“WHY DOES ABDUL LIVE IN THE DESERT?”: Sleeping in the Sahara
Anna puts her hand on my leg as I climb into the four-by-four. We’re in the small Moroccan town of Rissani, our final stop before Erg Chebbi – one of Morocco’s Saharan ergs. Mustafa, the driver, smiles and says, “Welcome Maroc” – a phrase we’ve heard at least two dozen times in half a dozen towns during our travel in Morocco. “Merci,” I reply.
We’d haggled the price of the tour down by fifty Dirham back at the hostel, as we’re making it our mission travel for as little money as possible, but Mustafa keeps his full cut.
It’s nearing the end of September, but the heat emanates off the crassly paved streets and tumeric-yellow sand. Out the window, a young boy rides a motorcycle down the footpath past the men sleeping on trash out front of their stores. The female students are on their bicycles, dressed in white hijabs, heading home from the Quranic school.
“In Rissani, students are very smart, but very poor,” Mustafa tells us. We drive through the gates of the town and into the desert, along dirt tracks carved by tires.
The car comes around the berth of the great Saharan dunes, and in the distance we see our accommodation: a windowless stone building surrounded by eight-foot stone walls. Ten camels are dozing by the walls, although we are told by Mustafa, “the camel never sleeps”.
We unload our bags and head barefoot into the dunes. It takes half an hour to reach the top, and once there we both fall silent. A full moon hangs over the Moroccan-Algerian border – while to the West, we catch the diffused pink and red of the setting African sun. It seems surreal, impossible. Our silence is shortlived, as three Berber children follow us up the dunes and try to sell us handmade dolls, stones, and jewelery. I empty my hip pocket and show them I have no Dirham. They giggle and make me empty the rest. The youngest, a toothless girl in pink and white points and laughs, and they all run back down to find other customers.
Once night falls, we head in for vegetable tagine and mint tea. We haven’t eaten all day as we’re well over our travel budget, so we sip every last drop and then to bed.
The next evening, our guides Muhammed and Abdul saddle up two camels for us, and wehead into the desert. “Fatima, Ali Baba,” Abdul addresses us. “Tonight you will sleep under the stars.” Our camels sway and weave effortlessly through the soft Saharan sand. As the sun sets, the contoured shadows stretch further and further, until they flood the entire desert in cool grey. We arrive at the tent to a well-known sight for anybody who has taken time to travel Morocco – stray cats searching for food. Anna gives them some of her water and we lay down on the magnificent Moroccan rugs set out prior to our arrival.
After dinner (more tagine, more tea) Abdul and Muhammed take us further into the dunes. The stars are hardly visible due to the fierce moon, which lights the entire desert as if it were a flood light. Muhammed sets some shrubs ablaze to ward off snakes and we sit down.
“I have a joke,” Abdul tells us excitedly. “Why does Abdul live in the desert?” “Why?” I ask. “Because he is… Abdul!” They both laugh hysterically, and we follow along. To Abdul this is a gag, perhaps lost in translation… But to us, it seems strangely profound – Abdul lives in the desert because that’s the life he was born into. He never once questioned this; he was born a Berber, and so he will live and die a Berber.
We continue exchanging jokes until we laugh ourselves tired. That night, Anna and I sleep hand-in-hand on the Saharan ground, looking to the starless sky. We dream of the whistle of sand over the endless dunes and of the moonlit birds flying overhead, searching for something to feed upon.