneur. I tried to be a journalist once, but I had no luck. Nothing you say to me is for immediate publication. Ten years from now—"
"Ten years from now, my son, both of us may have migrated to a better world," he broke in.
"If it's as good as your port, I won't object," I said.
He laughed and put his hand on my arn.
"Mon petit, je vois que vous etes un homme du monde."
He refilled our glasses and pulled at his beard again.
"I am completely Christian," he affirmed. "I will never change. But here in Africa I have learned many things. I have found out that conversions—'diversions', you say, are not to be expected. These people, nomads and sedentaries alike, have instilled into them a faith that is practically unassailable. We cannot combat their beliefs."
"Why not, Monseigneur?"
"Because their beliefs are, to a great extent, our own," he replied. "Our Lord Jesus is one of their prophets; and they have a disconcerting habit of answering our arguments with his words."
Monseigneur's opinion was that Islam was a primitive form of Christianity. Though he would not submit to cross-examination, he had to admit that the Moslems had dispensed with symbols, in the idolatrous sense. But he explained this by saying:
"Here in the Sahara, man feels so close to God that he has no need of them."
And this was a great missionary talking.
"Monseigneur, in your forty years in the Sahara, have you made one 'convert’ to Christianity?" I insisted.
"One, yes," he replied. "I am convinced that I made one. I administered the Holy Sacrament to him on his death-bed. He was Cheik of a tribe near Metili, a very important man.
"In forty years, only one, Monseigneur?"
"Proselytism is not our only aim," he said evasively.
Before I left he gave me a photograph of his friend, the famous Père de Foucauld, the ex-libertine, ex-cavalry officer, who, by his good works, and by the example of his saintly life, did more to win over the Hoggar Tuareg than Lieutenant Cottenest at the battle of Tit, when he mowed down their nobles (who were mounted on white camels and armed only with spears and broadswords) with machineguns.
When I left Monseigneur Noury an old brother saw me to the door. He collected a donation for charity and we talked for a while. He did not smoke, but he accepted a package of chewing-gum.
"Tell me about that Metile Cheikh who died a Christian," I said.
The brother shrugged.Handwritten note appears to read: "That is one of Monseigneur's pet fables."
"We hope, for his sake, he did," he said. "But we are not sure. He received the supreme unction, but, you see, he was unconscious for fortyeight hours before he died."
When my friend, Commandant Gabriel Cortelaine, retired from the French colonial army he made a profession of his favorite pastime, big game hunting. His specimens are to be found in natural history museums in many parts of the world, and his monocle and stiff leg are well known from Nairobi to the Cameroons, as he takes an expedition to one of the vast game reeerves of tropical Africa every year. At El Golea, a Saharan oasis eight hundred kilometers south of Algiers, he owns a house that smells like a tannery on account of the odiferous trophy museum adjoining it. The commandant is also a taxidermist and cures his specimens himself. He assured me that their odors became less noticeable as time goes on, but since he is continually adding to his collection the heady atmosphere prevails. The last time I called on him the ants were eating decayed flesh from an elephant's head in the backyard. He said they had helped solve his labor troubles.
The Commandant is a fine marksman, few of his trophies show evidence of having stopped more than one bullet. But the trophy he talks about most was not brought down by his own gun. It is a bristling striped hyena with huge jaws, a female. In spite of curing and mounting she has managed to retain enough of her particular life-stink to out-stink the most heroic exhibits in the museum. The ball that finished her had pierced the left eye and shattered the base of the skull.
"This is the gun that put her out of business," he said, taking from the gun rack a flint-lock mokhala with a flaring stock of walnut and bone. The barrel, bound with chased silver bands, must have been six feet long. The weapon was a relic of the defensive war Algerian Emir Abd-el-Kader waged gallantly in the eighteen-forties against the French invaders of his country. There are Bedouins who still use guns like this. They say the length of the barrel is an aid to accuracy and, anyway, their ammunition is so scarce that every shot must count, so the extra time muzzle-loading takes is only a minor drawback. But these Bedouins are old men who have an instinctive distrust of foreign contraptions, or poor men who have not the price of them.
Little Ali's father was both old and poor. He used his mokhala through preference, and through necessity until the commandant suggested swapping it for an Italian musket of early serial number—war booty captured in a clash with Taureg camel-reiders on the Tripolitan frontier. Little Ali only used his father's mokhala once: an act of disobedience, for he knew well his orders were to keep his fingers off the trigger. But Ali's father had overlooked this digression—the circumstances being sufficiently extenuating, the commandant explained, replacing the gun.
"And now, cher ami, what do you say to an aperitif?" he said, pulling out his watch.
We went out. A warm wind bore the odors of the big game mausoleum along with us as far as the tomb of the martyred Père de Foucauld. There we veered north toward the ksar, a cone-shaped hill honeycombed with deserted dwellings and capped by a disused French fort. The Commandant insisted on climbing it,—the exertion would give us an appetite for dinner. When we got to the top I was glad we had come. Below us, irrigation ditches made shining ribbons through the rectangular palm groves. Beyond, the plain swept fanwise to the towering sand-dunes of the Grand Erg and Timimoum. The sight was one not easy to forget.
"We're dining off Saharan trout," the Commandant said. "They come from that artificial lake on the other side of the hotel. No one knows how they got there, the lake only made its appearance a short time ago—artesian water."
On the way down, the path slipped into a steep sandy decline. We slid along it, balancing like tight-rope walkers, and dropped onto the camel track below the walls. Tiers of crumbling mud dwellings circled the ramparts above us. He pointed to one of them, motioning to me to follow him....I ducked to avoid a beam—an untrimmed palm trunk—that had fallen across the doorway. The floor was littered with bones. The hovel looked more like a wild beast's lair than what had once been a human habitation.
"This is the place," he said....
Farther down the hill we came to a rock. He stopped and pointed to it.
"Little Ali—he wasn't more than nine years old at the time—was standing here. He and his father were on their way to the olive grove to try and bag a partridge for supper," he said. "When they reached this rock the father experienced a violent urge of nature. To obey it in the presence of his son would have been a breach of Saharan etiquette, so he handed Ali the old mokhala I showed you, and made for the nearest shelter—the shack we just left....I happened to be passing at the time. I didn't see him go in, but I heard his yell and saw him stagger out with that hyena at his throat. As you know, hyenas won't attack a man certainly not in day time. They're cowardly beasts—ghouls. But, you see, this one had a litter of cubs in that shack. I raised my rifle and took aim, but didn't dare fire: man and beast were rolling down the hill, locked together—the chances were fifty-fifty I'd hit the man. I was running toward them to get the hyena at close range when I heard the crack of a gun....The hyena leaped up, bounced a few times, kicking like a camel, and subsided. From a distance of forty yards Ali's bullet had pierced her left eye and brained her. His father's throat and shoulder had been chewed up, but the beast's jaws had missed the jugular vein."
When we got to the old cavalry barracks, renamed 'Hotel Transat', a grey-bearded Arab came toward us, saluting the Commandant. He was holding his head to one side. The Commandant told him to show me his scars. He slipped off his burnous and bared his shoulder. There were big gaps in the flesh where the tendons and shoulder muscles had been chewed away.
A boy came out of the hotel. A spray of orange blossoms was stuck into his turban over the ear. He had the eyes of a gazelle, and looked more like a Bedouin dancing girl than a hunter. He greeted us with white teeth, touching lips and forehead with a hooked forefinger. The Commandant put an arm around him.
"I believe there was more marksmanship than fluke to that shot," he said. "This is Ali. Now and again he out-shoots me on the range. I'm taking him along with me to the Belgian Congo on my next safari."