Anthony Sattin begins with a quote from Bruce Chatwin, who tried all his life to produce a book on nomads but never quite succeeded (the closest he got was songs). Hoping to persuade Tom Maschler in Cape Town of the project’s virtues, Chatwin described nomads as “a subject that appeals to irrational instincts” – perhaps not the best way to sell something to publishers, who tend to brag about their rational. But Chatwin’s thesis – that we were all nomads originally and must recapture some of that instinct – is now triumphantly brought to conclusion in Sattin’s fascinating journey through 12,000 years, nomadic paths of prehistoric man to the Bedouins and Maasai of today.
Who identifies as a nomad? Michael Palin has a charming story of being in a remote part of the Sahara when Tuaregs ride camels. Their leader hands him a business card saying Abdullah Ibrahim (or whatever), “Nomad.”
This is a rediscovered story, of those who have, by definition, been too itinerant to leave behind the story of themselves. History was primarily written by monks, scholars, and those who had an office and access to a library. Not surprisingly, they favored their own institutions of settled civilization and portrayed nomads like the Huns and Mongols as barbarians who only brought the occasional chaos. As a result, the story of the nomads is as elusive as the almond blossom that blows over the Berber mountains in spring. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze observed that “nomads have no history; they only have one geography”.
This book tries to trace their considerable contribution to our past and, sometimes, to our present, even if their number is very small (the author describes his recent trips with herders in Iran). It does not claim to be exhaustive and is all the better for it; instead, Sattin weaves a deft path through only the elements that interest him.
He wrote a lot about Egypt – A victoryter on the Nile, on Florence Nightingale traveling on the same boat as Gustave Flaubert, being a highlight – so it’s only natural that he takes a look at what happened there. With a nice revisionist twist, it tells the story of the arrival of the Hyksos nomads who divided the kingdom c. 1600 BC and caused enormous disruption. This is usually described as a disaster – Egyptian chroniclers certainly saw it that way – but Sattin suggests it could have been a creative spur. The stability of the previous millennium since the construction of the pyramids had brought “complacency, conservatism and cultural exclusion”. The fearsome Queen Hatshepsut was able to rebuild from scratch after the Hyksos left; and meanwhile they had introduced their reluctant hosts to the chariot and composite bow, both of which enabled later Imperial expansion.
They also seem to have been tolerant of religious practices and let the Egyptians carry on with their own, just as the equally nomadic Persians did with their tributary nations. Nomads travel light with their religion and are often happy to pick and choose from those they encounter. “Bring your own beliefs”, as they say now on the pilgrimage routes. Sattin has a well-judged aside on how the worship of Seth, the god of wanderers and wastelands, naturally soared in Egypt while the Hyksos ruled.
Maybe that’s pushing him to suggest that there’s nothing like being invaded to revive a country (try saying that to the Anglo-Saxons when the Vikings came, or those related to the piled-up skulls by Tamburlaine outside Damascus and Baghdad), but this confirms Sattin’s thesis that nomads often have the short end of the stick. No one has ever had a good say for the Hyksos before; indeed you could be forgiven for never having heard of it.
Much of this history naturally centers on the corridor most striking for nomads – the steppes that stretch from Hungary to China over 6,000 miles of grassland, just made for riding. Ride a horse across the Hungarian plain as the first meadow saffron arrives and you could be in Mongolia in the summer. When the Roman and Han empires boasted of their expanse, a much larger and less chronic empire of nomads stretched between them.
Sattin joins recent books such as Sapiens by floating around the idea that the worst thing humanity has ever done was stop hunter gathering (when we were “the first affluent society”, according to some anthropologists), and settle down, which only brought us long hours and a monotonous routine of farm work, the equivalent of white-collar work today. We could still hang out in a hammock or roam the prairies on our horses in search of a mammoth or bison burger.
The dominant narrative is that of the conflict that has played out so many times in history between Cain and Abel, the settled farmer and the wandering shepherd: the Native Americans wandering the plains and those who want to contain them in reservations. In a milder way, this was also the case in Great Britain. A friend had a 19th century notice outside his Derbyshire home proclaiming ‘no vagrant may loiter here’. Our more recent treatment of travelers has been shameful – not just bollards on the Ridgeway and old traditional stopping points, but deep-rooted bureaucratic resistance to the idea that people should be able to live on the move.
Sattin triumphantly tells the story of another way of life – of how, and more importantly where, the “other” branch of humanity has chosen to go since the days when we all hunted as “one pack in generous gardens of the distant past”. . It is a book which does not work in the fields but which gallops straight towards the horizon. Bruce Chatwin would have loved it.