BRIANWAVE COLUMN No 19: October 1995

Untold Riches

Brian J Ford

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One intelligent and knowledgeable man I met knew more about ecology than most. His life was spent communing with nature. He was also the only person I ever met who never ate food.

His name was Idris. It's a Welsh name, I know, but this was the Arabic version. Idris was a camel-herd who lived in the desert. We reached him by four-wheel drive vehicle, burning across the sand in clouds of billowing dust, and he showed me round his encampment with pride. "How long have you lived like this?" I asked him. He smiled, white and glinting teeth dazzling us from the weather-worn face. "All my life," he said. He knew the local plants, the places where water might be found, the seasons and the changing phases of the moon. He knew the stars, the places to rest, warning signs in the weather, and the secrets of unity with nature.

His tent was hand-woven wool, cool and serene within - until I realised that there was no cooker. Where were the pots and pans, knives, ladles, and forks? Idris flashed another coy grin. "I don't need them," he replied. "A kitchen can smell, and is hard to keep tidy." One hated to ask: then ... how did he prepare his food? The answer was easy. "No problem," said Idris, "I do not eat."

My mind flashed back to another Arab, a thousand miles to the west, who had been negotiating the sale of a Berber rug to a wealthy American tourist. Idris spoke nothing but desert Arabic (so we conversed through an interpreter) but Mahmoud, the trader, spoke some French. It was the language of barter in the soukh. Over a couple of days, he had almost agreed a price with the American, and the day soon dawned when the matter would be clinched.

But when the tourist arrived, the tiny shop was locked. "Where the heck is the goddammed guy?" he asked. The answer was simple. "He has gone to the shore." The sale looked doomed. I was surprised when the American turned up next day, and settled a price for his rug.

"Tell me," he demanded of the dealer, "Where were you yesterday?" Mahmoud bowed low. "I went with my family to the coast," he admitted. "Well," came the reply, "No wonder you guys have no money! No wonder your economies are flat!" A quizzical eyebrow brought him the answer. "But what do you mean? I had earned enough in the morning, so I went home to my family." The American was astounded. "No!" he expostulated. "You should stay open longer, earn more money, take on staff and expand. That's how you get rich!"

The trader beamed. "But Sir, look how rich I am. I am master of my time, spend hours with my people. We talk, read, relax. I enjoy every moment of my life, for I am my own master. You live a life of stress, and have to spend much money to come here for your holiday. I have no wish to visit your home town."

Did the point get across? I doubt it. But I recounted the tale as I sat with Idris and shared his diet - exclusively of camel's milk. Intelligence brings insights that can lead to contentment. And you don't need riches for that.

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