Miracle of the Desert
Independent October 2000
Omer, groggy with tiredness, lent over and asked for another cigarette. "The lorries ahead of us are bound for Al Kufra" he said. Piled perilously high with bags of rice and sugar, flapping with tupperware it was topped by the cloaked forms of migrant workers returning home to their families in the Sudan. Omer told me that they always drive through these mountains in a convoy. "To help mend each other's tyres?" I suggested. "No", he answered, " because of hijackers". "Is that why we are driving in the dark?", I asked.
Instead of providing a direct answer Omer told me to keep a look out for camels. They are much more dangerous than hijackers, he said, for they mistake the reflection of the moon on the road for water. I peered alertly out of the window, keeping an eye out for both camels and hijackers. The stars were so bright that we could have driven without lights. To the east the horizon was filled by black rocks, to the west by crest after crest of sand. It was a classic Saharan landscape, a sea of nothingness, where survival was the great achievement. A few date palms and some seasonal grazing for goats and camels allowed for the miracle of self sufficiency though attention has always been focused on trade routes and travellers. The trans-Saharan slave trade has long since been replaced by the trail of the migrant worker while the old stables of gold dust, ivory and ostrich feathers has given way to contraband cigarettes (going north) and cars (heading south) both fueled by the trade in arms.
At the only settlement on this route there was a small café, illuminated by a hissing gas light and holding a dozen young men. Half of the races of the Sahara seemed to be represented in their faces, from the graceful deep black skin of the Sudan to a high cheek-boned Berber, from the thin hawk-like profile of an Arab to a pale skinned Tuareg and a dark Moor from Timbuctoo. My speculations were cut short when I was told that they were "all brothers". They laughed at my fear of camels and hijackers.
There were more alarming things than this to be found, they said. If you were out on the mountain after dusk you could hear the two bands of Djiin, the good and the bad, fighting each other with rocks. Another brother said that only last month he had picked up a silent hitch-hiker who had nodded to the music that was playing. Between changing tapes he noticed that his companion could not speak. At one and the same time he looked down, jammed on the breaks and screamed for he had glimpsed the hairy goat's legs that identified an affrit. I never found out what an affrit might do, though everyone in the cafe agreed that they were fond of music. I thought of Peter Levi searching through the pages of Pausanias and the hills of Greece for the sacred caves of Pan. He should have come to the Sahara. For here in October 2000, I was sitting next to a man who had seen Pan only a few weeks before.
Days later we stopped to admire a pair of milk white camel calves in a corrall of telephone wire, corrugated iron and palm branches. We were welcomed with wild enthusiasm by a band of youths who fortunately were summoned by one of their elders to load a camel onto a farmer's half-truck. Other boys recklessly fought to be at the top of a dune, while others ferried water bags made from the inner tubes of tractor tyres towards a row of camel saddles.
The headman offered us a great frothy bowl of camel-milk. As I finished he warned that it can act as a three day purge on those unused to the bacteria. The atmsophere in the camp was electric, a barely harnessed anarchy, as if a group of sixteen year old boarding schoolboys had just had their midmorning hot chocolate spiked with acid. "What is happening", I asked Omer, "are they about to set off? "Oh no", he said, "it is always like this with the Tebu". "Where do they live", I asked. "Wherever they wish, he replied". They are true children of the Sahara.
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by Barnaby Rogerson