National Geographic : 1943 Jul
Americans on the Barbary Coast Towns are few and poor. They look grimly at the hostile desert which here comes close to the shore. Misurata peers over a high wall that has only two gates, one in the north side and one in the south. Sirte, too, is like a fortress. Beyond Sirte is a riot of color in March when the desert flowers bloom. Next, there is an ancient sea bed to cross, flat as a billiard table, then treacherous dunes, then a shallow lake with quicksands that swallow a car. On a hill is the tomb of a marabout, a holy man. From sticks dangle rags in which coins are tied. He who wishes to do a holy deed places some money here in the care of the dead marabout. Any passer-by may take the money if he is in need. If not, he is expected to take a coin from his own purse and tie it in the rags. Bedouins observe the custom. Another grim fort in the midst of desola tion is En Nofilia. Many wanderers have died hunting it, for it lies hidden in a hollow between high hills. The most forlorn stretch is the next, to El Agheila and Agedabia. It is flat, much of it consisting of salt lakes where mobile units may roar at high speed over the perfect sur face of crystallized salt. "The Agheila bottleneck," as the news dis patches called it, served Rommel as a strong defensive position. Here the only practicable route is through a narrow passage between a line of hills and the sea. A little farther west the hills disappear. Their place is taken by a series of swamps and salt marshes that defy land craft or water craft. To reach El Agheila General Montgomery's Eighth Army had to go through strange coun try, different from that I have described. Forests of Pines Roads winding along jagged precipices through forests of mighty pines do not seem to belong in Africa. But it was along such roads, under freezing rains, that one of Montgomery's columns tried to cut across the mountains of Cirenaica to intercept Rommel, while his main force fol lowed the coast through Tobruk, Derna, and Bengasi. Delayed by weather, the mountain column reached the coast just after the fugitive Ger man army had hobbled by, hurrying to reach the bottleneck of Agheila where a stand was to be made. While the armies raged back and forth through Libia, the Bedouins discreetly retired to the oases of the Libian Desert. The con flict means little to them. They are suspicious of all Europeans and they know nothing of Americans. The Turks treated them badly. The Italians, when they came, expected to be received with open arms. They were astonished to learn that the Moslem desert dwellers would rather be misruled by their co-religionists than well ruled by Christians. Not that the Italians had any idea of ruling them well. That was not the philosophy of the Italy of iron and blood. There was no attempt to conciliate rebel sheiks. They were ruthlessly dealt with, their desert wells were filled with concrete so that their cattle would die and their men must either perish of thirst or come and give themselves up. Black Shirt policy has been quite different from that of the French, whose notion of colonial rule was well expressed by the great Marshal Lyautey: "I had a dream of creating, of raising into life countries which had been asleep from the beginning of time, of showing them those riches of their own which they are ignorant of, and breathing the breath of life into them." The Italians brought in black troops from Eritrea and encouraged them in the most blood-thirsty reprisals upon Arab "rebels." And yet the Roman schoolbook blandly in formed the Arab child: "In the old days there was savagery and barbarism in this country, but now the Romans have returned!" Decatur's "Most Bold and Daring Act" True, there was once barbarism here. The Dey of Tripoli joined with the other deys of the Barbary Coast in terrorizing the Medi terranean. The United States was twice involved in war with Tripoli. In 1804, Decatur, in what Lord Nelson called "the most bold and daring act of the age," entered Tripoli harbor and, with his dramatic destruction of the captured Philadelphia,struck a mighty blow at the tyr anny of the Dey. He was back again in 1815. Now, by one of the curious reversals of history, the brand of barbarism has passed into the hands of two nations that once held a lamp of enlightenment. The contributions of Romans, Italians, and Teutons, along with those of Greeks, Phoenicians, Egyptians, English, French, and Arabs, to the culture of the Mediterranean Basin have been in calculable. The Americans who now tread those shores may well feel humble that it has fallen upon them, comparative newcomers among the world's peoples, to help restore the heritage of this early home of civilization.