National Geographic : 1991 Dec
j4 N THE NAME OF ALLAH, the Benevolent, the Compassion ate," intones the blue-robed imam, his deep voice challenging the silence of the Sahara. Behind him, along a line he has scratched in the sand, men and boys of the caravan form a ragged rank, facing distant Mecca. "Guide us on the straight path, the path of those you have blessed . .. not those who have gone astray," the imam prays, conclud ing the Koran's opening chapter, thefatiha, fitting invocation for a caravan departure. In unison the caravanners kneel, then bow, pressing their foreheads into the sand. In the cool shadows of morning they rejoin the line of beasts tethered head to tail and wait for a signal. Beside me the madougou, or caravan boss, raises his staff, jerks the rope halter on his lead camel, and, to shouts and the clanging of pans and bowls, the half-mile long train grudgingly lurches forward. I walk along with madougou Idris Daouda. Like his grandfather, who led the prayers, Idris wears the long blue robes of a Tuareg tribesman and a voluminous black turban wrapped to veil all but his eyes. From a sling across his shoulder slaps a long broadsword in a dusty red scabbard. To my surprise when Idris drops back to inspect the beasts and their heavy loads of salt, he hands me his lead rope with only the briefest of instructions: "Just don't stop," he says. "We would be all day sorting out the mess!" I savor the glory of piloting such a menag erie. Pulling more than 400 camels behind me toward a stark horizon of sky and sand, I am right where I want to be: deep in the 14th century world of an extraordinary traveler named Ibn Battuta. It is an Arabian Nights world of caravans, veiled harems, sailing dhows, whirling dervishes, and forbidden cities-a world of brigands and bow-and arrow wars, of banquets with turbaned sul tans and mirages wrought by threadbare fakirs. Most marvelous of all, much of it survives today. As I tugged the lead camel, I reflected on how far Ibn Battuta had come at this stage of Land Rovers of the Middle Ages, camels carried Ibn Battuta across the Sahara and beyond. In Cairo, where the pilgrim lingered on his first journey, camels at Imbaba market are hobbled to prevent straying.