05 May 2007

Captain James Riley's sufferings on the Sahara

The transformation of Riley from a strapping 240-pound commander into a whimpering 90-pound wretch is a survival tale right up there with Shackleton's Antarctica heroics and the Donner Party's snowed-in travails. Quickly, the men are reduced to drinking their own urine. When they are captured by the nomads, they're already so pitiful-looking that the Arabs, especially the ululating women, find them repulsive. They are stripped naked and forced to walk or ride on camels through radiating heat. Their skin peels off in sheets, their tongues swell and their feet are lacerated by stones. They are relieved to be able to drink camel urine. When the desperate captives stumble into a small encampment one day around noon, "Instead of sympathy, the spectacle ignited a frenzy of disgust," King writes. "They reviled the men with shrill curses and spat on them. ... In a land that imparted good and evil qualities to all things and denounced women as conduits of evil, any contact with Christians was dangerous."

At the heart of the book is the complex relationship between Riley and Sidi Hamet. God and family guide both men's destiny and give them a universal connection, but they are also bonded in deceit. Riley, who picks up Arabic amazingly fast, tells the nomads and traders some whoppers: that he and his men are British (trying to explain they were from another continent across the ocean was too risky), that he personally knows the Sultan of Morocco and that he has a friend in the north who will pay Hamet if Riley and his men are delivered to the sultan's realm.

It's a bluff. Riley knows nobody in Africa, and he's just trusting to luck that he can get word to the British consul in the nearest port.

The town of Mogadore, about 700 miles north of the band's wanderings in the trackless Sahara, is Riley's only hope. Captives could be redeemed there to foreign merchants and consuls for about $150 each. "To get there," King writes, "he had to cross the desert past hostile Bedouin tribes, past the fortified Berber towns of Souss, and finally past the operatives of the Sultan of Morocco, where Christian slavery was technically illegal and the sultan was fond of 'gifts' Western nations paid for their rescue." Hamet agrees to undertake the journey and protect Riley and his mates along the way, but promises he'll slit Riley's throat with a scimitar if he is revealed to be lying about having a rich friend named "Consul" in Mogadore. Riley agrees to the deal.

Running this gauntlet takes two months, and builds to a pressure-filled climax that depends solely on trust among strangers, and good men standing by their word. The ending is given emotional power by the depth of empathy you feel for Hamet, whose rescue scheme is almost hijacked by his own predacious father-in-law, the villain we first met in the book's prologue.

The endgame itself is a ripping yarn, a testament to King's writing, since Hamet has long since proven himself a true, resourceful survivor and the reader already knows that the sailors will be saved. Riley and Hamet end up as comrades, their mutual salvation resounding as a message of hope we sorely need now.

Neal Matthews is a freelance writer in San Diego.

Excerpt from skeletons on the zahara
Sidi Hamet knew that if his presence were made known in the town, he would risk being coerced into selling the Christians to Sheik Beyrouk, the ruler of Wednoon, or to Sheik Ali, his father-in-law. Thus he decided to bypass Wednoon. In the late afternoon, he woke the [five] sailors and took them to a nearby hut, where he had bought a honeycomb. Hassar's hungry men had caught wind of the meal and loitered around hoping to share in it. Balancing a bowl containing the hive on his knees, Hamet distributed sections to the sailors with one hand while holding his gun in the other in case Hassar's men abandoned their cautious self-restraint. The sailors attacked their portions like bears, swallowing along with the rich honeycomb the tender young bees that filled it. Tears rolled down their hollow faces as they ate the calorie-laden gold. They were so sated that they fell asleep again under a palm tree until dark.

Ten days after leaving the Valley of the Locusts, they crossed the St. Cyprian wadi, reaching the coast just north of Cape Barbas. Robbins had come full circle, in more ways than one. Neglected by [his master], his health had begun to deteriorate and would continue to decline over the next month until he hit his lowest state since arriving on this shore in the longboat. His diet of hard-boiled blood and locusts made him severely costive. The less he worked, the more he was shunned. "I was completely dried up; and the skin was contracted and drawn tightly around my bones," he said. The combination of his chafing clothes and sleeping on the hardpan had worn the skin and flesh off his hips so that he could touch his hipbones on both sides. He was "now literally reduced to a skeleton."

The end, one way or another, was near.

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