The "Lost" Oases - Ouenat

by A. M. Hassanein Bey
First Printing 1925

Note: This text was scanned in from a printed book and contains errors created by poor translation and interpretation by the computer.

SATURDAY, April 28th, 1923. We started at 9.30 p.m. for the first all-night trek, halt at 7 a.m. of the 29th. We made 40 kilometres. Fair and clear with a very strong hot wind from south-east all day. The wind blew from same quarter, but warm rather than hot, all night. The ground was seriya, with large stones making bad going for the camels. At 6 a.m. we reached the western comer of Ouenat Mountain and camped an hour later.

The day was spent quietly, chiefly in rest for the coming night trek. In the early evening we. sent men to bring the camels from their grazing. Bukara hired a camel from a Tebu, to relieve his own, which he wanted to be able to sell at the end of the journey for a high price. I hired three Tebus and their camels to go with us, but not for the same reason. Our transport was inadequate, for the trek from Kufra had shown me that our loads were too heavy. The camels became quickly exhausted.

The camels were brought in at 8 in the evening and we started an hour and a half later. They were lightly loaded this time because we were taking no water from Arkenu. The water there, while its taste is not particularly unpleasant, is hard on one's digestive apparatus. We had three bad cases of dysentery among the men. The invalids rode camels from the start, and the rest of the men took turns during the night.

The caravan started out in the best of humour. At intervals some cheerful spirit stopped and began to chant. In a moment half a dozen of them were lined up beside him, all chanting, stamping and clapping their hands rhythmically as the camels filed past. The words of the song were always the same:

En kan azeez alaih lanzar
Hattaa lau ba-ed biddar.

The accents are strongly pronounced and differ in the two lines, as I have marked them. I would translate the verse thus, without making any attempt to fit it to the jazz rhythm that would be needed to complete the effect for the Western ear: "0 Beloved, our eyes gaze after you, even though your camp is far away.

Again and again the chant was repeated until the performance ended in a sudden shout. I had been the whole audience for the little show, beating the rhythm with my whip, and when the shout went up I called out "Farraghu barud!" "Empty gun-powder!" was the signal for a feu de joie from the rifles, after which we all took our places in the caravan and went on exhilarated.

A night march has its advantages. The time, unless one is dead tired ' passes more quickly than during the day, and the stars are cheering company for any lover of Nature. On the horizon ahead of us loomed the dark masses of the Ouenat Mountains. It is so much easier to march with one's destination distinct before one than to be walking on that flat disc of a desert where every point of the compass looks like other and the horizon keeps always at the same every maddening distance. We steadily approached the mountains until the sun was rising over them, tinting and gilding their peaks and throwing out on the desert a heavy shadow whose edge marched steadily toward the mountain foot as we approached it from another direction. Shortly after sunrise we were opposite the north-west comer of the mountains, and an hour later we made camp close under their rocky walls. At this point there was an indentation in the mountain-side, with a well in a cave at its inner end. We pitched our tents at the mouth of this little arm of the desert sea, and ten minutes later we were all sunk into sleep. This was our first full night of travel, and we had some arrears of sleep to make up.

However, we did not sleep as long as we had expected to, but roused ourselves before noon and turned our attention to food. The French saying, qui dors dine, may be true under some conditions, but we of the desert find it more satisfactory when we are able to do both. We all found pleasant distraction in roasting parts of the lamb which was provided by Mohammed as diafa for Ouenat.

I spent the rest of the day in visiting the well, which is situated in the cave in the mountain-side, in taking observations and in looking over our surroundings. At this point the mountain rises in a sheer cliff, with a mass of boulders, great and small, heaped against it at its foot. The stones that make up this tabre, as the geologists call it, have been carved by ages of wind and driven sand into smooth, rounded shapes that giants of the heroic days might have used in their slings to kill monsters or for some enormous games of 'bowls. The ain, or well, lies a few metres away from the camp, in a cavity walled and roofed with the great rocks. It is a pool of refreshing water kept cool by their protection from the sun. The desert knows two kinds of wells-the ain, which properly speaking is a spring, and the bir or matan, which is a place where water may be obtained by digging in the sand. We call these wells of Ouenat ains, for lack of a better word, although they are not springs but reservoirs in the rock where rain-water collects.

There are said to be seven of these ains in the Ouenat Mountains, of which I was to see four before I moved south again. I also heard rumours of one or two birs in the oasis, but I did not see them. In the evening the camp was full of life and gaiety. The men danced and sang as though there were no tedious days of hot sand and scorching wind behind or ahead of them.

Monday, April 30. Up early and went with Zerwali, Abdullahi, Mohammed and Malkenni, the Tebu, to the big ain up the mountain. It was a stiff climb of an hour and a half. The ain has a plentiful supply of splendid water and is picturesquely surrounded with tall, slim reeds. I took some of the reeds back with me to make pipe stems. They give a pleasantly cool smoke.

In the early evening I set out on the hejin, with Malkenni, Senussi Bu Hassan, and Sad to explore the oasis. It was a fine moonlight night with a warm south-east breeze. For four hours we marched over serira, skirting the north-west comer of the mountain, and at midnight we entered a valley with a chain of low hills on our left and the sinister mountain with its fantastic rock formations on our right. The valley is floored with soft sand strewn with big stones, which made hard going for the camels. At the hour when men's spirits and courage are proverbially at the lowest ebb we halted a few minutes for a draught of strong tea from my thermos flask, and then pushed on. But our spirits were by no means low. There was something magical about the night and the moonlight and the mountains, to make this an experience stirring to the imagination and uplifting to the soul. I speak for myself ; but the men seemed to be getting something out of it, too.

At 5 the valley opened out on to a wide plain of flat seyira, with hills 10 or 15 kilometers away to the north-east. We turned sharply to the south, around a spur of the mountain. At dawn we stopped for morning prayers.

The camels were barrakked and we took our stand on the sands facing toward Mecca. When Moslems take part in their ceremonial prayers, they stand before God-not, as some misinformed persons say, before Mohammed, who was not God but man, a prophet and not the Deity, and the first essential is cleansing, of body, heart and soul. In the desert the cleansing of the body can be only symbolical, since water cannot be spared. We take sand in our hands, rub it over each hand and forearm, then gently over our faces. With hands uplifted, palms upward, we say the prayers appointed, then kneeling touch our foreheads to the cool sands of the morning.

In the desert, prayers are no mere blind obedience to religious dogma, but an instinctive expression of one's inmost self. The prayers at night bring serenity and peace. At dawn, when new life has suddenly taken possession of the body, one eagerly turns to the Creator to offer humble homage for all the beauty of the world and of life, and to seek guidance for the coming day. One prays then, not because one ought, but because one must.

Seven o'clock found us entering a wide valley, running a little east of south, with mountains rising high on both sides. The floor of the valley is as flat as a table, patterned with tufts of grass and marked here and there with mimosa trees and small shrubs, whose leaves when crushed give off a fragrance similar to that of mint. At intervals the ground is carpeted with creeping plants of the colocynth, expanses of green leaves dotted with brilliant yellow globes like grape-fruit. It is from this fruit that the Tebus and Goran make abra. They boil the pips thoroughly to get rid of their bitter taste and then crush them with dates or locusts in a wooden mortar. Abra is their staple dish.

For three hours we proceeded up the valley, and at 10 we camped hot and tired, but not ill-content. We ate a good meal of rice, drank our three glasses of tea, and went to sleep in the shade of a ridge. It was uncomfortable slumber, what with swarming flies and the moving shadow of the ridge, which made each of us shift position from time to time.

As I opened my eyes a figure stood near me that seemed to be part of a pleasant dream. She was a beautiful girl of the Goran, the slim graceful lines of whose body were not spoiled by the primitive garments she wore. She carried a bowl of milk which she offered with shy dignity. I could only accept it and drink I gratefully. Then she asked me for medicine for her sister, who had borne no children. When she refused to believe that I had no medicine that would be helpful to her sister, I fell back on my malted milk tablets, a harmless remedy for ailments which were beyond me. I also gave her a mejidi and a silk handkerchief for herself.

A Tebu appeared with a parcel of meat of the waddan or wild sheep. I gave him macaroni and rice and he went away happy.

After we had eaten I went to see some relics of the presence of men in earlier times. At Arkenu I had got talking with one of the Gorans, and having satisfied myself about the present inhabitants of Ouenat, I asked him whether he knew anything about any former inhabitants of the oasis.

He gave me a startling answer. " Many different people have lived round these wells, as far back as anyone can remember. Even djinns have dwelt in that place in olden days."

"Djinns! " I exclaimed. "How do you know that?"

"Have they not left their drawings on the rocks?" he answered.

With suppressed excitement I asked him where. He replied that in the valley of Ouenat there were many drawings upon the rocks, but I could not induce him to describe them further than saying that there were " writings and drawings of all the animals living and nobody knows what sort of pens they used, for they wrote very deeply on the stones and Time has not been able to efface the writings." Doing my best not to show anything like excitement, I inquired whether he could tell me just where the drawings were.

"At the end of the valley, where the tail of the valley wags," he answered.

The whole time I remembered this, and after a little time spent in making sure about the water, which is the most important thing, and having a look round from, the top of the hills at the surrounding country, there came the exciting task of going round the oasis. But the most exciting part of it was to find these rock inscriptions, especially as the history that I had been able to collect about the oasis was very scanty. I gathered that Ouenat was the pied-a-terre of Tebus and Goran, who were going eastwards to attack and despoil the Kababishe. Arkenu and Ouenat, indeed, were very well placed for that purpose, since they provided water for the attacking party and at the same time were too far away for the Kababishe to dare attempt reprisals or try to recover their own belongings.

With these drawings in mind, then, I took Malkenni who had joined the caravan at Arkenu, and towards sunset he led me straight to them. They were in the valley at the part where it drew in, curving slightly with a suggestion of the wagging tail. We found them on the rock at the ground level. I was told there were other similar inscriptions at half a day's journey, but as it was growing late and I did not want to excite suspicion, I did not go to them.

There was nothing beyond the drawings of animals, no inscriptions. It seemed to me as though they were drawn by somebody who was trying to compose a scene. Although primitive in character, they betrayed an artistic hand. The man who drew these outline figures of animals had a decorative sense. On their wall of rock these pictures were rudely, but not unskillfully carved. There were lions, giraffes and ostriches, all kinds of gazelle, and perhaps cows, though many of these figures were effaced by time. The carving is from a quarter to half an inch in depth and the edges of the lines are weathered until in some parts they can be scraped off easily with the finger.

I asked who made the pictures, and the only answer I got came from Malkenni, the Tebu, who declared his belief that they were the work of the djinn.

"What men," he demanded, "can do these things now?"

I did not find any traditions about the origin of these interesting rock markings, but I was struck by two things. There are no giraffes in this part of the country now; nor do they live in any similar desert country anywhere. Also there are no camels among the carvings on the rocks, and one cannot penetrate to this oasis now except with camels. Did the men who made these pictures know the giraffe and not the camel ? I reflected that the camel came to Africa from Asia some 500 years B.C.

At 5.30 we started for the home camp. We wound our way up a steep mountain path, hardly wide enough in places for a single man and exceedingly dangerous going for the camels. We reached the highest point of the path and then picked our way down to the desert level south of the mountains. At the highest point we reached there were a few peaks around some 200 or 300 metres higher than we were. The camels went up and down the steep path wonderfully well in spite of the darkness, and at 10.30 we were at the foot of the mountains.

It seemed best to give the camels a rest and we halted at II [sic] for two hours. We had tea, and a Tebu family whose camp was near came to visit us. We snatched a brief sleep and awoke refreshed. There was a cool wind blowing and the ride home over the level desert was a pleasant relief after the hot work of climbing about among the rocks.

We reached camp at 10 a.m. of the 2nd and were met with firing of rifles and an agreeable welcome.

Wednesday, May 2nd. On reaching camp we found Sheikh Herri, the Goran chief who is called "King" of Ouenat, and its 150 inhabitants. He came the day before to visit me and waited for my return. He was a very nice old man with a calm, dignified face. He brought two sheep, milk and abra for diafa. He was keeping Ramadan, and I insisted on his staying the night with us. Otherwise I could not offer him hospitality, since he might not eat or drink until sunset.

I had a long talk with him and with Mohammed. The old chief was still fond of his own country north of Wadai and sighed when it was spoken of. He belonged to the Rezzi family, which is a ruling family of Goran in Northern Wadai. He came to Kufra as a voluntary exile, when the French entered Wadai, and later he settled in Ouenat.

I found myself tired after our twenty-eight hours of trekking with only nine hours of rest, but a bath, a meal and a short sleep made life worth living again in the evening.

Bukara had organized a chorus among the men, and the evening was spent with Beduin, Tebu and Sudanese songs.

Thursday, May 3rd. Herri came to my tent with' a bowl of milk when I got up. When I thanked him, he shook his head sadly.

This is all I have to offer," he said. "It is not worthy of you. But you will forgive us for not being able to give you the hospitality that you should have"

I assured him that it is the spirit that counts in these matters and not the intrinsic value of the offering. The day was spent in preparations for the start south, which I hoped would be made on the morrow.

Friday, May 4th. I made an arrangement with Herri to go with us to Erdi, as an additional guide. Mohammed had not been through this country for a number of years, and I felt that Herri should know it better.

In the afternoon I went for a long walk and took photographs of the mountains. By this time all the Tebu and Goran settlements, which are scattered about the oasis wherever there is grazing for their beasts, had heard of our presence, and the people came to visit us. There were many guests for dinner, and it was a very gay camp. It was one of the pleasantest evenings of the trip.

Before we leave Ouenat I must say something about Bukara, who is one of the most interesting people in the caravan and a romantic figure. He is tall, slim and wiry, a typical Beduin, always cheerful and with a song at his lips at those critical moments in the day, early in the morning or late at night, when the men are tired with the night march and need encouragement.

I did not know that he smoked until one day as I was saddling my horse I caught him collecting the cigarette ends from the spot where my tent had stood. After this I shared my cigarettes with him. It was great fun to hand him a packet of the precious articles and see him break into a song and dance of joy.

Bukara is one of the most travelled Beduins that I have come across. He is only thirty-three and yet he has travelled to Wadai, Borku, Bomu, and Darfur.

He has seen days of good fortune in the past, but to-day he owns but one camel. He has thrown in his lot with my caravan, arranging with Bu Helega that he is to have a share of the money received from the latter's camels when they are sold at the end of the journey.

He speaks most of the dialects of the Black tribes and knows a great deal about them. He is also a wonderful mimic. One evening he put on the green cloth that formed a partition in my tent as a burnoos and with Sad and Hamid bleating like sheep behind him came to the camp pretending to be a Beduin Sheikh, bringing the two sheep as diafa. We were kept in roars of laughter and suddenly Bukara flung away the green cloth and, snatching a spear from one of the Tebus, broke into a Tebu war-dance. A Tebu assisted him by beating a rhythm on one of the small empty fantasses. This droll exhibition was followed by a concert of Beduin songs from Cyrenaica, Fezzan and Tripoli.

I have seen Bukara refuse to mount a camel to ride when all the Beduins have yielded to the temptation.

"Why don't you ride, Bukara?" I asked. "There are several unloaded camels"

"What would my washoon (wife) say if she heard that her Bukara had ridden between Arkenu and Ouenat?" he replied, with scorn in his voice for the thought.

He told me that on one occasion he had been entrusted with some fifty camels to take to Ouenat for grazing. He was alone and ran short of food.

"For twelve days I ate no meal, except the pips of colocynth, which upset my digestion," he replied simply. "Then I reached Kufra. The men at Kufra who had sent me for the camels had forgotten to send me food. They had expected me at Kufra earlier."

"But why didn't you slaughter a camel?" I inquired.

"Should I permit the men of Kufra to say that Bukara could not endure hunger and had killed a camel?" he retorted proudly.

Bukara is very fond of his wife. When we reached Arkenu he said to me, "I am feeling better now, but I cried like a child when I said good-bye to my washoon at Kufra. It is always like that when I begin my journeys. If the company is good I forget more quickly."

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