I am a slow reader. Some books I read very slowly because they are difficult and I need to taste them in small spoonfuls. Some books are too painful to read all at once because they engage my imagination in a world I would only wish to enter vicariously, often one that is totally foreign to my experience and I would not wish to actually live it.
Smara, Journey to a Forbidden City by Michel Viewchange is the latter. With the romantic sense of adventure of a very young man, French, he decided to be the first European to go to Smara, a ruined city deep in the Sahara which in 1930 was peopled by warring tribes of Berbers. He enlisted a guide who enlisted three others. Michel traveled partly in the disguise of a woman, sometimes in male clothing. He could not speak the languages although he picked up some, apparently enough to curse at his guides when ill treated by them. It was a torturous journey, physically debilitating. He kept a diary and took photographs, the book is his diary, reading it is very painful and strangely not monotonous although it is repetitious, sores on his feet, marches over various dessert terrains, long periods of waiting in a village, in a lice infested room, terrible food, bad water when it was available, etc. He reached Smara, was there only three hours and hurried away by his guides who were terrified of being found by local tribals.
Throughout the most vivid picture is of the men he must trust although they are not trustworthy. The men of the region are illiterate, they are constantly aware that all others are dangerous. They live the lives of wild animals, constantly thinking only of safety and food, sometimes scheming against one another. They are capable of amazing physical feats, marching across the dessert for 80, 90 miles a day, wearing out their camels and themselves. Always on guard, always fearful. A terrifying way to live, perhaps the way human beings have lived in some parts of the world for thousand upon thousands of years.
Michel Viewchange reached his goal and was exalted by that accomplishment. He was so physically devastated, however, that he died of dysentery a couple of weeks after he returned to a French held town where he met his brother a doctor, who had helped him plan the trip. Knowing this at the outset made reading of his physical endurance bittersweet. The book is a classic of travel literature that I had read references to. I found it in a second hand store. One of the readings in the I Ching says we are the sum of all we put into our bodies and minds, which of course is true. I try to live vicarious journeys like this, which my imagination lived vividly, to understand the varieties of human experience. I'm happy i finally found this book.
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