Movies are the stories that modern nomads
exchange at their digital campfires
If author Bruce Chatwin is to be heeded, nomads are the opposite of Civilization.* He likes to point out that the Chinese dynasties built the Great Wall to keep the marauding nomads out; so did the Romans. Chatwin was one of those dropout travelers who introduced the idea of cultural nomadism as a metaphor for understanding a world in perpetual revolution – build a wall and someone will want to tear it down. He is best known for his controversial travelog, The Song Lines (1987), an account of his travels in Australia. I have heard it said in the Outback that he made stuff up. Even so, he connected the wandering human spirit to the traditions of the Australian Aborigines, originating from 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. They are the oldest still surviving community of wanderers on Earth, though the government has done its best to move them into settlements.
When Civilization was at its peak, and the nomads were most reviled, they were sometimes labeled by civic officials as “people with no fixed abode.” Their contribution to society was viewed with suspicion by “the settled people” and it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The most colorful and least trusted of these outsiders were the Gypsies, or in Ireland, the Travelers (see Nomad Movies: Part I) but the most enduring and historically complex world-wanderers of today are the Jews (when they are not settled).
The great biblical migrations of Judaism begin with Abraham leading his caravan of spiritual nomads into the desert from the Mesopotamian city of Ur. Some centuries later, they found themselves enslaved in Egypt and were led out of captivity by Moses. This was the second of their epic migrations (see Middle East: Israel). Settled in the area of Jerusalem, they were taken into captivity by the Babylonians and later driven out of their lands by the Romans. This began their worldwide diaspora during which they were driven from their places of abode many times over (see the closing scenes of Fiddler on the Roof set in the Ukraine). The symbolic end to the wanderings of the Jews came with the establishment of Israel in 1947 (see Exodus – 1966). The paradox here is that while nomads are most often despised for not making a contribution to society, it would be plainly ridiculous to suggest that the Jews have not made a massive and ongoing impact on the culture of Civilization. Hitler’s primary targets for extermination were the Jews and the Gypsies.
There are descendants of nomads of every caste and color across the world today. Some have settled in cities or on farms, and others cling tenaciously to the old ways. The tribes of North Africa, including the legendary Tuaregs, have watched inept attempts to turn their camel caravans into convoys of trucks (see North Africa: Tuaregs and Berbers). The sheep and goat and cattle herders of Eurasia and Mongolia have seen their flocks and herds diminish, and the Silk Road is now an avenue of contemporary commerce. The Arabs of Africa and the Middle East are perhaps the most visible nomad cultures on Earth, even after they became empire builders in the time of Mohammed (see Middle East: The Realm of Islam).
Grass (1925) – Silent Documentary
Made by Merian C. Cooper, later famous for his film, King Kong (1933), this is a documentary on a tribe of Persian nomads making their trek across high mountains to fresh pasture. It partakes of Cooper’s penchant for adventurous projects, very much like his alter-ego character in King Kong. Grass is a simple and powerful movie about the persistence of the nomadic spirit even as the need for migration is disappearing.
Based on the James Michener novel of 1963, this very fine caravan movie was filmed in Iran (before the hostage crisis of 1979-80). Anthony Quinn stars but does not appear until almost half way through the movie. Michael Sarrazin is a young American diplomat in a country that is apparently meant to be a fictional version of Afghanistan. I know that Michener did extensive research in Afghanistan. In search of a missing American woman (Jennifer O’Neill), Sarrazin catches up with a tribal caravan, led by Quinn. They are the Kochi, “people of the black tents.” Jennifer is with the caravan, traveling under the protection of Quinn, though there is only a vague suggestion of romantic involvement. There are some sequences where Jennifer expresses her love for the nomadic life. A Disney-like caravan song plays over scenes of the camels, donkeys, and families traveling across the barren hills. Things get more complicated when Sarrazin discovers that the caravan is running Russian guns. It ends sadly. The trailer, however, makes it look like a tender love story.
This website is dedicated to the cultural nomads of today who wander in body or spirit in and out of the boundaries of Civilization.*
*Go to FAQ for use of the term post-paradigm and capitalization of Civilization.