The Caravan of White Gold

The Caravan of White Gold by Michael BenanavFull Title: The Caravan of White Gold: An odyssey of 1,600 km through the Sahara desert
Alternative Title: Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold
Michael Benanav
Publisher: Jaico Books (2010) (Originally published in 2006 under the title, Men of Salt by Lyons Press)
Number of Pages: 300
How long it took me to read: 7 weeks, 2 days
Where I bought this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
ISBN: 978-81-8495-075-5

Like a Moth to a Flame

There’s something so empowering about seeing the extraordinary in the everyday. Salt is something we so readily take for granted. Doctors advise us to limit it for the sake of our hearts, restaurants feel pressured to overuse it in a depressing attempt to please the ravenous appetites of over-consumption and greed, while artisans still rely on it to cure the meats and salt the fish that we nostalgically consume in a futile attempt to reconnect to a world of handcrafted dishes and face-to-face conversations.

I’ve never had a very good relationship with salt, so I thought that perhaps learning about part of its history would help me appreciate its place in my life. Although I must admit, I find it incredibly ironic that I’m starting my journey with Benanav shortly after deciding to eliminate added salt from my diet. In any case, thanks to Sherna Khambatta for recommending the book.

Favorite Five

Whittling 13 down to 5…I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “The mines of Taoudenni are perpetually spreading westward; each pit is worked for a month or two before its salt is depleted, then a new mine must be dug. Hence, before long, a hut that was once conveniently located becomes a long walk from a miner’s quarry, so new, more accessible dwellings are built on a regular basis. The constant migration of the mines—and the mining community—explains why Taoudenni is rarely marked in the same spot on different maps of the Sahara.” (p.166)

4. “As the sun slid over the horizon like a weary eye unable to stay open, the sky faded from bleached blue to smokey violet…As darkness shrouded the heavens, the waxing moon cast a pale, diffuse glow that lit the sand the color of snow.” (p.78)

3. “Immersing in the desert’s simplicity is akin to a ritual purification. As the earth stands naked, so I am stripped to my unadorned self, with little to distract me from the truths of my life.” (p.126)

2. “While I did learn how to get a camel to go faster with a rapid series of slurping sounds, the most important thing I took away from those experiences was a deep respect, even a fondness, for those strange looking animals so often characterized as ornery or oafish. To me, camels were regal, remarkable, and, when their lips were closed in a Mona Lisa smile, seemed to be laughing inside at some private joke that we humans would never get.” (p.xiv)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Camels can go many weeks without drinking anything at all. The notion that they cache water in their humps is pure myth—their humps are made of fat, and water is stored in their body tissues. While other mammals draw water from bloodstreams when faced with dehydration, leading to death by volume shock, camels tap the water in their tissues, keeping their blood volume stable. Though this reduces the camel’s bulk, they can lose up to a third of their body weight with no ill effects, which they can replace astonishingly quickly, as they are able to drink up to forty gallons in a single watering.” (pp.69-70)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

Out of the 9 I had to look up, here are a few new words that came to me through this book:

New Word: hamlet (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) a community of people smaller than a village; 2) a settlement smaller than a town
Synonyms: 1) crossroads; 2) village
Origins: c.1330; from Old French ‘hamelet’, diminutive of ‘hamel’ village, especially a village without a church
As in: “I’d been in isolated mountain hamlets in places that never see foreigners—where children burst into tears when they saw me, where even adults hid behind trees and peered out curiously at me…” (p.75)

New Word: untrammeled (adjective)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): not confined or limited
Synonyms: untrammelled
Origins (Source: [of trammel]—mid-14c. (implied in trammeller) net to catch fish; from Old French (c.1220); from L.L. ‘tremaculum’, perhaps meaning a net made from three layers of meshes; from Latin tri-  ‘three’ + macula  ‘a mesh’; the verb is attested from 1530s, originally ‘to bind up (a corpse)’; sense of ‘hinder, restrain’ is from 1727.
As in: “I think back on that period of my life as a time when I was my most pure self, with both a solid sense of my core nature and a yet-untrammeled spirit of idealism.” (p.80)

New Word: noumenal (adjective)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): the intellectual conception of a thing as it is in itself, not as it is known through perception
Synonyms: thing-in-itself
Origins: from Ancient Greek ‘nooumenon’, passive present participle of ‘noeo’ I know
As in: “Dunes rose against the horizon, cutting glowing ivory silhouettes against the gunmetal sky, looking like rends in the otherwise solid seam where heaven and earth met, through which streamed a noumenal light.” (pp.104-5)

New Word: ululating (verb)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): emitting loud cries
Synonyms: howling, wailing, roaring, yawling, yauping
Origins: Latin ‘ululare’ to howl; of imitative origin
As in: “Big Baba began ululating and dancing in circles, weaving his hands through the air, then uncoiling his yellow turban and using it as a prop, stretching it and twirling it seductively; with the sensual swaying of his body and the expression of abandon on his face, he might have been performing a courtship ritual.” (p.174)

New Word: victuals (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) a stock or supply of food; 2) a source of materials to nourish the body; 3) any substance that can be used as food
Synonyms: 1) commissarait, provisions, provender, viands; 2) nutriment, nourishment, nutrition, sustenance, aliment, alimentation; 3) comestible, edible, eatable, pabulum, victual
Origins: c.1303; from Anglo-French and Old French ‘vitaille’; from Late Latin ‘victualia’ provisions; from ‘victus’ livelihood, food, sustenance; from base of ‘vivere’ live; spelling altered 1523 to conform with Latin, but pronunciation remains ‘vittles’
As in: “Before, transportation of miners and the supplies they needed to survive was difficult to arrange and terribly expensive; the financiers fronted miners the money for transport, and for months’ worth of victuals, at a steep interest rate.” (p.185)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I feel so compelled to share my initial impressions of this book that I’m writing to you from the ground, kneeling on the platform, waiting for the train. Clouds loom overhead, scaring commuters into sheltered nooks for fear of getting caught in the rain. But that’s ok. I have to share. This is the easiest book I’ve read in, well, longer than I can remember. I don’t mean that it’s pedestrian, or that the letters are as big as blueberries. There’s just something about Benanav’s writing style that rolls off the reader’s silent tongue.”

“It strikes me that, although it’s reassuring to know that the author consulted many bodies of research to verify the contents of his book, it’s the information derived from human exchange—conversations with Saharans, interviews with researchers well versed in the histories and dynamics of life in such a distant land—that interests me most. Paying homage to the original form of storytelling—the one where we actually talked to one another to share our thoughts—feels like such an organic way of obtaining…information. I hesitate to write ‘obtaining the truth,’ for I sense that the sand and the wind and the searing sun keep that a closely held secret. I wonder what the internet would look like if research extended beyond Google.”

“I’m reading a book about the desert while lying under the sun in the desert, and I’m becoming acutely aware of the godsend that is the wind. The idea of doing more than just spreading myself atop fluffy terrycloth towels in this heat is beyond my morning mind’s comprehension, and yet Benanav is grinding his raw flesh against a camel’s chaffing hump with the enthusiasm of a gambler approaching the first card table of his vacation. Same world, different perceptions. Where’s my mojito?”

“I’m struck by a muted sense of dissatisfaction at the point of Benanav’s journey where he finally joins the caravan. Where are the rituals of acceptance into the nomadic tribe? Where are the ceremonies of joining the group? Don’t they first have to determine whether he’s worthy of making the journey with them? There’s been so much written up until this point in the book about the intricacies of Saharan culture, that I’m at a loss when he finally reaches the caravan. Is the fact that he’s survived thus far proof enough that he’s worthy of continuing on with the journey?”

“Why is it so difficult to get to the point? I mean, I find it so much easier to write about getting to the point than I do to spill out the point, letting it glisten in an unabashed puddle on the page.

“I thought I would get an intimate view of Benanav’s experience in the mines. I assumed I would read about his journey through the desert, but I thought the bulk of the book would be about the salt—the stuffy underground tunnels, the bleeding knuckles. But I think I just finished the only chapter marking his direct contact with the miners, and I remember more about spray-on-bandages and toothpaste nasal relief than I do about the mines.

“It makes me wonder, is the book actually about the salt, or is it about the journey to it? Am I focusing too much on the destination again? Interesting, the unexpected messages we receive when we focus on the expectations.”

“At first the others tried to shoo me away, afraid I’d break the precious bars, and I understood. After all, this was their income…” (p. 210)

“The problem is, I don’t understand. You didn’t take me with you into the mines. You didn’t show me the briny tunnels. I see the sand, I feel the sun, but I don’t understand the salt.”

“He talks about looking at himself, almost from above, as he leads 82 camels through the desert, and can’t help but laugh at his ‘farthest-fetched dreams’ coming true. What is it about our ability to manifest our desires that inspires such awe? Is it that we don’t believe in ourselves, or that we don’t believe that the world could actually be a beautiful place?

“As the glimmering surface of the pool’s restless ripples distracts me from my page, clarity brightens the miserable scene forming a new thought in my mind. It isn’t important why we question ourselves. It doesn’t matter how surprised we get each time we create our hoped-for realities. What’s vital is to figure out how to never stop dreaming those far-fetched dreams, because otherwise, the world will have no choice but to turn into our greatest nightmares of unfulfilled wishes and ‘what if’ regrets.”

“They went from being ‘the nomads,’ ‘the caravan’ and ‘the azalai’ to being his ‘friends.’ What made them his friends? When was the transition? When did he shift his perception? Did all of them have to shift their perceptions to give birth to friendship? Did it matter what they thought of him?

“A thought came to me this morning between spreading a carefully-measured dose of almond butter onto whole grains and frantically gulping my mug of moka blend—maybe my mother was right. Maybe you do only get a few friends in a lifetime. Maybe school is the place to make them, and life is the time to test their strength. There are friends of convenience and friends of necessity—friends with benefits of various kinds.

“Does it take a gargantuan sea of sandy dunes to join kin spirits in the bond of friendship? Is it the common experiences of which we all scramble to make sense that form the bonds? Is friendship just a vehicle designed to help us feel like we’re getting closer to making sense of the unknown lying just beyond the next cliff’s edge?”

“Benanav went to the Sahara to witness the closing of a chapter of history—the end of the salt trade as it was traditionally conceived. What he walked away with was an appreciation for a culture that managed to assimilate some of the elements of modern society without letting its core values dissolve into the Saharan Sand.

“Witnessing the honoring of values and histories shouldn’t be a shocking experience, and yet it’s more of a mirage in today’s modern society than a tiki bar welcoming you to Taoudenni. I’m as guilty as the next guy of falling prey to the soulless monsters of modernity. For instance, instead of sitting at the table with my morning coffee to enjoy the last few pages of this lovely story and to perhaps find the courage to jot down some mental musings in the precious stillness, I’m behaving like a multitasking loon. I’m standing, hunched over a notebook that’s teetering on the edge of the sliver of kitchen counter in front of my microwave, while slurping hot coffee between lines of scribbled text. All the while, I’m consoling myself that despite my physical discomfort and illogical sense of urgency, at least I’m getting a mini-glut workout since what I thought was going to be a few words of inspiration has turned into three pages of spontaneous writing.

“Why am I doing this to myself? Because my home office has been dismissed to the corner of my bedroom (desk covered in shoe boxes and sticks of incense). Because my dining room table, I avoid like the plague on the weekends because that’s where I work when I’m not at work all week. Because my deflated couch cushions make me painfully aware that they know I’m only using them when I’m desperate for comfort, while in the midst of a tirade of deadlines and self-imposed goals (I don’t think they like me very much anymore).

“Where, in that picture, is there celebration of the sacrament of Saturday morning? Where is the appreciation for the silence that rests atop sleepy eyelids before the day’s events inject muted panic into our blank stares? Whirlwind after sandstorm and all we have are a few books that remind us that it’s not impossible to survive modern invention and keep sacred a sliver of something other than sticky counter space.

“The latent threat to the salt trade is not the introduction of trucks, but future possibilities for education, economic development, and social mobility in the Sahara.” (p.279)

“Alright, so maybe I shouldn’t be kicking modern day in the nuts so hard. Maybe I should thank it for bringing me into the lives of the men of the salt trade. I’m willing to acknowledge that there are certain conveniences that have, in fact, aided our progression into living richer, more productive lives. But how could we let the little things that make us human slip through our hands as easily as sun-baked grains of sand? Don’t we want to go back to teaching children cooking in school so that, if for no other reason, we can put an end to the processed food industry? Wouldn’t we want to consider teaching them the basics of sewing, not in a grand attempt to develop a generation of trained tailors, but to perhaps help them avoid the frustration of taking three hours to hem a pair of trousers?

“It seems to me that going back to the basics is getting back to the point. Once we have that down, the rest could be so much easier.”

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1 Comment

  1. What a great find is! Kat, I really enjoyed your piece on “Caravan of White Gold.” Thank you. I too have spent a great deal of time living in the Sahara and other bits of the Greater Middle East – from Casablanca to Kabul – and thought you might like to know about my own book about the Great Desert.
    “The Sahara: A Cultural History” (OUP, USA, Nov 2011; Signal Books, UK, July 2011) is not so much a personal journey, but more an attempt to get rid of some of the clichés about the Sahara as well as to guide readers through the often unknown history of an amazing place. Hope you get to read it soon, and let me knoe what you think. Thanks again for a great review and a great website. Yours aye, Eamonn.

Leave a Reply to Eamonn Gearon