It was late summer in 1991, when I hitchhiked across the Sahara Desert north to south, from Algeria into Niger. It took 3 weeks, with time exploring the random oasis towns; waiting on empty roads for rides from occasional vehicles.
On the biggest beach I’ve ever seen,
there are endless dunes to the ocean sky.
Seagulls screech, in my head.
My sandals stick as sand slides as I scramble high,
burning bare feet,
the gulls shriek: “Ouch! My feet.”
I hitch a lift with a man and his young son. Behair plays one tape continuously: Madonna’s – Like a Virgin. As we drive sand dunes creep across the asphalt – encroaching surf-like, edging forward, nothing but isolated palms – bobbing above this sea, like drowning sailors. Behair stops in a village to purchase grapes and melon from stalls in front of mud-brick homes. After a meal at his apartment, he drops me at a petrol station outside of town to await the next lift.
I face a rocky escarpment; the dunes now behind me. I sit in the shade of the station with an understanding of why it has been abandoned: the road is quiet and the landscape empty, save for some tussock and palms. I look nomadic or stupid – I can’t decide, with a sarong wrapped round my head.
I bear the heat. Ho-hum, ho-hum and an hour, then two passes. A Renault stops, but not for me. I approach the driver anyway. He leans over his cassette deck, fumbling with a chewed tape. I get a ride. The car speeds on a road without bends, crossing an expanse of rocks-pebbles-gravel-sand. Hours of dusty stones.
The M’zab Valley
As we wind down into the valley,
a pastel picture fills the oasis:
above the palms, on anthills
are stepped slopes of square,
and blue houses.
A mosque crowns each town
like a king.
And above everything
points the lone minaret,
tower-like and tapering towards Allah.
The Mozabities, as the valley’s inhabitants are known, are an orthodox Muslim sect. For centuries their isolation in the desert has preserved their strict traditions.
Five towns occupy the M’zab valley. Isgen Beni is the most startling.
Foreigners may only visit during certain hours and must be accompanied by a local guide. The guide checks the alleys for people before allowing photographs. Alleys of dust-yellow walls are broken by arched doorways and above, small barred windows with blue shutters. In the shady, narrow, cobbled lanes it is quiet.
Stone quiet. Stuck in a Medieval-non-mechanical silence. Isgen Beni has no cafes. Smoking isn’t permitted within its old walls. At 5 p.m a daily market is held in the town square. There robed men in white skull-caps gather to trade, but mainly to talk.
Mozabite women are cloaked by a white sheet: head to heel and drawn across the face, allowing only one eye to show. The young M’zab men call them Phantoms.
The Sahara ( Arabic: الصحراء الكبرى, Aṣ-Ṣaḥrā´ al-Kubrā, “The Great Desert” ) is the world’s largest hot desert and third largest desert, after Antarctica and the Arctic. It covers most of North Africa, making it almost as large as China or the USA.
Travels in Algeria – 1991
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