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Aug 28

Written by: Diana West
Tuesday, August 28, 2012 6:01 PM 

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, daring aviation pioneer and brilliant "poet of the air," is a favorite writer of mine. On reading Wind, Sand and Stars recently, a lyrical work first published in 1939 mainly based on St-X's flying the African mails, I came across an episode that could have been taken from recent headlines: the desert massacre of French troops by a Moorish (Muslim) tribesman in their service. "But I knew them well, my barbarians." St-X begins, writing his way into the head of el Mammun, a French vassal who, in modern parlance, "snapped." Beneath the simple language, the French writer coveys a terrible, irreconcilable truth about Islamic redemption through infidel blood.

From Chapter 7, "Men of the Desert":

But we were not always in the air, and our idle hours were spent taming the Moors. ....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 down among them there would be at any rate a few who might be persuaded to sell us into slavery rather than maasacre 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 an 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 iies more than a hundred day march from here."

And so we would take them for a little spin. Three of them even visited France in our planes. ... They had seen pasture in France in which all the camels of Er-Raguibat 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 incredile 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!"...

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 ....

"You know...the God of the French ... he is more generous to the French than the God of the Moors is to the Moors."...

But I knew them well, my barbarians. There they sat, perplexed in their faith, disconcerted, and henceforth quite ready to acknowledge French overlordship. They were dreaming of being victualled in barley by the French administration, and assured of their security by our Saharan regiments. There was no question but that they would, by their submission, be materially better off.

But all three were of the blood of el Mammun.

I had known of 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 nght, without a sign of warning, he had massacred all the French officers in his train, had seized camels and rifles, and had fled to join 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 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 has sullied his hand by sealing in the hands of the Christians a pact in which he had been stripped of everything.

Indeed, what was barley and peace to him? ... [B]ecause of his pact he was condemned to wander without glory through a region pacified and voided of all prestige. Then, truly, 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 up to the stars. High overhead all the heavens were wheeling slowly, a whole sky marking the hour. There was the moon, bending toward 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 the past splendour, in order that there begin these 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 a new empire.

And the handsome sleeping lieutenants were massacred.

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Copyright 2012 by Diana West