The Heart of the Desert

Jul 28, 2021

I love travelling. And when I travel, I love connecting to the soul of the people who live in those lands, listen to their stories, see the world though their eyes. Because it's only through the soul of the people that live there that one can truly understand the beauty of a place.

The following is an extract from my book "Through Dust and Dreams".

With the corner of my eye I could see his lips moving. His eyes were closed and his hands, turned palm up, were resting in his lap. I instinctively slowed down and tried to drive more carefully, as if I was afraid I might have disturbed his highly meditative state.

His name was Ibrahim, we had found out after the negotiations have been settled and we finally shook his hand on a deal. The price was right, the cars were there. The Spanish travellers were as eager as us to get going and Ibrahim seemed to think he had got himself some good business. It was April already and the start of the hot season here, and there weren’t too many toubabs around interested in seeing the Sahara in the heat. The bulk of the tourists came here in winter and disappeared before the temperature hit the 50 line on the thermometer, just as it had at this very moment in the car. He must have been really happy to get some business before the season closed down.

We left the next morning after we had deposited most of our stuff in his house, another small, mud-brick building that he guided us to through the maze of the small streets of Agadez. He was obsessed primarily with two things. The first was forcing us to unload as many things from the car as possible. He kept on saying something about how we would thank him when we had to dig the cars out of sand; and we kept on arguing with him about those things we thought we couldn’t leave behind, not even for a week. The second of his priorities was sugar for the tea. As part of the deal we had to buy all the food for the seven days, and he asked us several times that afternoon if we had bought enough sugar for his tea. Seeing a 1kg bag along with other provisions in the kitchen box, he almost had a fit. “This is what you call enough sugar?” Richard gave up trying to argue and just went and bought some more sugar.

The music was on and we had been driving for a while. I didn’t know if I should speak to him; if I should try to wake him up from his trance. I drove on in silence, trying to concentrate on the path ahead. Peter was on the back seat, too far away to speak to, Richard had gone in the other car that was following us, and Ibrahim on my right seemed to be lost in his own thoughts.

His palms came up slowly towards his face, and when he wiped them all around his forehead and cheeks I knew he had been praying and this was the end of it. He opened his eyes and seemed to have come back.

“Were you praying?” I asked him. I knew he was. And I also knew that a devout Muslim would pray before starting anything, like a trip into the desert for instance.

“Yes,” he said.

“What were you praying for?” I went on.

“That we would come back. That the desert gives us back.”

I suddenly didn’t feel like asking anything else. I looked around. The landscape was more rocky than sandy, but there was sand in the air and sand on the horizon. It looked like we were about to lose ourselves in an ocean of sand.

“What is the biggest danger? That we lose our direction? That we can’t find the way back?” I asked after a while, not managing to get my mind off his earlier comment.

“This, too, happens sometimes,” he admitted. By now he was smiling, though, and I knew he was not too worried about this possibility.

“But you know the way. You said you’ve been here thousands of times.”

“It is not the same. It is never the same. The desert moves. It changes. The dunes move, they change their shapes and their place. Everything changes.”

We might have trouble finding the way, but I still didn’t think this was the biggest problem we had. In the past month, 32 European tourists had disappeared from nearby Algeria. They still hadn’t been found. We knew about it from the Internet news sites we used to check frantically every time we had the chance to go online. We also knew that the Tuaregs used to highjack cars from tourists not very long ago, and it happened even in the middle of the towns.

Agadez was also another hotspot on the Tuareg rebellion map in the mid-1990s. If in Mali the Tuaregs were demanding an independent state, here they only wanted an autonomous region in a federal country. They were as unsuccessful here as they were in Mali. And in both countries the central governments had sent troops against them and there were battles and blood. More than 100 people, Tuareg rebels, civilians and armed forces, died here following the beginning of the rebellion in 1990. At the height of the conflict, in 1992 Agadez became a closed city and the borders with Algeria were closed as well.

A peace treaty was finally signed in 1995, but it didn’t make the region any safer. Banditry and sporadic violence were still reported, and some tourists had lost their cars around here. Some others had lost their lives, too, and right now all we were thinking about were the 32 people missing just over the border in Algeria, somewhere in the Sahara. This, I thought, was a bigger problem than the dunes that kept on moving.

“Do you think we’ll have problems with the bandits?”

“Not really. Otherwise I wouldn’t take you here, would I?” His eyes were sparkling with amusement. It was a dumb question. But if so, why was he praying?

“The desert takes us now and I prayed that the desert would give us back. May Allah’s will be done,” he concluded.

Then he told me a bit more about the Tuareg rebellion in Agadez a few years before.

“They were crazy people. They were driving around the town in their 4x4 cars armed with their rifles and they were talking of war. Madness. They scared all the tourists away. It was a very bad time for business.”

“What did they want?”

“Autonomy and independence and all these kind of things. Stupid people. They should have known this would never happen. Not in this country,” he said, with bitterness in his voice.

“But what do you think?” I insisted. “Do you think you should have an independent Tuareg state?”

“I don’t know. I don’t care. All I care about is my business and those people scared away my tourists,” he said, as if he was avoiding answering.

“I think what they wanted was impossible. And you don’t need all that shooting and killing to find out. You see, we’re just too many tribes in this country; the Hausa, the Fula, us, the Tuaregs. Too many people; too different.”

Maybe all conflicts were about one and the same thing in the end.

 “Anyway, I was happy when it was all over,” he said after a while. “And we could go back to our business and take tourists around once more. It’s reasonably safe now.”

Reasonably safe. I had heard this before. This was what the websites said. This was what he told us as we struck the deal, when we asked him if it was safe to go there. This was what we told ourselves as we decided to go on and have a tour in the Ténéré, the desert of deserts, the most beautiful place in the Sahara; reasonably safe. What did this mean anyway?



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