He spoke of Timbuctoo the store-place, the metropolis and market of Central Africa, with its piles of ivory, its piles of virgin gold, its sacks of rice, millet, and ground-nuts, its cakes of indigo, its tufts of ostrich plumes, its metals, its dates, its stuffs, its iron-ware, and particularly its slabs of rock salt, brought on the backs of beasts of burden from Taudeni, the frightful Saharian city of salt, whose soil is salt for leagues around, an infernal mine of that salt which is so precious in the Soudan that it serves as a medium of exchange, as money more precious even than gold.
"No," the Saharian answered, "but one can catch them with eagles." "Eagles!" Owen repeated. "Eagles flying after gazelles!" And he looked into the Arab's face, lost in wonderment, seeing a picturesque cavalcade going forth, all the horses beautiful, champing at their bits.
The woman had thrown off the blue drapery that had covered her head, and her auburn hair glittered in the light of the lamp by which she wrote. She looked up, vexed. "Thou knowest, Noura, that for years I have received no guests," she said, in a dialect of the Soudan, in which most Saharian mistresses of Negro servants learn to talk. "I can see no one.
As for Lella M'Barka, the Rose of the West need not fear, for the bassour was easy as a cradle to a woman of the desert; and M'Barka, rightfully a princess of Touggourt, was desert-born and bred. Queer little patches of growing grain, or miniature orchards enlivened the dull plain round the ugly Saharian town of Djelfa, headquarters of the Ouled Naïls.
A Saharian once affirmed to Colonel Daumas: 'I am not considered remarkably sharp-sighted, but I can distinguish a goat from a sheep at the distance of a day's journey; and I know some who smell the smoke of a pipe, or of broiled meat, at thirty miles!
There is never a smell of uncleanliness about Arabs, even those people who must perform most of the ablutions prescribed by their religion with sand instead of water. But the Saharian saying is that the desert purifies all things.
At the beginning of July Owen appeared on the frontiers of Egypt shrieking for a drink of clean water, and saying that the desire to drink clean water out of a glass represented everything he had to say for the moment about the desert; all the same, he continued to tell of fetid, stale, putrid wells, and of the haunting terror with which the Saharian starts in the morning lest he should find no water at the nearest watering-place, only a green scum fouled by the staling of horses and mules I Owen was as plain-spoken as Shakespeare, so Harding said once, defending his friend's use of the word "sweat" instead of "perspiration."
His talk was less stilted than a soldier's, and I began to notice that he did not look like a Frenchman, and when he told me that he lived in an oasis in the desert, and was on his way home, his Oriental appearance I explained by his long residence among the Arabs. He had lived in the desert since he was fourteen. "Almost a Saharian," I said to him.
Dragoman and Saharian engaged in conversation, and presently Owen learned that the birds in the desert were sand grouse and blue pigeons, and when the Saharian gathered that these did not afford sufficient sport he added, not wishing a stranger should think his country wanting in anything: "There are gazelles." "But one cannot catch gazelles with hawks."
The ostrich country, says Ben-Kaddour, may be described as a rectangle, of which the towns of Insalah, Figig, Sidi-Okba, and Warklah form the angles; that is, it comprises the northern skirts of the Saharian desert, where water and herbage are plentiful in comparison with the arid plains of the centre.