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ship (and sustenence) of the dessert


Camel carrying peanuts in SenegalCamels were first domesticated four thousand years ago in Arabia, and were essential to the development of the region's frankincense trade. Camels were kept in northeast Africa in ancient times; they arrived in northwest Africa more recently.

For centuries, camels have been the most important form of transportation for desert peoples. They are also a source of milk (for drinking and cheese making), meat, wool, and hides (for leather). Even the bones are used as a substitute for ivory, and dung is burned as fuel.

An interesting book: The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands by Nicholas Clapp tells the story of the discovery of the lost city city of Ubar, which was once a center of the frankincense trade.

Richard Trench

rice and cooked dried camel meat

Richard Trench traveled across the Sahara desert on a journey to Taoudenni and Timbuktu (Mali). In Forbidden Sands: A Search in the Sahara (Chicago: Academy Chicago Limited; 1980) he describes camels as transportation and sustenance.

Those days at Chegga! Each day ended at the point where it had begun, with prayers and a camp fire. When the sunset prayers were over, the nomads would gather round the fire to watch the meal being cooked and listen to the radio. The menu was stark and simple: rice and cooked dried camel meat. The cooking was simpler still. The mean-looking pieces of camel meat were soaked in cold water and then thrown into the cooking pot with some oil, to fry. Rice and water would then follow. When the mixture, misleadingly termed 'el soupe', had reached the correct density, it would be dolloped out into the correct eating bowl. The nomads would then wash their right hands, and uttering the name of God they would dig into the mountainous meal with their right fingers. Arabs never use their left hand to eat with; they reserve that hand for cleaning themselves after they have defecated.
It was a messy business for the inexperienced. Even if you manage to scoop out a handful of rice and meat and roll it into a ball using one set of fingers, you usually end up spilling it as you try to lob it into your mouth. Omar did his best not to look at me when I ate. He regarded my table manners as utterly appalling.
When the meal was over, everyone would burp out a 'Hamdullah', wash their hand again and sit in silent contentment. Although nomads have vast appetites, I never saw anyone at Chegga being deliberately greedy. Everyone was careful to have no more than his fair share, the fast eaters slowing down towards the end to allow the others to catch up.
(The Well at Chegga)

Later I asked Mohammed if he would exchange his camel for a motor-car. He thought about it for a while, unsure of his answer, and then he replied:
'A motor-car is fast and needs no grazing . . . But if it dies, you cannot eat it. Nor does it breed little motor-cars. No, I would not make the exchange.'
(The Caravan of Salt)

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