I have already been told that my first post on Tax Collectors was pretty dark. This second story will not be much brighter despite being desert based.
Tax collectors have often been brutal down the ages. Just ask the residents of Isfahan why they killed Tamerlane’s tax collectors in the late 1300s. Unfortunately for them, as when the city of Khiva upset the great Timur in 1370, he then slaughtered Isfahan’s citizens and razed the city. Arguably, his most infamous atrocity was that he commanded a pyramid be built from the skulls of the tax renegades. He treated Damascus and Baghdad with similar contempt. Yet he transformed his city of Samarkand to a place of wonder that persists today.
Tamerlane / Timur is a folk hero these days. He’s on the money in Uzbekistan and I’ve seen him on a horse in central Tashkent. Not bad for someone whose no-nonsense ruling style was accentuated by the slaughter of as many as ten million people across the Timurid Empire that once stretched from Ankara to Delhi and Hormuz nearly to Moscow.
I found myself standing in the Sahara having flown to a landing strip near the borders of three countries near lake Chad. I won’t be too precise but suffice to say that triple borders are a great place for free-traders to operate.
We met with a local business man, Omar, who provided logistical support to our very mobile geophysical surveying operations. We would be moving every few weeks in an innovative approach to the normal style of geophysical surveying. The key innovation was that the sub-surface imaging results would determine where we went next. This was hugely impractical in normal circumstances simply because of the numbers of people and the amount of equipment needed to conduct such surveys. And being in a remote desert was as far from normal circumstances as you can imagine.
A campsite was required with the infrastructure to feed, house and wash 160 people. And as they say in the military, managing the latrines is the crappiest of all jobs. The same campsite would be the administrative centre from where all operations were directed.
Not the least of the challenges is the need to maintain over eighty vehicles ranging in size from huge bulldozers to water trucks to landcruisers to ATVs. And there was a fleet of very special trucks carrying the huge and elaborate vibratory systems that functioned as seismic energy sources. Oh yeah, there was a helicopter too.
Logistics was the key to a near-military campaign.
And the man in the office in front of us held that key. Omar was very dark skinned, of very slight build and under a head wrapped in an indigo veil, he had the most piercing blue eyes set over a slight nubian nose. He carried himself with poise and a bearing that comes from the comfort of wielding great power. The rest of his clothes told you even more. He wore a large, billowing and shimmering indigo robe under which were very loose indigo trousers legs. He was beautiful. The very embodiment of the legendary Tuareg man.
He’d come into the office alone. I read from that that his word was his bond. We were five more by coincidence than plan. I for one would not normally have needed to meet him but I’m glad that I did. My colleagues were a bit unsure that this man had the resources to supply everything we needed as he had promised. The clichéd question was that he talked the talk but could he walk the walk? And if he couldn’t what would we do?
We had some drinks of cold bottled water and exchanged pleasantries for twenty minutes or so in a dusty office that was barely air-conditioned on the side of a runway across which sand was colouring the light mid-afternoon breeze.
Omar was quietly spoken in very good French. He reminded us of his contracts on a previous seismic campaign and the Paris-Dakar rallies that had passed this way, each of which he supported. Fuel, food, spare parts and everything we’d need, he’d done before.
His concerns were all about how we’d pay. And pay promptly and in full. He mentioned that changes of plans and renegotiations in the past had cost him dear. How could he be sure of our intent?
One of my colleagues had pointed out that Omar held all the cards, so to speak. We’d be four hundred kilometres deep into the desert and entirely at his mercy. We’d be utterly reliant on his timely delivery of water and fuel and food.
He stopped the dialogue to break for a cigarette. Even though he didn’t smoke, it was his idea. He explained it was a courtesy so that we could talk among ourselves and be sure that just one person would be our spokesperson afterwards. He was utterly charming and polite and indirectly emphatic.
When we resumed he said that we had a very good understanding of what each party needed and that he could and would honour his commitments. It was increasingly uncomfortably hot in the office when he started to tell us about the bandits in the area. He wanted us to know that he had control of the situation. He wanted to reassure us that their presence, which we must have heard about, would not threaten his keeping to his word. They were really smugglers he added not true insurgents.
He told that only last week he’d met with several of the bandits. They’d come one night to his home, heavily armed and in several vehicles. Omar said they came to tax him. He’d known they’d be coming one day because the area across the borders were coming increasingly under their control.
Omar said the negotiations went well but they wanted an amount based on the number of camels they imagined he operated. Omar explained that to us that he had camels working across the Sahel from Mauritania to Nigeria to Sudan. This was his primary business and they wanted him to pay tax on each of his five hundred camels. He told us that he negotiated with them. They agreed to reduce the tax to two hundred camels. Omar explained to bandits that it wasn’t safe to keep that kind of money on hand at home.
So they agreed to come back two nights later. And they did, arriving precisely at the appointed hour. A dozen of them.
‘So you paid?’
‘No, no. There was no need to pay.’
‘They had died.’
‘Yes, the soldiers killed them.’
He had spoken to the local police to explain the situation. Some soldiers came to his home and waited for the bandits to return. The bandits were surprised and Omar said they had all died in the gunfire. Omar mentioned that he had no choice because he actually had over two thousand working camels. He said that the bandits would have killed him and his family once they learned that he had cheated them.
We got the message.
Omar was paid promptly and his services were indeed everything he said they would be. His trucks always found us despite our geophysical base camp peregrinations.