The French Aviators and the Slave

The discussion of Islamic slavery in the discussion thread here reminded me of a great piece of writing by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. St-Ex was a pioneering airmail pilot who spend much time in North Africa. The events described date from the late 1920s or early 1930s.

“Hide me in the Marrakech plane!”

Night after night, at Cape Juby, this slave would make his prayer to me. After which, satisfied that he had done what he could for his salvation, he would sit down upon crossed legs and brew my tea. Having put himself in the hands of the only doctor (as he believed) who could cure him, having prayed to the only god who might save him, he was at peace for another twenty-four hours.

Squatting over his kettle, he would summon up the simple vision of his past-the black earth of Marrakech, the pink houses, the rudimentary possessions of which he had been despoiled. He bore me no ill-will for my silence, nor for my delay in restoring him to life. I was not a man like himself but a power to be invoked, something like a favorable wind which one of these days might smile upon his destiny.

I, for my part, did not labor under these delusions concerning my power. What was I but a simple pilot, serving my few months as chief of the airport at Cape Juby and living in a wooden hut built over against the Spanish fort, where my worldly goods consisted of a basin, a jug of brackish water, and a cot too short for me?

“We shall see, Bark.”

All slaves are called Bark, so Bark was his name. But despite four years of captivity he could not resign himself to it and remembered constantly that he had been a king.

“What did you do at Marrakech, Bark?”

At Marrakech, where his wife and three children were doubtless still living, he had plied a wonderful trade.

“I was a drover, and my name was Mohammed!”

The very magistrates themselves would send for him.

“Mohammed, I have some steers to sell. Go up into the mountains and bring them down.”


“I have a thousand sheep in the plain. Lead them up into the higher pastures.”

And Bark, armed with an olive-wood sceptre, governed their exodus. He and no other. held sway over the nation of ewes, restrained the liveliest because of the lambkins about to be born, stirred up the laggards, strode forward in a universe of confidence and obedience. Nobody but him could say where lay the promised land towards which he led his flock. He alone could read his way in the stars? for the science he possessed was not shared by the sheep. Only he, in his wisdom, decided when they should take their rest, when they should drink at the springs. And at night while they slept, Bark, physician and prophet and king, standing in wool to the knees and swollen with tenderness for so much feeble ignorance, would pray for his people.

One day he was stopped by some Arabs.

“Come with us to fetch cattle up from the South,” they said.

They had walked him a long time, and when, after three days, they found themselves deep in the mountains, on the borders of rebellion, the Arabs had quietly placed a hand on his shoulder, christened him Bark, and sold him into slavery.

He was not the only slave I knew. I used to go daily to the tents to take tea. Stretched out with naked feet on the thick woolen carpet which is the nomad’s luxury and upon which for a time each day he builds his house, I would taste the happiness of the journeying hours. In the desert, as on shipboard, one is sensible of the passage of time. In that parching heat a man feels that the day is a voyage towards the goal of evening, towards the promise of a cool breeze that will bathe the limbs and wash away the sweat. Under the heat of the day beasts and men plod towards the sweet well of night as confidently as towards death. Thus, idleness here is never vain ; and each day seems as comforting as the roads that lead to the sea.

I knew the slaves well. They would come in as soon as the chief had taken out the little stove, the kettle, and the glasses from his treasure chest-that chest heavy with absurd objects, with locks lacking keys, vases for non-existent flowers, threepenny mirrors, old weapons, things so disparate that they might have been salvaged from a ship cast up here in the desert.

Then the mute slave would cram the stove with twigs, blow on the embers, fill the kettle with water, and in this service that a child could perform, set into motion a play of muscles able to uproot a tree.

I would wonder what he was thinking of, and would sense that he was at peace with himself. There was no doubt that he was hypnotized by the motions he went through-brewing tea, tending the camels, eating. Under the blistering day he walked towards the night; and under the ice of the naked stars he longed for the return of day. Happy are the lands of the North whose seasons are poets, the summer composing a legend of snow, the winter a tale of sun. Sad the tropics, where in the sweating-room nothing changes very much. But happy also the Sahara where day and night swing man so evenly from one hope to the other.

Tea served, the black will squat outside the tent, relishing the evening wind. In this sluggish captive hulk, memories have ceased to swarm. Even the moment when he was carried off is faint in his mind-the blows, the shouts, the arms of men that brought him down into his present night. And since that hour he has sunk deeper and deeper into a queer slumber, divested like a blind man of his Senegalese rivers or his white Moroccan towns, like a deaf man of the sound of familiar voices.

This black is not unhappy; he is crippled. Dropped down one day into the cycle of desert life, bound to the nomadic migrations, chained for life to the orbits they describe in the sand, how could he retain any memory of a past, a home, a wife and children, all of them for him as dead as the dead?

Men who have lived for years with a great love, and have lived on in noble solitude when it was taken from them, are likely now and then to be worn out by their exaltation. Such men return humbly to a humdrum life, ready to accept contentment in a more commonplace love. They find it sweet to abdicate, to resign themselves to a kind of servility and to enter into the peace of things. This black is proud of his master’s embers.

Like a ship moving into port, we of the desert come up into the night. In this hour, because it is the hour when all the weariness of day is remitted and its heats have ceased, when master and slave enter side by side into the cool of evening, the master is kind to the slave.

“Here, take this,” the chief says to the captive.

He allows him a glass of tea. And the captive, overcome with gratitude for a glass of tea, would kiss his master’s knees. This man before me is not weighed down with chains. How little need he has of them! How faithful he is! How submissively he forswears the deposed king within him! Truly, the man is a mere contented slave.
And yet the day will come when he will be set free. When he has grown too old to be worth his food or his cloak, he will be inconceivably free. For three days he will offer himself in vain from tent to tent, growing each day weaker; until towards the end of the third day, still uncomplaining, he will lie down on the sand.

I have seen them die naked like this at Cape Juby. The Moors jostle their long death-struggle, though. without ill intent; and the children play in the vicinity of the dark wreck, running with each dawn to see if it is still stirring, yet without mocking the old servitor. It is all in the nature of things. It is as if they had said to him: “You have done a good day’s work and have the right to sleep. Go to bed.”

And the old slave, still outstretched, suffers hunger which is but vertigo, and not injustice which alone is torment. Bit by bit he becomes one with the earth, is shriveled up by the sun and received by the earth. Thirty years of toil, and then this right to slumber and to the earth.

The first one I saw did not moan; but then he had no one to moan against. I felt in him an obscure acquiescence, as of a mountaineer lost and at the end of his strength who sinks to earth and wraps himself up in dreams and snow. What was painful to me was not his suffering (for I did not believe he was suffering) ; it was that for the first time it came on me that when a man dies, an unknown world passes away.

I could not tell what visions were vanishing in the dying slave, what Senegalese plantations or white Moroccan towns. It was impossible for me to know whether, in this black heap, there was being extinguished merely a world of petty cares in the breast of a slave – the tea to be brewed, the camels watered ; or whether, revived by a surge of memories, a man lay dying in the glory of humanity. The hard bone of his skull was in a sense an old treasure chest; and I could not know what colored stuffs, what images of festivities, what vestiges, obsolete and vain in this desert, had here escaped the shipwreck.

The chest was there, locked and heavy. I could not know what bit of the world was crumbling in this man during the gigantic slumber of his ultimate days, was disintegrating in this consciousness and this flesh which little by little was reverting to night and to root.

“I was a drover, and my name was Mohammed!”

Before I met Bark I had never met a slave who offered the least resistance. That the Moors had violated his freedom, had in a single day stripped him as naked as a newborn infant, was not the point. God sometimes sends cyclones which in a single hour wipe out a man’s harvests. But deeper than his belongings, these Moors had threatened him in his very essence.

Many another captive would have resigned himself to the death in him of the poor herdsman who toiled the year round for a crust of bread. Not so Bark. He refused to settle into a life of servitude, to surrender to the weariness of waiting and resign himself to a passive contentment. He rejected the slave-joys that are contingent upon the kindness of the slave-owner. Within his breast Mohammed absent held fast to the house Mohammed had lived in. That house was sad for being empty, but none other should live in it. Bark was like one of those white-haired caretakers who die of their fidelity in the weeds of the paths and the tedium of silence.

He never said, “I am Mohammed ben Lhaous-sin”; he said, “My name was Mohammed,” dreaming of the day when that obliterated figure would again live within him in all its glory and by the power of its resuscitation would drive out the ghost of the slave.

There were times when, in the silence of the night, all his memories swept over him with the poignancy of a song of childhood. Our Arab interpreter said to me, “In the middle of the night he woke up and talked about Marrakech ; and he wept.” No man in solitude can escape these recurrences. The old Mohammed awoke in him with-out warning, stretched himself in his limbs, sought his wife against his flank in this desert where no woman had ever approached Bark, and listened to the water purling in the fountains here where no fountain ran.

And Bark, his eyes shut, sitting every night under the same star, in a place where men live in houses of hair and follow the wind, told himself that he was living in his white house in Marrakech. His body charged with tenderness and mysteriously magnetized, as if the pole of these emotions were very near at hand, Bark would come to see me. He was trying to let me know that he was ready, that his over-full heart was quivering on the brim and needed only to find itself back in Marrakech to be poured out. And all that was wanted was a sign from me. Bark would smile, would whisper to me how it could be done-for of course I should not have thought of this dodge:

“The mails leave tomorrow. You stow me away in the Marrakech plane.”

“Poor old Bark!”

We were stationed among the unsubdued tribes, and how could we help him away? God knows what massacre the Moors would have done among us that very day to avenge the insult of this theft. I had, indeed, tried to buy him, with the help of the mechanics at the port-laubergue, Marchal, and Abgrall. But it was not every day that the Moors met Europeans in quest of a slave, and they took advantage of the occasion.

“Twenty thousand francs.”

“Don’t make me laugh!”

“But look at those strong arms. . . .”

Months passed before the Moors came down to a reasonable figure and I, with the help of friends at home to whom I had written, found myself in a position to buy old Bark. There was a week of bargaining which we spent, fifteen Moors and I, sitting in a circle in the sand. A friend of Bark’s master who was also my friend, Zin Ould Rhat-tari, a bandit, was privately on my side.

“Sell him,” he would argue in accordance with my coaching. “You will lose him one of these days, you know. Bark is a sick man. He is diseased. You can’t see yet, but he is sick inside. One of these days he will swell right up. Sell him as soon as you can to the Frenchman.”

I had promised fifty Spanish pesetas to another bandit, Raggi, and Raggi would say:

“With the money you get for Bark you will be able to buy camels and rifles and cartridges. Then you can go off on a razzia against these French. Go down to Atar and bring back three or four young Senegalese. Get rid of the old carcass.”

And so Bark was sold to me. I locked him up for six days in our hut, for if he had wandered out before the arrival of a plane the Moors would surely have kidnapped him. Meanwhile, although I would not allow him out, I set him free with a flourish of ceremony in the presence of three Moorish witnesses. One was a local marabout, another was Ibrahim, the mayor of Cape Juby, and the third was his former owner. These three pirates, who would gladly have cut off Bark’s head within fifty feet of the fort for the sole pleasure of doing me in the eye, embraced him warmly and signed the official act of manumission. That done, they said to him:

“You are now our son.”

He was my son, too, by law. Dutifully, Bark embraced all his fathers.

He lived on in our hut in comfortable captivity until we could ship him home. Over and over again, twenty times a day, he would ask to have the simple journey described. We were flying him to Agadir. There he would be given an omnibus ticket to Marrakech. He was to be sure not to miss the bus. That was all there was to it. But Bark played at being free the way a child plays at being an explorer, going over and over this journey back to life-the bus, the crowds, the towns he would pass through.

One day Laubergue came to talk to me about Bark. He said that Marchal and Abgrall and he rather felt it would be a shame if Bark was flung into the world without a copper. They had made up a purse of a thousand francs: didn’t I think that would see Bark through till he found work? I thought of all the old ladies who run charities and insist upon gratitude in exchange for every twenty francs they part with. These airplane mechanics were parting with a thousand francs, had no thought of charity, and were even less concerned about gratitude.

Nor were they acting out of pity, like those old ladies who want to believe they are spreading happiness. They were contributing simply to restore to a man his lost dignity as a human being. They knew quite as well as anybody else that once the initial intoxication of his homecoming was past, the first faithful friend to step up and take Bark’s hand would be Poverty; and that before three months had gone by he would be tearing up sleepers somewhere on the railway line for a living. He was sure to be less well off there than here in the desert. But in their view he had the right to live his life among his own people.

“Good-by, old Bark. Be a man!”

The plane quivered, ready to take off. Bark took his last look at the immense desolation of Cape Juby. Round the plane two hundred Moors were finding out what a slave looked like when he stood on the threshold of life. They would make no bones about snatching him back again if a little later the ship happened to be forced down.
We stood about our fifty-year-old, new-born babe, worried a little at having launched him forth on the stream of life.

“Good-by, Bark!”


“What do you mean?”

“No. I am Mohammed ben Lhaoussin.”

The last news we had of him was brought back to us by Abdullah who at our request had looked after Bark at Agadir. The plane reached Agadir in the morning, but the bus did not leave until evening. This was how Bark spent his day,

He began by wandering through the town and remaining silent so long that his restlessness up-set Abdullah.

“Anything the matter ?”


This freedom had come too suddenly: Bark was finding it hard to orient himself. There was a vague happiness in him, but with this exception there was scarcely any difference between the Bark of yesterday and the Bark of today. Yet he had as much right to the sun, henceforth, as other men; as much right as they to sit in the shade of an Arab cafe.

He sat down and ordered tea for Abdullah and himself. This was his first lordly gesture, a manifestation of a power that ought to have transfigured him in other men’s eyes. But the waiter poured his tea quite without surprise, quite unaware that in this gesture he was doing homage to a free man.

“Let us go somewhere else,” Bark had said; and they had gone off to the Kasbah, the licensed quarter of the town. The little Berber prostitutes came up and greeted them, so kind and tame that here Bark felt he might be coming alive.

These girls were welcoming a man back to life, but they knew nothing of this. They took him by the hand, offered him tea, then love, very nicely; but exactly as they would have offered it to any man. Bark, preoccupied with his message, tried to tell them the story of his resurrection. They smiled most sympathetically. They were glad for him, since he was glad. And to make the wonder more wonderful he added, “I am Mohammed ben Lhaoussin.”
But that was no surprise to them. All men have names, and so many return from afar! They could guess, nevertheless, that this man had suffered, and they strove to be as gentle as possible with the poor black devil. He appreciated their gentleness, this first gift that life was making him; but his restlessness was yet not stilled. He had not yet rediscovered his empire.

Back to town went Bark and Abdullah. He idled in front of the Jewish shops, stared at the sea, repeated to himself that he could walk as he pleased in any direction, that he was free. But this freedom had in it a taste of bitterness; what he learned from it with most intensity was that he had no ties with the world.
At that moment a child had come up. Bark stroked the soft cheek. The child smiled. This was not one of the master’s children that one had to flatter. It was a sickly child whose cheek Bark was stroking. And the child was smiling at him. The child awoke something in Bark, and Bark felt himself more important on earth because of the sickly child whose smile was his due. He began to sense confusedly that something was stirring within him, was striding forward with swift steps.

“What are you looking for?” Abdullah had asked him.

“Nothing,” was again Bark’s answer.

But when, rounding a corner, he came upon a group of children at play, he stopped. This was it. He stared at them in silence. Then he went off to the Jewish shops and came back laden with treasure. Abdullah was nettled:

“Fool! Throwing away your money!”

Bark gave no heed. Solemnly he beckoned to each child in turn, ‘and the little hands rose towards the toys and the bangles and the gold-sewn slippers. Each child, as soon as he had a firm grip on his treasure, fled like a wild thing, and Bark went back to the Jewish shops.
Other children in Agadir, hearing the news, ran after him; and these too were shod by Bark in golden slippers. The tale spread’ to the outskirts of Agadir, whence still other children scurried into town and clustered round the black god, clinging to his threadbare cloak and clamoring for their due. Bark, that victim of a sombre joy, spent on them his last copper.

Abdullah was sure that he had gone mad, “mad with joy,” he said afterward. But I incline to believe that Bark was not sharing with others an overflow of happiness. He was free, and therefore he possessed the essential of wealth-the right to the love of Berber girls, to go north or south as he pleased, to earn his bread by his toil. What good was this money when the thing for which he was famished was to be a man in the family of men, bound by ties to other men?

The town prostitutes had been kind to old Bark, hut he had been able to get away from them as easily as he had come to them: they had no need of him. The waiter in the cafe, the passers-by in the streets, the shopkeepers, had respected the free man he was, sharing their sun with him on terms of equality; but none of them had indicated that he needed Bark.

He was free, but too infinitely free; not striding upon the earth but floating above it. He felt the lack in him of that weight of human relations that trammels a man’s progress ; tears, farewells, reproaches, joys-all those things that a man caresses or rips apart each time he sketches a gesture; those thousand ties that bind him to others and lend density to his being. But already Bark was in ballast of a thousand hopes.

And so the reign of Bark began in the glory of the sun setting over Agadir, in that evening coolness that so long had been for him the single sweetness, the unique stall in which he could take his rest. And as the hour of leaving approached, Bark went forward lapped in this tide of children as once in his sea of ewes, ploughing his first furrow in the world. He would go back next day to the poverty of his family, to responsibility for more lives than perhaps his old arms would be able to sustain, but already, among these children, he felt the pull of his true weight. Like an archangel too airy to live the life of man, but who had cheated, had sewn lead into his girdle, Bark dragged himself forward, pulling against the pull of a thousand children who had such great need of golden slippers.

This excerpt is from the chapter Men of the Desert in St-Exupery’s book Wind, Sand and Stars, which I highly recommend.

8 thoughts on “The French Aviators and the Slave”

  1. Buraq is the name of the horse that followed the angel Gabriel to Mecca. Mohammed rode Buraq to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem where Mohammed stopped to pray. Then he remounted Buraq and rode to the various heavens with Gabriel, meeting with Allah in the 7th heaven. Then he rode Baraq back to Mecca to tell his followers what Allah expected from everyone in the world.

    The Quran says that Baraq was good looking.

  2. It’s interesting to note that the name “Abdullah” translates to “Slave of Allah.”

    Slaves all around.

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