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Saharan Caravan
by Anne Spliedt

Freedom (1940)
by E.B. White

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Saharan Caravan
by Anne Spliedt
(Photos by the author)

The preparations and procedures are familiar, yet every time is the first time: the trip into the desert.

We're taking Aziz with us. He's a little over a year now. Old enough for a first desert outing. He was born in the desert anyway, and came to the oasis at seven months. I bought Aziz there, to make a gift of him to my Tunisian friend Mbarkah. Aziz is the new camel. Aziz doesn't work yet. He'll just tag along. We'll each watch the other, nose around a little, get used to one another.

The day before the nine-day trip, Mbarkah and I buy all the supplies we will need for two Tunisian guides, three friends, myself--and two fictitious persons. You just never know.

Twenty-five kilos of flour, fifteen kilos of couscous, ten kilos of sugar, a kilo of green tea, 5 liters of olive oil, etc. Onions, potatoes, garlic--and especially dates--come from the private garden. We buy from the merchant up the block and get everything home by donkey cart.

Next day we load up four camels with the groceries, blankets, sleeping bags, and some eighty liters of water. Every three days we'll take on fresh water from a spring. During the next nine days, water is more precious than platinum. Each of us knows this only too well.

We set out late morning. The little caravan heads into the desert. Four heavily laden camels and Aziz, our baby. The trip will take us from Zafraane to Tembain and back, about 220 km. It is now mid-April and the days are slowly getting hotter. We wend single-file through the sand dunes. The guide Mohammed takes the lead, followed by the camels, then us, then the guide Ihmed. Aziz trots along beside me rather less than thrilled. Our conversations slowly trail off.

We've been walking now for a full three hours. Zafraane, the oasis, slowly recedes. It is tiring to walk in soft sand. Mohammed looks for a suitable rest stop. When he finds one, Ihmed rigs up a shady spot with two blankets. We rest, fortify ourselves with cookies, dates and water. It is midday. The sun is hot, merciless. Yet the landscape rewards us for our efforts: Pale yellow sand and blue sky above the white sun, as far as the eye can see; tucked into the dunes, green shrubs all about. Aziz takes advantage of the moment by eating the fresh greenery.

Before continuing on our way, we are served hot, green, bittersweet tea.

Then we're off again, through an unspoiled, fairytale landscape. We marvel at the whistle-clean dunes. Everything seems unreal. In late afternoon, the shadows lengthen and we seek out a campsite, one where the camels will have green shrubs to eat. We need to set up our bunks before dark.

Mohammed and Ihmed unload the camels. Now they can move about freely. Next morning, we will find them a kilometer or two off. Aziz isn't ready for such liberty. I scout around for a nearby spot for him.

Once the camels have been tended to, our two guides become chefs. Supper is cooked over the fire. We've gathered the wood for it along the way. The supper is scrumptious. My friends say it's a princely desert meal. I rummage through my gear and produce chocolate toffees for dessert. Our Arab boys fix the hellish bittersweet tea again, and together we drum and sing songs into the lunar sky.

It's barely night, but fatigue creeps into our bones. We slip into our sleeping bags. The moon slowly disappears. The stars can unleash their power. Absolute stillness tolls the nightly eternity.

(Anne Spliedt has traveled many times into the Sahara. She lives in Frankfurt. Her essay was translated from the German by M. Holm.)

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E.B. White's "Freedom" (1940)

I have often noticed on my trips up to the city that people have recut their clothes to follow the fashion. On my last trip, however, it seemed to me that people had remodeled their ideas too--taken in their convictions a little at the waist, shortened the sleeves of their resolve, and fitted themselves in a new intellectual ensemble copied from a smart design out of the very latest page of history. . . .

I feel sick when I find anyone adjusting his mind to the new tyranny which is succeeding abroad. . . . I resent the patronizing air of persons who find in my plain belief in freedom a sign of immaturity. If it is boyish to believe that a human being should live free, then I'll gladly arrest my development and let the rest of the world grow up. . . .

"[H]ave you ever noticed what fine alert young faces the young German soldiers have in the newsreels? Our American youngsters spend all their time at the movies--they're a mess." . . . If [such a remark] represents the peak of our intelligence, then the steady march of despotism will not receive any considerable setback at our shores. . . .

For as long as I can remember I have had a sense of living somewhat freely in a natural world. . . . Intuitively I've always been aware of the vitally important pact which a man has with himself, to be all things to himself, and to be identified with all things, to stand self-reliant, taking advantage of his haphazard connection with a planet, riding his luck, and following his bent with the tenacity of a hound. My first and greatest love affair was with this thing we call freedom . . .

It began with the haunting intimation (which I presume every child receives) of his mystical inner life; of God in man; of nature publishing herself through the "I." This elusive sensation is moving and memorable. It comes early in life: a boy, we'll say, sitting on the front steps on a summer night, thinking of nothing in particular, suddenly hearing as with a new perception and as though for the first time the pulsing sound of crickets, overwhelmed with the novel sense of identification with the natural company of insects and grass and night, conscious of a faint answering cry to the universal perplexing question: "What is 'I'?" Or a little girl, returning from the grave of a pet bird, leaning with her elbows on the window-sill, inhaling the unfamiliar draught of death, suddenly seeing herself as part of the complete story. . . . This is the beginning of the affair with freedom. . . .

To be free, in a planetary sense, is to feel that you belong to earth. To be free, in a social sense, is to feel at home in a democratic framework. In Adolph Hitler, although he is a freely flowering individual, we do not detect either type of sensibility. From reading his book I gather that his feeling for earth is not a sense of communion but a driving urge to prevail. His feeling for men is not that they co-exist, but that they are capable of being arranged and standardized by a superior intellect. . . . He speaks continually of people as sheep, halfwits, and impudent fools--the same people from whom he asks the utmost in loyalty, and to whom he promises the ultimate in prizes. . . .

Being myself a knight of the goose quill, I am under no misapprehension about "winning people"; but I am inordinately proud these days of the quill, for it has shown itself, historically, to be the hypodermic which inoculates men and keeps the germ of freedom always in circulation, so that there are individuals in every time in every land who are the carriers, the Typhoid Marys, capable of infecting others by mere contact and example. . . . A writer goes about his task today with the extra satisfaction which comes from knowing that he will be the first to have his head lopped off--even before the political dandies. . . . [I]f freedom were denied me by force of earthly circumstance, . . . I would infinitely prefer to go into fascism without my head than with it, having no use for it anymore. . . .

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