I thought of Paul Bowles’s short story ‘A Distant Episode’ when I read about US officials’ increasingly urgent questions regarding ISIL’s fleet of Toyota trucks. The officials want to know where they get them in such large numbers and why.
We’ll come to the where and why soon, but first to the connection between the Bowles’s story and the Toyota trucks.
Apparently, the use of Toyota pickup “technicals” as they’re called – which is to say, light trucks with heavy weaponry mounted in the bed – was pioneered by the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army in their conflict with Morocco and Mauritania in the 1970s.
So to Bowles’s story, which revolves around the hellish viciousness of the Reguibat, a Sahrawi tribe that has, since the 1970s, been active in the Polisario Front‘s resistance to Moroccan rule over the still non-sovereign Western Sahara territory. Presumably, the Reguibat used Toyota technicals, graduating easily from their traditional mode of transport, the Mebara camels?
In Bowles’s story, the Reguibat are a murderous ruffianly lot, with no heart or any finer sensibilities whatsoever, casually cutting off the tongue of a professor who happens to be visiting Ain Tadouirt and later, turning him into a grotesque performing monkey. Traumatised, the Professor does as he is bade, a sad travesty of a man of learning.
Here is Bowles describing the Professor’s horror at having fallen into the Reguibat’s hands: “A group of men was advancing toward him. They were dressed in the black clothes of the Reguibat. ‘The Reguiba is a cloud across the face of the sun’. ‘When the Reguiba appears the righteous man turns away’. In how many shops and marketplaces he had heard these maxims uttered banteringly among friends. Never to a Reguiba, to be sure, for these men do not frequent towns. They send a representative In disguise, to arrange with shady elements there for the disposal of captured goods.”
And then, the tongue “operation” on the Professor: “The man looked at him dispassionately in the gray morning light. With one hand he pinched together the Professor’s nostrils. When the Professor opened his mouth to breathe, the man swiftly seized his tongue and pulled on it with all his might. The Professor was gagging and catching his breath; he did not see what was happening. He could not distinguish the pain of the brutal yanking from that of the sharp knife. Then there was an endless choking and spitting that went on automatically, as though he were scarcely a part of it. the word “operation” kept going through his mind; it calmed his terror somewhat as he sank back into darkness.
“The caravan left sometime toward midmorning. The Professor, not unconscious, but in a state of utter stupor, still gagging and drooling blood, was dumped doubled-up into a sack and tied at one side of a camel…That night, at a stop behind some low hills, the men took him out, still in a state which permitted no thought, and over the dust rags that remained of his clothing they fastened a series of curious belts made of the bottoms of tin cans strung together. One after another of these bright girdles was wired about his torso, his arms and legs, even across his face, until he was entirely within a suit of armor that covered him with its circular metal scales. There was a good deal of merriment during this decking-out of the Professor.”
It is a perfectly horrific story – but well worth a read, if you can stand it – and though Bowles wrote it in the 1940s, some 30 years before the Reguibat were interesting themselves in the dispute with Morocco and Mauritania, it may be revealing.
About what, you might ask. As an introduction to the brutality of most of the Toyota warriors, as the pickup truck-insurgents are called. It’s easy, for instance, to imagine ISIL doing the same tongue-chopping maneuver as the Reguibat in Bowles’s story.
Onwards then to the wheres and whys of the popularity of Toyota “technicals” among the irregulars.
As Edward Niedermeyer wrote on Bloomberg View, “Hiluxes are among the most rugged and reliable vehicles on the global market. Tougher and more off-road oriented than the related Tacoma sold in the US, the Hilux is as popular with humanitarian groups and businesses operating in rugged corners of the world as with terrorist groups.”
He goes on to describe their incredible toughness: “An infamous episode of BBC’s ‘Top Gear,’ the world’s most-watched car program, once demonstrated the truck’s legendary toughness by unsuccessfully attempting to destroy it in spectacular fashion, flooding it in an ocean tide and placing it atop a condemned building that was blown up.”
As to where they get the trucks, Mr Neidermeyer points out multiple routes: US-backed Syrian rebels, the Iraqi army and stolen off the streets of the US and Australia.
Now we know. Many things.