Last week I wrote about a book by Philippe Frey. He travelled through the Sahara from east till west. He is an experienced desert-traveller. Today I will take you on a journey with two unexperienced desert travellers. These two are the writer of this book: Mathieu Berden (1909 – 1986) and his friend Herman Steylen (1910 – 1944, who also wrote about their journey). They not only were friends but also they were colleagues. Both of them were young journalists, who wanted to take time of for a grand journey and use their experiences for their work as journalist.
They arrive by boat from Italy in the town of Tripoli. They had travelled to Italy (Sicily) om their small motorbikes. We have arrived in the year 1937 (the book was published in 1943, right in the middle of the second world war, when the situation in northern Africa had drastically changed). Tripoli is the main city in the Libyan colony of the Italians (and the two men speak quite a bit of Italian). The first few days they take time (forced) to discover the different parts of the town, the Italian part, the Arab part and the Jewish part (about 20% of the population of Tripoli was Jewish !). Their time in town is forced upon them for they want to get a permit to travel to the city of Ghat in the south western part of the country, near the border with Algeria. To travel south of a military line they need a permit. Finally they get their permit and the opportunity to travel on a lorry on government business. The driver is man called Minglis Gabriele, who has travelled this road many times before. It is a distance of about 1700 kilometers. They depart on the 15th of the month of September and they arrive in Ghat on the 23rd. They stay for a few days and then they receive the news that their driver wants to return to Tripolis. The book ends at the start of the return journey.
Berden relates their eventful journey, the way they travel, the lorry breakdown, the forts on their journey, the oases and their many encounters with Tuareg. In his book Berden puts forward some theories about the Tuareg. Are they of christian origin? Are they descendants of crusaders? The Tuareg often use the symbol of the cross, even in their writing. They are monogamous. Or are their origins to be situated in the Caucasian Mountains (long before Christ)? The women have an important role, and in their tradition it are the men who are veiled (according to Berden the only ethnic group worldwide to have this tradition). The two men visit an ‘ahal’, a musical party organised by women. The two men are curious, without being condenscending towards people from another culture.
Mathieu Berden – Journaal van een woestijnreiziger. Dwars door Libye – 1943