St-Exupery: Men of the Desert

Antoine de St-Exupery, writer and pioneering airmail pilot, was based for a time in the then-French-colonial territory of North Africa.  He recorded his observations about the people and their culture in his essay Men of the Desert,  which is one of the chapters in his book Wind, Sand and Stars.  I previously excerpted part of this essay in my post the French aviators and the slave.  Several recent events in which American soldiers were murdered by Afghan and Iraqi men who they thought were their comrades have again called it to mind.

Getting acquainted:

But we were not always in the air, and our idle hours were spent taming the Moors. They would come out of their forbidden regions (those regions we crossed in our flights and where they would shoot at us the whole length of our crossing), would venture to the stockade in the hope of buying loaves of sugar, cotton cloth, tea, and then would sink back again into their mystery. Whenever they turned up we would try to tame a few of them in order to establish little nuclei of friendship in the desert; thus if we were forced clown among them there would be at any rate a few who might be persuaded to sell us into slavery rather than massacre us.Now and then an influential chief came up, and him, with the approval of the Line, we would load into the plane and carry off to see something of the world. The aim was to soften their pride, for, repositories of the truth, defenders of Allah, the only God, it was more in contempt than in hatred that he and his kind murdered their prisoners.

When they met us in the region of Juby or Cisneros, they never troubled to shout abuse at us. They would merely turn away and spit; and this not by way of personal insult but out of sincere disgust at having crossed the path of a Christian. Their pride was born of the illusion of their power. Allah renders a believer invincible. Many a time a chief has said to me, pointing to his army of three hundred rifles, “Lucky it is for France that she lies more than a hundred days’ march from here.”

And so we would take them up for a little spin. Three of them even visited France in our planes. I happened to be present when they returned. I met them when they landed, went with them to their tents, and waited in infinite curiosity to hear their first words. They were of the same race as those who, having once been flown by me to the Senegal, had burst into tears at the sight of trees. What a revelation Europe must have been for them! And yet their first replies astonished me by their coolness.

 “Paris? Very big.” Everything was “very big” – Paris, the Trocadero, the automobiles.  What with everyone in Paris asking if the Louvre was not “very big” they had gradually learned that this was the answer that flattered us. And with a sort of, vague contempt, as if pacifying a lot of children, they would grant that the Louvre was “very big.”

 These Moors took very little trouble to dissemble the freezing indifference they felt for the Eiffel Tower, the steamships, and the locomotives. They were ready to agree once and for always that we knew how to build things out of iron. We also knew how to fling a bridge from one continent to another. The plain fact was that they did not know enough to admire our technical progress. The wireless astonished them less than the telephone, since the mystery of the telephone resided in the very fact of the wire.

 It took a little time for me to understand that my questions were on the wrong track. For what they thought admirable was not the locomotive, but the tree. When you think of it, a tree does possess a perfection that a locomotive cannot know. And then I remembered the Moors who had wept at the sight of trees.

 Yes, France was in some sense admirable, but it was not because of those stupid things made of iron. They had seen pastures in France in which all the camels of Er-Reguibat could have grazed! There were forests in France! The French had cows, cows filled with milk! And of course my three Moors were amazed by the incredible customs of the people. “In Paris,” they said, “you walk through a crowd of a thousand people. You stare at them. And nobody carries a rifle!”   But there were better things in France than this inconceivable friendliness between men. There was the circus, for example.

 “Frenchwomen,” they said, “can jump standing from one galloping horse to another.”

 Thereupon they would stop and reflect. “You take one Moor from each tribe,” they went on. “You take him to the circus. And nevermore will the tribes of Er-Reguibat make war on the French.” I remember my chiefs sitting among the crowding tribesmen in the opening of their tents, savoring the pleasure of reciting this new series of Arabian Nights, extolling the music halls in which naked women dance on carpets of flowers.

 Here were men who had never seen a tree, a river, a rose ; who knew only through the Koran of the existence of gardens where streams run, which is their name for Paradise. In their desert, Paradise -and its beautiful captives could be won only by bitter death from an infidel’s rifle-shot, after thirty years of a miserable existence. But God had tricked them, since from the Frenchmen to whom he grants these treasures he exacts payment neither by thirst nor by death. And it was upon this that the chiefs now mused. This was why, gazing out at the Sahara surrounding their tents, at that desert with its barren promise of such thin pleasures, they let themselves go in murmured confidences.

 “You know . . . the God of the French . . . He is more generous to the French than the God of the Moors is to the Moors.”



Mouyan ponders, still motionless against the back wall of the tent, like a block of blue granite cut in low relief. Only his eyes gleam, and his silver knife has ceased to be a plaything. I have the feeling that since becoming part of a razzia he has entered into a different world. To him the dunes are alive. The wind is charged with odors. He senses as’ never before his own nobility and crushes me beneath his contempt; for he is to ride against ( French Captain) Bonnafous, he is to move at dawn impelled by a hatred that bears all the signs of love.

Once again he leans towards his brother, whispers, and stares at me.

“What is he saying?” I ask once again.

“That he will shoot you if he meets you outside the fort.”


“He says you have airplanes and the wireless; you have Bonnafous ; but you have not the Truth.”

Motionless in the sculptured folds of his blue cloak, Mouyan has judged me.

“He says you eat greens like the goat and pork like the pigs. Your wives are shameless and show their faces – he has seen them. He says you never pray. He says, what good are your airplanes and wireless and Bonnafous, if you do not possess the Truth?”

And I am forced to admire this Moor who was not about to defend his freedom, for in the desert a man is always free; who is not about to defend his visible treasures, for the desert is bare; but who is about to defend a secret kingdom.

Killing comrades:

I had known el Mammun when he was our vassal. Loaded with official honors for services rendered, enriched by the French Government and respected by the tribes, he seemed to lack for nothing that belonged to the state of an Arab prince. And yet one night, without a sign of warning, he had massacred all the French officers in his train, had seized camels and rifles, and had fled to rejoin the refractory tribes in the interior.

Treason is the name given to these sudden uprisings, these flights at once heroic and despairing of a chieftain henceforth proscribed in the desert, this brief glory that will go out like a rocket against the low wall of European carbines. This sudden madness is properly a subject for amazement. And yet the story of el Mammun was that of many other Arab chiefs. He grew old. Growing old, one begins to ponder. Pondering thus, el Mammun discovered one night that he had betrayed the God of Islam and had sullied his hand by sealing in the hand of the Christians a pact in which he had been stripped of everything.

Indeed what were barley and peace to him? A warrior disgraced and become a shepherd, he remembered a time when he had inhabited a Sahara where each fold in the sands was rich with hidden mysteries; where forward in the night the tip of the encampment was studded with sentries; where the news that spread concerning the movements of the enemy made all hearts beat faster round the night fires. He remembered a taste of the high seas which, once savored by man, is never forgotten. And because of his pact he was condemned to wander without glory through a region pacified and voided of all prestige. Then, truly and for the first time, the Sahara became a desert.

It is possible that he was fond of the officers he murdered. But love of Allah takes precedence.

“Good night, el Mammun.”

“God guard thee!”

The officers rolled themselves up in their blankets and stretched out upon the sand as on a raft, face to the stars. High overhead all the heavens were wheeling slowly, a whole sky marking the hour. There was the moon, bending towards the sands, and the Frenchmen, lured by her tranquility into oblivion, fell asleep. A few minutes more, and only the stars gleamed. And then, in order that the corrupted tribes be regenerated into their past splendor, in order that there begin again those flights without which the sands would have no radiance, it was enough that these Christians drowned in their slumber send forth a feeble wail. Still a few seconds more, and from the irreparable will come forth an empire.

And the handsome sleeping lieutenants were massacred.

6 thoughts on “St-Exupery: <em>Men of the Desert</em>”

  1. Although in fairness, one could probably have drawn an almost equally-exotic picture of the culture in certain areas (say in parts of Eastern Europe and Ireland) from which many American immigrants originated in the early 1900s.

    Key differences being, I think:

    1) The much greater commitment that was involved in leaving one’s homeland in 1900 vs in 2015, as a function of transportation and communications.

    2) The overwhelming difference in American societal self-confidence in 1900 vs 2015, making the incentives for assimilation much weaker.

  2. David, you could add the absence of a welfare state. This made assimilation irrelevant as survival required a fast learning process. Assimilation came later. The Irish, for example, spoke English and became the political intermediaries for the other immigrant groups. That was one reason why the NYPD was mostly Irish until affirmative action came along.

    The Italian immigrants brought the Mafia along as a sort of intermediary. When I was a medical student in Boston in 1965, the Mass General had an Italian interpreter in the ER. Most of the North End was Italian speaking.

    In Chicago, I had a Polish girlfriend in high school. Her grandmother did not speak English and her parents didn’t like me because I was not Polish. At another point, I had several Jewish girlfriends, one of whose father was a state Senator form South Shore. He didn’t like me because I was not Jewish and she was told to stop seeing me.

    Lots of ethnic islands but they were all self sufficient.

    And intergroup violence was rare and mostly confined to the black neighborhoods although it was not isolated to black on white and black on black then, There was white on black, which is now rare. Read Studs Terkel.

    As an aside, I tried to look up Studs Terkel’s name on Google as I couldn’t remember it. When I searched for “Chicago writer 1930s,” all I got was black writers. When I added white Chicago writer 1930s, I got a list including Chicago White Sox and black writers. That’s why I rarely use Google. Then I remembered his name.

  3. The games continue, you just have to live long enough to realize it. I clearly remember the vile experiment of “busing” in Boston in the seventies, and it’s terrifying and damaging results. Now we get a whole new legion designed to disperse and displace. After reading the excerpt I am reminded of a couple of my ex-coworkers, one from Bangladesh and the other from Iran, and just how incensed they were to learn that my then teenage daughter “dated”. After patiently explaining how it was possible, the look they gave me assured me they thought I was a pathetic fool. Even months later, they would return to the subject, quietly inquiring. Both men had been in the country for twenty years at that point.

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