Hailed everywhere as a masterpiece of historical adventure, this enthralling narrative recounts the experiences of twelve American sailors who were shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in 1815, captured by desert nomads, sold into slavery, and subjected to a hellish two-month journey through the bone-dry heart of the Sahara. The ordeal of these men--who found themselves tested by barbarism, murder, starvation, death, dehydration, and hostile tribes that roamed the desert on camelback--is made indelibly vivid in this gripping account of courage, brotherhood, and survival.
When the American cargo ship Commerce ran aground on the northwestern shores of Africa in 1815 along with its crew of 12 Connecticut-based sailors, the misfortunes that befell them came fast and hard, from enslavement to reality-bending bouts of dehydration. King's aggressively researched account of the crew's once-famous ordeal reads like historical fiction, with unbelievable stories of the seamen's endurance of heat stroke, starvation and cruelty by their Saharan slavers. King (Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed), who went to Africa and, on camel and foot, retraced parts of the sailors' journey, succeeds brilliantly at making the now familiar sandscape seem as imposing and new as it must have been to the sailors. Every dromedary step thuds out from the pages with its punishing awkwardness, and each drop of brackish found water reprieves and tortures with its perpetual insufficiency. King's leisurely prose style rounds out the drama with well-parceled-out bits of context, such as the haggling barter culture of the Saharan nomadic Arabs and the geological history of Western Africa's coastline. Zahara (King's use of older and/or phonetic spellings helps evoke the foreignness of the time and place) impresses with its pacing, thoroughness and empathy for the plight of a dozen sailors heaved smack-hard into an unknown tribalism. By the time the surviving crew members make it back to their side of civilization, reader and protagonist alike are challenged by new ways of understanding culture clash, slavery and the place of Islam in the social fabric of desert-dwelling peoples. Maps, illus.
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1 . riveting
Posted October 30, 2012 by laurie , valdersBest book I have ever read. Couldn't put it down.
Little, Brown and Company
April 09, 2005
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Excerpt from Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King
In his five crossings of the Sahara, Sidi Hamet had never seen worse conditions. Forty days out of Wednoon, the sand had turned as fine as house dust and as hot as coals of fire. With their heavy loads, the camels labored up shifting dunes in spine-buckling bursts, then stumbled down the other side. With each step, the dromedaries thrust in to their knees, their wide, padded feet, designed by Allah to skim over sand, sinking like stones.
Despite his experience on the desert, Hamet had had no say in choosing this, the most direct route to Tombuctoo, about twelve-hundred miles in all, one that would take many months to travel. Having dropped south from Wednoon, then east around the AntiAtlas Mountains in six days, the caravan of a thousand men had halted on the edge of the desert, collecting many tons of the date-size argan fruit. The men had extracted oil from the argan pits to fortify their food. They had roasted the meat of the pits, rolled it into balls, and packed these in tent-cloth sacks to serve as camel fodder and fuel for their fires.?After ten days of preparations, the caravan headed southeast, navigating the trackless waste by moon, sun, and stars.
Hamet and his younger brother Seid, merchants from the north, near the city of Morocco, had only ten camels. Eight were their own and were richly loaded. The other two belonged to Hamet's father-in- law, Sheik Ali, and they carried barley. There were four thousand other camels in the caravan, many of them milk camels to feed the men en route and four hundred to bear the provisions and water. About half belonged to a powerful warlord who was a friend of the caravan's chief, Sidi Ishrel.
Like all successful caravan drivers, Ishrel was tough but just. Imposing and erect of bearing, the Arab leader had flashing eyes beneath an ample turban and a thick beard to his chest. He wore a long white haik of good cloth, befitting his status, drawn tight around his body and crisscrossed by red belts carrying his essentials: a large powder horn, flints, a leather pouch with musket balls, and his scabbard with a broad and burnished scimitar. He carried his musket night and day, always prepared for a sudden attack from the wild bedouins of the desert. His constant nemeses, however, were the terrain and the sun.
For six days, Ishrel's caravan weltered in the deep drifts, the cameleers alternately singing to their camels and goading them with clubs, constantly dashing on foot here and there to square the loads. They gave violent shoves to bulges in woven sacks and tugged on ropes with the full weight of their bodies. For all their efforts, uneven loads were inevitable, causing strains to the camels' joints and bones. It did not take long for an inattentive master to lame a camel, and a lame camel was a dead camel, a communal feast. In that way, Allah provided for them all. It was his will, and there was no compensation for the camel's owner in this world. "We only feed you for Allah's sake," says the Quran. "We desire from you neither reward nor thanks."
On the seventh day, the irifi roared in from the southeast, and the sand swirled. Sidi Ishrel ordered the camels to be unloaded and camp made. In a hurry, the Arabs stacked their goods-iron, lumber, amber, shotguns, knives, scimitars, bundles of haiks, white cloth and blue cloth, blocks of salt, sacks of tobacco and spices - in a great pile. They circled up the camels and made them lie down.
All around them the sand blew so hard that the men could not open their eyes, and if they did, they could not see their companions or their camels even if they were nearly touching them. It was all they could do to breathe. Lying on their stomachs, Hamet and Seid inhaled through the sheshes wrapped around their heads and across their faces, which they pressed into the sand.
They did not fear much for their camels, which have their own defenses: deep-set, hirsute ears and long eyelashes that protect against flying grit, collapsible nostrils that add moisture to the searing air they breathe, and eyes with lids so thin that they can close them during a sandstorm and still see. They did not worry about them overheating either, for camels have a unique ability to absorb heat in their bodies while their brains remain insulated and stable. They conserve their body water by not sweating or panting, instead retaining the heat during the day and releasing it later. On bitterly cold nights, their owners often took refuge in their warmth. As all good cameleers knew, these prized beasts were as impervious to the abuse of the desert as it was possible to be, and they were as long-lived as they were ornery, some reaching half a century in age. Many would outlive their masters.