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Desert Encounter

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I awoke the next morning some time before the others.  The sky was still black, and the stars twinkled faintly.  In the east one could just discern a faint light.  Five Arabs were still asleep, but the sixth was busy getting the fire going.  He put some more branches on it, but did not notice that I was awake, as he was sitting with his back to me, his rifle by his side.

 

I glanced at the others, who were fast asleep.  They looked ragged, but even now, while sleeping, there was a strangely peaceful and decisive look on all their faces.  I began to understand why these men were able to die without a quiver of the eyelids.  As far as I had observed during the one day I had spent with them, they followed their religion scrupulously. Whatever fate might befall them, it would never occur to them to blame God for what happened.  While they were standing at the gallows they would thank God for the life they had lived, and they would calmly endure any sufferings.  The men who slept before me were probably poor and ignorant, they could not read, and could hardly spell their own names, but they were the truest noblemen I have ever met.

The above extract is from Desert Encounter, the story of a Danish journalist, who had previously converted to Islam, travelling in a car from Cueta in Morocco intending to reach Egypt. At this time the Italians had annexed Libya and were carrying out a brutal suppression of the inhabitants.  He recorded his experiences of the journey and his findings of this relatively unknown episode of European expansionism in this book. In general he tells of the people, both Arabs and Europeans, he met - their behaviour and their beliefs - rather than the larger issues of religion and politics as such, and it is in this that the power of his tale lies. He writes movingly of the simple, direct faith of the desert Arabs and their hospitality, even when they have nothing (surely something the British need to learn) and of the rather less appealing grossness of the conqueror’s mentality with his liking for industrial efficiency. Yet he does not fail to acknowledge their good qualities when he finds them. A good read, and a useful reminder that some of today’s political problems  have their origin in our European past.

Desert Encounter
Knud Holmboe, published by Quilliam

 

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