Anthony Sattin’s Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World review: ‘Thoughts and ideas should always wander, now together, now apart’

Anthony Sattin takes a joyride with nomadic communities, and explores why ‘herders’ of the 21st century are being pushed to the edge

Updated - July 22, 2022 08:43 pm IST

Published - July 22, 2022 04:44 pm IST

“Where have they come from? Why have they come here? When are they going? How do they survive? Who are they?” Where have they come from? Why have they come here? When are they going? How do they survive? Who are they?”

These are the questions that many of us ask in relation to nomadic communities. As Anthony Sattin points out in his work Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World, “The sight of a family on the move with the animals and all their belongings excites some of us, but it fills others with terror or disgust or disdain.”

In school, we are taught that human civilisation started when wandering people began to settle down in specific areas. Sattin, however, holds a contrary view: that it is those we see as outsiders who had a profound impact on our civilisational history; one that we choose to ignore and forget.

With the Bakhtiaris

The book begins on a lyrical note of travelling through the Zagros Mountains of Iran along with the Bakhtiari tribe, conjuring up images of stunning beauty. In his conversations with members of the tribe, he hears not just about the varied knowledge their journeys had given them but also of “the challenges of being a herder in the 21st century.” This is a problem most nomadic communities across the world face. With land being scarce and wanted for so many other needs, they are being pushed to the edges and often forced to settle.

Beginning with the discovery of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, Sattin traces the achievements of nomadic communities across continents. There is also an interesting take on the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Sattin recasts this as a clash between the settled farmer Cain and the nomadic shepherd Abel. The murder, he writes, “highlights one of the consequences of the Neolithic Evolution, the conflicting interests of herders and tillers, of nomads and the settled.”

Mesopotamia, Egypt, Turkey, Persia, India, China... Sattin goes on a world tour trying to convince his readers that the nomads were at the heart of most achievements. There is even a discussion on a “nomadic gene” (though Sattin is careful to quote a doctor that the label is unhelpful and unscientific) that could perhaps be behind ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

Some of his points though seem to be stretched thin. For example, writing about the Ottoman, the Saffavid and the Mughal empires, he says, “Each of these empires still had a significant nomadic core and all maintained some relationship with the seasonal cycles, not least because the lives and holy days of their Muslim rulers were regulated by the lunar calendar.” While Babur did lead a wandering life early in his career, does it amount to nomadism? Also what is the nomadic core he is talking about?

Changing attitudes

Sattin then goes on to talk about the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment and how attitudes to nomads and wanderers changed. He quotes from Macaulay’s speech and points out that nomads were now considered barbarians, “as people without arts, morals, literature, law or reason.” Though one may not agree with Sattin’s views, there is no denying the fact that this is an eminently readable book.

The writing is evocative and makes you want to turn the pages. Sattin ends his story where he began it: in the Zagros Mountains with the Bakhtiari. “Perhaps,” says his friend Feredyun, “thoughts and ideas should always wander like sheep and goats, this way and that, now together, now apart.” It’s a fitting end to the book.

Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World; Anthony Sattin, Hachette India, ₹799.

krithika.r@thehindu.co.in

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