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Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold Hardcover – January 1, 2006
"Children of Blood and Bone"
Tomi Adeyemi conjures a stunning world of dark magic and danger in her West African-inspired fantasy debut. Pre-order today
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Even if readers don't find the idea of spending 40 harrowing days with a caravan crossing some of the world's most unforgiving desert as enticing as Benanav does, that doesn't mean they won't quickly devour his thrilling account of that otherworldly journey. The Caravan of White Gold was named for the voyage nomads have taken for centuries in search of the lonely, moonlike salt mines of Taoudenni, Mali. To a seasoned travel writer and veteran outdoorsman like Benanav, the opportunity to take part in such a journey—through the brutal Tanezrouft region of the Sahara—was impossible to resist, and it isn't long after hearing about it that he's in Timbuktu, Mali, ready to set off across an area four times the size of England, referred to alternately as "The Land of Thirst" and "The Land of Terror." Like many voyagers into the unknown, Benanav does his best to research where he's going and peppers his travelogue with well-placed historical background; he's also smart enough to see where his research and assumptions about the fascinating nomadic culture are utterly wrong. There is romanticism, especially in Benanav's warm accounts of his fellow travelers, but there's also an awareness of the deadly perils of their world, especially the salt mines themselves, so desolate they were used as a gulag for political prisoners until 1991. This is that rare work that takes readers beyond their imaginations. Photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Benanav reveals that for the last 1,000 years, the so-called caravan of white gold has plied the desolate sands of the Sahara to hack rock salt. The men lead strings of camels over some of the most severe terrain on earth, from the legendary city of Timbuktu in Mali to the remote salt-mining outpost of Taoudenni. It's a way of life that has hardly changed in the millennium since the salt caravans began. Living in Stone Age-style huts, drivers and miners survive on a diet of rice, millet, and briny water. They have no medical facilities and no electricity; temperatures regularly surpass 120 degrees. The author joined a caravan after learning that trucks have begun competing for the salt trade. Believing that with their speed and carrying capacity, the trucks will soon drive the camels into obsolescence, he wanted to get a glimpse of this age-old culture on the brink of extinction. The result is fascinating. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Some of Benanav's best writing are his descriptions of the desert through which his camel train passes, along with his explications of local and regional history, economy, and culture. These include the history of the camel (and why for more than a thousand years camels supplanted the use of the wheel in North Africa), the comingling of Berber, Tuareg and Arab history and culture (it is Tuareg men who veil their faces, not Tuareg women) the economics of the Saharan salt trade (camels are far more economical than trucks), and much more. Benanav has done his homework; homework which informs his narrative in surprising and edifying ways.
Benanav made friends with these Arab Muslims to the extent that, while with them, he took up the custom of praying to Mecca. In this respect, the book is also the account of a brave soul who would not only cross a barren lifeless desert for the adventure, but--on a personal level--transgress the strictures of human societies and politics in order to serve a higher human ideal.
This is a wonderful read. I was not only entertained, I learned a great deal about a relatively small group of men (the salt traders) whose lives are ones of harsh existence; an existence buoyed by tradition and economics, mutual respect and assistance; an existence steeped in the culture of the Sahara and its long, long history, both human and natural.
This is a compelling, haunting travel narrative. The author takes you with him on his desert adventure, sharing his experience through his vivid personal account. The photos with chapter heads and the centerpiece of stunning color photos are a bonus--it's his writing that swept me along. Afterward I found myself recalling the spellbinding experience, many years ago, of seeing LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on the big screen. I saw that movie as many times as I could on the big screen, and I'll be rereading MEN OF SALT, too, whenever I want to return to the Sahara.
--To explain his reservations about the trip, Benanav writes, "I was a bit uneasy about the historical precedent of guides killing their clients in the middle of the desert.... Moreover...six months earlier, the United States had invaded Iraq....Though I knew that most people in most places easily distinguished between individuals and their government, I was wary of how I'd be received as an American at that time; it'd be best, I concluded, not to let anyone know that I was Jewish, too."
--The first time he had dorno, "the nomad version of an energy shake," Benanav describes it as "a good substitute for papier mache paste."
--As he walks along side his nomadic guide, Benanav notes that "though my strides were longer, my feet sank and slid backward in the sand while Walid's padded nimbly over the surface. Walking through the desert with a nomad was like swimming with a seal."
--Aware that trucks will soon likely replace camels on the salt route, Benanav laments that "the noble ships of the desert, it seems, were bound for dry dock."
--After enduring his second torturous day, Benanav realizes "that the safest place in the Sahara was not a place at all, but a time: night." And as the caravan begins to travel again, he observes that they "marched through the glow of a lustrous copper sunset and into the ghostly light cast by the almost half-moon. The world was shades of indigo and steel. The hills before us rose like rollers in a dark sea."
And so on. There was so much stellar writing in this book by page 50, in fact, that I put down the library copy I was reading and went to Amazon to order my own so that I could underline the many parts I wanted to share with friends.