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The Life of the Nomad


The Amir ‘Abd al-Qadir (1807-1883)

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 10, No. 2. (Spring, 1976). © World Wisdom, Inc.

(Algeria; mid 19th century)


O THOU who preferrest the dull life of the town
to wide, free solitude,
dost thou despise nomadic tents
because they are light, not heavy
like houses of stone and lime?
If only thou knewest the desert's secret!
But ignorance is the cause of all evil.
If thou couldst but awake in the dawning Sahara
and set forth on this carpet of pearls,
where flowers of all colors shower delight
and perfume on our way.
We breath an air that lengthens life,
because it ne'er blew on the garbage of towns!
If at dawn, after the night's dew,
thou wouldst from a high point look into the distance,
thou wouldst see on the measureless horizon
fallow beasts grazing on scented meadows.
At a moment like this all care would leave thee
and rest would enter thy restless heart.
On the day of decampment the camels' howdahs
are like anemones weighed down by rain.
They cover virgins, who peep out through peepholes.
Ah peephole which the eye of the houri fills!
Behind them sing the drivers in high pitch,
their song more gripping than flutes and cymbals.
But we, on noble horses
whose decorations cover breast and croup,
stir ourselves into a gallop.
We hunt gazelles and beasts of prey.
None can outrun our rapid coursing!
At night we return to the tribe
which has already encamped on an unspotted site,
The earth is like musk; even purer it is;
and generous too, moistened at dawn and dusk by rain.
There we put up our tents in rows.
The earth is dotted with them as the sky with stars.
Those who have passed on truly said
—and truth undergoeth not change—:
beauty is found in two things,
in a verse and in a tent of skin.
When our camels graze at night,
their lowing resounds like the thunder of early morning.
They are the ships of the desert; whoso travels
on them is saved; but how dangerous are the ships of the sea!
They are our Mehari, swift as antelopes,
through them and our horses we achieve fame,
Our horses are always saddled for battle;
whoever seeks our aid, for him we are ready.
For fame we have sold our citizenship forever,
for fame is not won in the town!
We are kings! None can compare himself with us!
Does he then truly live, who lives in shame?

Original editorial inclusion that followed the essay in Studies:
Where true principles lack, the results are imperfect.
Henry Madathanas.