National Geographic : 2005 Oct
Regardless of which country they live in, the Afar share a general lifestyle, traveling across the desert with their livestock. "We are the people who move," one woman said. "From the beginning that has been our way." Nor is there really any other way to survive in Afar Land, or Cafar-barro as the Afar call it, par ticularly if you depend on a diet of camel and goat milk as they do. Less than seven inches of rain falls each year in the Danakil, often in a sporadic manner, and the only fertile soil lies far to the south of the Lake Asele salt mines, along "Because it's a hard we must fight. And wl fight, we use whatev have: guns, knives, r the Awash River, one of the unusual rivers on Earth that never make it to the sea. It sinks in stead into another salt lake on the Ethiopian Djibouti border. Aside from the garden strip of the Awash, the rest of the desert is as dry and sterile as a Martian plain. Yet the Danakil is also a creative, hyperactive geologic wonder, its volcanoes, fissures, faults, hot springs, and steaming geysers all part of the birth ing process of a new ocean. The Earth's crust is separating here, tearing apart along three deep rifts geologists call the Afar Triple Junction. One day in the very distant future (some scientists have calculated about a hundred million years), when the rifting is complete, the salty waters of the Red Sea will spill across Cafar-barro, erasing forever the camel trails of the Afar. "That will happen if it is God's will" Ma'ar Mohammed, the chief salt-tax collector in Hamed Ela, had shrugged. He was a tall, thin man with sharp features and a beaked nose, and he had a wad of qat leaves, a mild stimulant, stuck in his cheek. We'd rented a palm-thatch house from Ma'ar while we explored the salt plains and mines near Lake Asele before joining the salt caravans, and some afternoons he stopped by to talk about Afar history and culture. "Only Allah knows these things," Ma'ar said on the possibility of waves lapping across the Danakil. Like his fellow Afar, Ma'ar is a Muslim. Islam seldom came up as a topic, but the Afar clearly regard their faith as the one true religion. 46 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * OCTOBER 2005 "But there are things a man can do, and even though we Afar are men of peace, we should fight for our unity like Osama." Despite the remote ness of the Danakil, the Afar know all about Osama bin Laden. "There is only one Afar" Ma'ar continued, raising his index finger high in the air, "not three. We must fight to be whole again." But few outside observers expect the Afar to be reunited-at least not in the near future. They are very territorial, even between clans, and inward-looking, not outward. Although they're well known as determined fighters (despite Ma'ar's disclaimer), who don't land, think twice about killing their enemies, they don't have a his hen we tory of strong leaders, men er we capable of holding their clans OCks together in some common ocks cause, largely because of fierce rivalries among their clans. It was that lack of leadership that Ma'ar ful minated against. Getting an Afar to fight and die for the Danakil, for Cafar-barro, or for their clan was the easy part. The desert may have struck me as hellish, but for them it was their gift from Allah-land and grass and water that gave them life and that they, in turn, would lay down their lives for. And, indeed, young Afar men were dying for it regularly; we heard of battles and killings throughout our six-week stay in the desert. In that context Ma'ar's reference to Osama bin Laden made sense since the Afar associate him with bravery and aggressiveness, two skills an Afar man needs in quantity. In fact, strength of mind and body were really all anyone required for survival in the desert, Edris and Ma'ar had told me. For them it was perfectly natural to live in a land of firebrick-red and black stones, where it hadn't rained in over a year, where every Afar had lost most of his camels because of the severe drought, and where any living green thing popped out at you like the Hope Diamond. There was really nothing to it, except that you must be brave and you must fight. "In our history we have always been fighters," Edris said one afternoon, joining in Ma'ar's dis cussion. "We live in the desert, and because it's a hard land, we must fight, even though killing is against the law of Allah. And when we fight, we use whatever we have: guns and knives, rocks and sticks. We will even bite with our teeth. You use everything when you fight against your enemies."