Of Camels and Salt and Deserts and Books

The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton.

Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold by Michael Benanav.

Sister O’ Mine suggested The Camel Bookmobile as the July Selection for our family book club, and since I already had it on my TBR list, I concurred with the selection. Then, while browsing at the library I found the book Men of Salt and knew it would make a perfect companion to the fictional story of carrying books to bush villages in northeastern Kenya. Even though Men of Salt takes place in the desert of Mali, the concern in both books about changing cultures and intruding technologies and Western values is the same.

In The Camel Bookmobile Fiona Sweeney, a single librarian in Brooklyn with a boyfriend named Chris, a family who doesn’t understand her need for adventure, and friends who expect her home by March, makes a decision to go to Kenya to help start a travelling library. The books will be carried to outlying areas by camel. Fiona’s job is to take the books and make sure they are returned. She finds out that while her main concern is the first part of the job (“Books are their future. A link to the modern world.”), her African counterpart, Mr. Abasi, is more concerned about getting the books back and not at all sure that they should be taking books out into the countryside at all. And the people of Mididima, one of the villages on their route, have their own worries and agendas. When one of the villagers, nicknamed “Scar Boy”, fails to return his library book, the entire scheme starts to unravel, and the villagers learn more about themselves as Fiona explores the value of books versus traditional wisdom in her attempts to reclaim the overdue library books. The book never comes to a definite conclusion or answer to the central question: are change and cultural adaptation good, or bad, or inevitable?

The nonfiction book Men of Salt approaches the same question from the point of view of the azalai, salt merchants, of the Sahara Desert. Michael Benanav, an experienced wilderness guide in the U.S., takes the journey of his life when he decides to travel along with the salt caravans from Timbuktu to the salt mines of Taouodenni and back. The caravans travel by camel, but Mr. Benevav has read that trucks are beginiing to make the camel caravans obsolete. The truth he learns on his trip about the interaction between modern technology and ancient tradition is much more complicated and interesting than a simple story of how Western technology destroys the traditional culture. The story tells of the challenges Benavav faces as he crosses the desert in the company of men who have made the same journey many times and who are accustomed to its hardships. Benavav finds himself tested to the limits of his endurance and amazed at the ability of the azalai and the salt miners to survive and even thrive in the most extreme desert environment. I was amazed, too, and thankful to be able to read about it instead of experiencing it for myself.

I recommend both books for anyone who wants to do a little “armchair adventuring.” A short reading trip to Africa and back this summer certainly gave me the illusion of exploring new territory.

By the way, I found Men of Salt shelved in the juvenile/young adult section of the library, but I’m not sure why. The characters are all adults, and the story is one that, although certainly appealing to adventurous young adults, would also interest those of us with a few more years behind us. Who can fathom the classification decisions of librarians and publishers? Also by the way, I tried to read Mark Kurlansky’s well-publicized tome, Salt: A World History several months ago, and I never got past the first chapter. It was laborious reading with an attitude –not that I put much labor into it. I learned a lot about the history of salt from Mr. Benavav’s adventure, and I enjoyed it, too.

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