Excerpt from Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Skeletons on the Zahara

A True Story of Survival

by Dean King

Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2004, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2005, 385 pages

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It was a land of much hardship, and there was little remorse to spare for lost foreigners and even less sympathy for those who had had the fortune to be spared by Allah. The king of Tombuctoo conscripted Hamet, Seid, and ten of their companions and dispatched them in a caravan into the interior. They worked for nearly a year, each earning two haiks and some gold, and then joined a caravan of merchants from Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Fez, returning to the north with turbans, ivory, gum, gold, and two thousand slaves.

On the deep desert, a large party of Tuareg, the Sahara's most feared raiders, armed with muskets, spears, and scimitars, had lain waiting for them for months. They attacked quietly at night, holding their fire until the last minute and then pouring a furious storm of musket balls into the circled-up caravan. Hamet took one in the thigh. One of the Tuareg stabbed Seid in the chest with a dagger. The caravaneers fought for their lives. The raiders killed 230 men and wounded many more before being repulsed, but both brothers survived. Seid assuaged his anger by helping himself to one dead raider's fine musket.

Two years after they had set out in Sidi Ishrel's grand caravan, Hamet and Seid returned to Wednoon with one camel and a trifling amount of merchandise. Sheik Ali had once again failed to profit. This time, he cast Hamet and his brother out onto the Sahara with bundles of haiks and blue cloth to trade with the fierce Kabyles, the desert tribes who raised and raided for camels, hunted ostrich, and on occasion salvaged shipwrecks. Ali had instructed the brothers to trade for ostrich feathers to sell in Swearah or Morocco.

Hamet and Seid wandered south some three hundred miles. One sweltering late-September afternoon in 1815, they spied a cluster of worn-out tents and decided to seek shelter from the sun. They rode into the camp, where to their surprise, they discovered among some Arab women two Christian sailors. One of them was the captain of a merchant ship that had wrecked on the shores of Cape Bojador.

Through his deference to them and his overriding concern for his men, the captain quickly demonstrated that he was a brave and worthy man, no matter how diminished by the Sahara. He approached them with a proposition: He would pay them many pieces of silver if they would render him and his crew, who were scattered nearby among the nomads, a service. But, the brothers knew, the service was as risky as a donkey's trek through a lion's den. It would require that they invest all their goods and then travel across hundreds of miles of hammada, dunes, and Atlas foothills. The sailors, frail from thirst, starved, and flayed by the sun, might all die or be stolen before they could be ransomed.

Most of all, Hamet and Seid worried about being cheated in the end. Could they trust a kelb en-Nasrani-a Christian dog? Did they dare risk disappointing Sheik Ali again?

Sidi Hamet prayed to Allah for guidance.

Copyright © 2004 by Dean H. King.  All rights reserved.

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