By David Farley
Nomads have gotten a short shrift in history. As Anthony Sattin writes in his new book, “Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World”: “People who live with walls and monuments, who have written most of history, have failed to find meaning in or to recognize the value of the lighter, more mobile, less cluttered lives of those who live beyond borders.”
Through Mr. Sattin’s research, which includes years of travels with modern-day nomadic peoples, he aims to correct that oversight by showing how nomadic people have contributed to human progress and development. He does this by tracing their history from 12,000 years ago to the present day, focusing on Scythians, Persians, Mongols, Turks, Huns, Mongols and Arabs, as well as the Maasai and Bedouin of today.
Mr. Sattin is a terrific storyteller, writing books that blend journalism, travel writing and history, including “A Winter on the Nile,” about Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert traveling in Egypt, and “The Young T.E. Lawrence,” in which he traces the footsteps of Lawrence in the Middle East.
In a recent phone conversation, we discussed the inspiration for his new book and how certain aspects of traditional nomadic cultures relate, however loosely, to contemporary travelers, expatriates and digital nomads.
What caused you to undertake such an ambitious project?
I saw black goat-hair tents when I was a teenager traveling in the Middle East and even then, I realized that although I had studied history, I had heard almost nothing about nomads. But in places like Syria and Jordan, they were still part of everyday life. My book came into focus years ago, around the same time as millions of people were fleeing the Middle East, when Britain was voting to close itself from Europe, and when I was trying to change my own life. I wanted to write something that would tell another side of history and that would also celebrate movement, open borders, a more open world.
Besides your journeys to the London Library and the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where did you travel to do research?
In the 1990s I stayed in Kenya with Wilfred Thesiger — his whole life was spent among nomads. Since then, I’ve had conversations about and with nomads in many places in the world, and I wrote different sections of the book on the move around Europe. But the most important journey I made specifically for this book was to Iran, where I stayed with the Bakhtiari, a nomadic tribe that winters on the Mesopotamian plains, near the Iraqi border. In late spring, when all the grasses dry up, the nomads take their flocks, families and tents up into the Zagros Mountains, and that was where I first found them, on a high plateau where the snow had melted and the valleys, carpeted with irises and dwarf tulips, had excellent grazing for their sheep and goats.
In the book you write that “nomads are important to the way we settled people live, just as the way they are crucial to the way we understand ourselves.” Can you say a bit more about this?
Humans began to settle and learned to domesticate crops and animals around 12,000 years ago. The process took a long time, but has been immensely successful given that most of the eight billion of us are now settled and over half of us now live urban lives. That success has now become problematic — our cities, like much else in our world, are in crisis. The need for a new way of living and of thinking has never been more necessary. Yet most of us are entirely unaware of our nomadic heritage, because it is not in our history books. How can we know who we are — and who we might become — if we don’t know where we have come from, who we have been? And those of us who find it challenging to live in one place, or at least find that settling down makes huge demands on us, can find solace in the knowledge that they might still be “wired” to live on the move.
How did immersing yourself so thoroughly in the lives and histories of nomadic groups change your philosophy of travel?
I wish I could tell you that I have learned to travel lightly, but unfortunately that didn’t rub off on me! But the journey of writing this book has changed me in many ways. Perhaps the most important is the recognition of my dependence on, and my place in, the natural world. It’s easy to forget when you live in a city. So now when I travel, I look and listen and even smell harder, forcing myself to pay more attention to where I am.
Can you elaborate on how traditional nomadism relates to modern-day travelers and digital nomads?
The nomads I included in the book are and were obliged to obey three rules. They all had to recognize their dependence on the natural world — they are nomads who move because they need to find fodder for their herds of sheep, goats, horses, whatever, and out of that comes a respect for their environment. They are all forced to live lightly, to take with them only what can be carried. And they are only able to succeed if they are flexible in their thinking — the nomad world is constantly in flux and always dependent on the shifting climate. Their lives are shaped by these three obligations. They are not to trash the land they depend on, not to overburden themselves or their animals, and to keep an open mind about what happens next. Modern travelers and digital nomads will recognize the need to travel lightly and to be nimble in their thinking, flexible in their assumptions.
Given that you’ve spent so much time with nomadic peoples, how do you feel about the loose usage of the word “nomad” today?
This word comes from an immensely old Indo-European word, nomos, which refers to a fixed area, or to pasture. Out of that comes nomas, a member of a wandering pastoral tribe. Over the millenniums, the word has shifted meaning, just as the experience of nomads has shifted. There are maybe around 40 million nomads in the world today, but many more people who move around the world making a living with their screens instead of their livestock.
I have been on the move for most of my adult life and can’t count the number of times I have been called a nomad. I know how many objects I possess so I would never call myself that, but I am O.K. with someone else calling themselves a nomad, digital or otherwise. The word is not so important. At the time of the great Mongol empire, it didn’t matter if you were a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, sky worshipper or anything else, so long as you had belief. Perhaps the point here is that it doesn’t matter what you call yourself, so long as you remain flexible in your thoughts and keep on moving.
Credit: The New York Times