THE ADRAR MOUNTAINS
The desert road is a giant that casts no shadow
Shortly after midday the train finally swung westwards and drew up in Choum, a once moderately prosperous trans-Saharan staging town. It was no wonder that we had missed the place last night, for even in the light of day most of it remained hidden from the track, lying instead in a shallow depression ringed by a low curtain of dunes and sand drifts. To the east of the village rose a stark sandstone escarpment, at the base of which I saw the remains of fortifications and embankments built by Morocco to keep out Polisario - Choum lies only a couple of miles from the border. Beyond the escarpment is nothing but El-Djouf ('the Belly'), Mauritania's desolate 'Empty Quarter', a region utterly devoid of any form of life. One would have to travel eastwards for over a thousand kilometres, over desolate and scorching terrain, before reaching the next settlement, Taoudenni. It is the site of Mali's legendary and equally notorious salt mines (once controlled by Morocco), which were until recently worked by slaves (and since then, it is rumoured, by Tuareg 'political prisoners').
Although an estimated five thousand people live here - or did - Choum shows little outward sign of life. There are precious few stone buildings to speak of, and not even a mosque minaret to call the faithful to prayer (at least that I could see). The village has only a handful of wells, and these draw the same brackish water as that of Châr. Except for a few isolated acacia and withered tamarisks, there is little natural shelter from the burning sun. The reasons for the demise of Choum are many and varied, but perhaps most damning has been the decline of the trans-Saharan caravans, a trade that was at one time the linchpin to the survival of virtually all the North African nations. By the seventh century and the advent of the camel, the Berbers were in almost total control of the trade, dealing primarily in salt, slaves and gold. Then, as the Arabs moved westwards in their great migrations, another, shorter route across the desert was founded. The Tariq el-Lemtuni, or 'Mauritanian Way' as it has become known in more recent years, stretched for fifty days from Morocco to the gold-rich headlands of ancient Ghana, passing en route the Idjil salt flats, near the iron ore mines. At the time, salt was a commodity worth its weight in gold because, like water, it is essential to life. Perversely, then, it is the trade in salt that for centuries paid for the black African slaves that were then transported back over the Sahara to the Maghreb.
The decline of the Tariq el-Lemtuni began in the Middle Ages, following the arrival of the Yemeni bandits, who brought great insecurity to the region with their habit of raiding caravans and killing its occupants (they were also rumoured to eat their own children). European colonisation also helped reduce the importance of the caravans, because slaves and other goods were then transported by sea. The French occupation of the Adrar itself (1909), effectively closed the route to the then still rebellious tribes of the Western Sahara. Subsequent attempts at industrialisation and modernisation, and the drawing up of latter-day North African boundaries, has also affected the caravans, although the most decisive factor has been drought. As I had already seen in Nouâdhibou's bidonville, drought and famine together have drastically diminished the number of nomads plying the ancient routes. The final deathblow for the 'Mauritanian Way' was the conflict in the Western Sahara that, since 1975, has barred the northern reaches of the route. Indeed, Choum itself came under attack in 1977, when suspected Polisario positions were strafed and bombed by French Jaguar fighters, in retaliation for the kidnapping of a number of French technicians and advisors. And so with war, drought, and the extinction of trade, people have left Choum in their droves. Its complete demise has only been prevented by the fact that the town is used to house railway and mine workers, and acts as a sort of stepping stone for the handful of travellers that interchange each week between the railway and the Route Nationale that goes south towards Nouakchott.
* * *
As I hauled my bicycle from the train, I noticed to my dismay that the rear tyre had somehow punctured. Much worse, however, was that the constant bumping and clattering of the train had dislodged the pump from the bicycle frame, and it had disappeared into the desert somewhere between Nouâdhibou and Touâjîl. The problems and fears that this engendered were all too obvious. Mahmoud assured me that he could get his hands on a foot-pump, but he wasn't too sure about one for a bicycle, mainly because it was the first time he'd ever even seen one. Along with the Guinean, we walked past the railway and down into the village, an unremarkable collection of mud, stone and tin huts, a number of which doubled as restaurants and crash-houses for railway passengers. Most of the dwellings were wide and breezy nomad tents enclosed with crumbling stone walls, remnants of the more prosperous times that had graced the construction of the railway in the 1960s. Unlike Nouâdhibou, where space is restricted by the geography of Cap Blanc, here, in open desert, the village had been allowed to sprawl, which meant that the dwellings were reasonably well spaced out, and without any of the squalor that had been so evident in the city.
Near the western edge of the village we arrived at the home of Mahmoud: a couple of old clay walls surrounding an acacia tree, topped with tent canvas to keep out the sun. Aïcha, his wife, and his sons Djibril, Hasni and Fadel, had been worried sick about Mahmoud, and were more than pleased to see him again. 'May Allah be thanked, praise be to Allah,' Aïsha repeated, over and over again. Aïcha was very beautiful. Tall and slender, she had dark, sable-coloured skin, and a walk like that of a cat.
We sat barefoot and cross-legged on a dusty grey blanket, and awaited the inevitable glasses of mint tea that were hastily being prepared. Then a meat and potato stew called bonava was served in a large enamel platter around which we squatted. Having already been through Morocco, I prided myself in my proficiency at being able to use small pieces of bread to shovel up mouthfuls of food without making a mess. Until, that is, I realised that my hosts were using a completely different method that involved using the bread rather more like a pincer than a scoop. My resulting efforts at imitation ended in having to eat off the palm of my hand, much to the amusement of the three sons who received frequent and icy glares from their father to stop them laughing. Save for their muffled giggles, the dinner was a serious enough affair. In the desert, people do not dawdle over their food, for it can never be taken for granted.
After lunch, the boys disappeared and Aïcha retired to her personal corner of the tent to brew yet more tea, leaving me to converse with Mahmoud (the Guinean neither spoke nor understood a word of French or Hassiniyah). Again, I asked him whence he originated, and again he answered, with a wry ironic smile: 'Mahmoud, il est Mauritanien.' There was something odd about this that I couldn't quite grasp. It was not just the way he said it, but also that the fact of his saying it was strange enough to be remarkable in a country where everyone else I met invariably mentioned some tribe or other that they belonged to, rather than the nation. In fact I can't recall anyone else who actually admitted to being Mauritanian. When I changed the subject to his work, Mahmoud explained in the same matter-of-fact way that he was a miner at Zouîrât. In vain had he travelled to Nouâdhibou in order to find another job because, he said, the miners were paid a pittance and the conditions were bad. The subject prompted a rare glimpse of emotion.
'They take us for... [he paused to grasp the word] They take us for dogs,' he said eventually as an unguarded scowl flickered briefly across his face.
'You know perfectly well that I am not a dog, and yet they treat me as though I were.' He closed his mouth and clenched his jaw. His nostrils quivered. Many workers had died in accidents, he said, of which several had been his friends. Many more now had bad coughs from the dust because they were not provided with protective masks. In Mahmoud's opinion, the bosses were all crooks and wanted the work done for next to nothing.
As we talked, I noticed more and more the pessimism and despondency lying beneath the anger in his voice. His face, too, was sullen, morose even, and when we'd finished, he was talking mostly with his head bowed. He said that he was not allowed to talk to strangers about the mines, but that he didn't care for the company's threats. 'Nobody ever takes any notice of haratin anyway,' he said.
To explain: until recently, Moorish society was organised in a rigid and hierarchical caste system. Seeing as the system still survives to some degree, I have used tenses as appropriate in what follows. At the top of the pyramid are the two noble (bidan) castes: the hassanes and the marabouts. The hassanes were effectively a warrior class, who extracted or extorted tributes from all and sundry in return for their dubious protection. They claim direct descent from the Beni Hassan, and therefore consider themselves to be of more noble blood than any other caste (they are indeed invariably pale-skinned). René Caillié, though, found them 'idle, mendacious, thievish, envious, superstitious and gluttonous; they combine in short, all possible vices.' The marabouts, for their part, combine the roles of teachers, sages, givers of hospitality, and merchants, and were frequently exploited by the hassanes. Below these two noble castes are the zenaga, semi-nomadic herders and cultivators who were tributaries of the hassanes and were often little more than skilled slaves, rarely if ever allowed to keep the fruits of their labour. Lastly, at the bottom of the social pile, came the Negro abid and haratin. The abid were the proper slaves, whereas haratin were/are mulatto descendants of Moorish men and Negro slave girls, whose slave status was often unclear. Mahmoud used haratin to mean a freed slave rather than a half-caste.
When I questioned Mahmoud about the haratin I was told (to my astonishment) that he and his family had only been freed in 1983, three years after the abolition of slavery in Mauritania, and fully thirty-eight years after the United Nations' Declaration on Human Rights. Sceptics argue that had the economics of drought not forced the freeing of Mauritania's slaves, then slavery would never have been abolished. It is ironic, then, that the demise of the nomad, however much that is to be regretted in itself, has released hundreds of thousands of slaves from their shackles.
But why, I wondered, was Mahmoud the free man and husband of the beautiful Aïcha, so sullen and so depressed? As haratin go, he was moderately well off, and was lucky enough to have found a job at all. I tried to put myself in his situation. For all those years that Mahmoud was forced to work like an animal for a master who scarcely acknowledged his presence, Mahmoud had also lived a life of hoping and dreaming of the day when his chains would finally be cast off, when he could walk away from his past a free man. Of course I would be happy. But would I then be happy to find myself as an adult, with no past of which I could speak, flung suddenly into a strange new world that knew no future but only the past? Would I be happy to all of a sudden be released from a lifetime of knowing that my future, however bleak, was secure and certain, to be pushed into a world that guaranteed nothing? Would I be happy to find all my hopes borne of a lifetime of toil, my hopes of equality, of fortune, of peace, of the true inviolability of the individual, suddenly dashed by the cold harshness of reality? Like societies the world over, Mauritania does not treat kindly its most recent converts, especially the haratin. Mauritania already has more than enough poverty. It has prejudice, it has hatred, and it is hard enough surviving without having the extra burden of haratin to bear on one's back. Worse still, society will never honour nor even recognise the need to compensate those that it has abused. It is not in the nature of society to consider whether it has wronged its individual constituents, but rather to consider the welfare of society as a whole, or at least the welfare of its masters, its creators and patrons.
Perhaps you are thinking that I am mistaken in assuming that Mahmoud's slavery was as miserable as I make out, even though he repeatedly refused to talk about his past. So let us imagine that his former master was a most kind and generous person, and that under him, Mahmoud's life of slavery had actually been bearable, perhaps even enjoyable. But in such a situation, Mahmoud would have mourned the loss of his chains even more than he would have celebrated the bittersweet taste of his new found freedom, for the society in which he would have found himself is precisely that which I have just described. The chains of slavery are not merely physical. They scar the mind and the spirit forever. There is no comfortable middle-ground in slavery. Slavery is either total or absent. The irony in all this is that although it is chains that tie the slave to the yoke, the man who is freed of his chains is still enslaved. The loss of the spirit, like the loss of life itself, can never be regained. What else was there for Mahmoud to say, except 'Mahmoud, il est Mauritanien.'
* * *
Mahmoud disappeared briefly, only to reappear holding aloft a heavy car pump that he had somehow managed to wangle. I knew, however, that without a pump to carry with me, I would be running the risk of puncturing irreparably somewhere along the 120km between Choum and Atâr, the first town on the road south to Nouakchott. I left Mahmoud and his family towards three in the afternoon, the hottest time of day. There was no wind, the escarpment saw to that, though the air was dry enough to contain some of the heat that would otherwise have been intolerable. I walked the bike back to the centre of the village with the Guinean, in the hope of finding him a lift to Nouakchott. For my part, I need food, water, and a few extra water bottles.
Most of the stores in Choum are collected together in two makeshift arcades, and are constructed of various sheets of scrap metal and wooden mining struts bound together using rope, nails and even netting. The arcades make up two of the four sides of what might be called the village square, most of which is sand strewn with broken glass, plastic bags, bottles and tins, empty oil drums and small strips of discarded acacia bark that is used to make rope. Without exception, all the shops were closed, though their owners, who were usually sitting outside their shacks, were helpful enough. With their aid, both water and extra bottles were easy to find. Food, though, was another matter. As far as I know, Choum does not have a public baker, and so bread has to be brought in by train, but as the train would at this hour only just be leaving Nouâdhibou, there would be no bread until midnight. This arrangement was especially annoying given that most of the other stuff sold in the stores, like pulses and rice, needed to be cooked, and the only food available that did not need cooking were small bags of tasteless Algerian biscuits. I bought these nonetheless, much to the chagrin of the shopkeeper who was trying his level best to sell me a drum of Chinese gunpowder tea.
By now, a large crowd had formed around us. Children shouted and grinned and laughed. Teenage girls not quite old enough to have to wear veils, fiddled self-consciously with their glossy black braids. One girl carried a handful of writhing lizards' tails. Later, I saw her throw the whole lot at a boy who had been pestering her! A lot of the children wore Western cast-offs, probably donated as aid: an assortment of baseball caps, cardigans inscribed 'N.Y.', faded and ripped T-shirts, jumpers with holes in, oversize shorts, and scabby patent leather shoes. In the distance, a donkey cart laden with scrap metal floated by, the kid who was driving it struggling to keep his mule under control. To my amusement I saw a group of kids fighting, because one of them couldn't get a good enough view of me. As they punched and kicked each other, they would glance over as though hoping that, like Caesar overseeing his gladiators, I'd somehow favour one or the other.
There was a sizeable contingent of adults, too. There were men holding hands (a common sight in Mauritania), others showing off by smoking expensive American cigarettes, some chewing sticks, and all staring at me. One man, who wore a horrendous blue tracksuit, assigned himself the task of 'protecting' me from the children, and clobbered them if they got too close. Thankfully, he was soon overwhelmed by sheer numbers. It felt good to be surrounded by so many people, and seeing that I didn't mind the attention, it didn't take long for enough courage to be plucked up by those nearest to reach out and touch the bicycle. The saddlebags, the frame and especially the tyres were all touched, prodded, poked and generally inspected to approving oohs and aahs. A small girl then started touching and squeezing me in much the same manner as people were touching the bike. First my legs, then my arms and shirt. Finally, on tiptoes, she started tugging gently at my hair and began trying to untangle it, occasionally poking her head round my neck to elicit an approving grin! Amidst all the commotion, a tiny and extraordinarily grotty toddler somehow managed to wheedle himself past the leggy jungle towards his sister, who indicated that she would look after my bike if I would give her brother a piggy back. So I lifted him on to my neck, and then waded through the crowd, everyone by now laughing and shouting at this extremely strange white man.
Somewhat inevitably, the crowd attracted the attention of the local gendarme, at whose appearance the throng dispersed. Forcing his way through the last stragglers with a truncheon, he accosted me, his face visibly livid. 'Toubab!' He screamed like a teacher. 'What... what do you think you are doing here? Why have you not reported to the police? Where is your passport?' I handed him my papers and grovelled my apologies, claiming ignorance.
'Everyone knows that visitors have to report to the gendarmerie the first thing,' he snapped back. 'Even Toubabs. These are the regulations. Everybody knows that.' I grovelled some more, reiterating my ignorance of the rules, and soon he calmed down and began to relax. So much so that a few minutes later we were engrossed in a conversation about his family, about how wonderful Mauritania was, and so on. I asked him where I might find some bread for the journey to Nouakchott.
'Some bread?' he joked. 'Bread, my friend, is the food of the women!' Nevertheless, he managed to unearth six stale loaves, for which I was allowed to pay for only three.
After the gendarme had disappeared, the crowd reassembled, inquisitive as ever, from which one man, wearing a voluminous green turban, extricated himself. He was perhaps only about forty, though his moustache, drooping over thin, tight lips, had long since greyed. The usual piercing nomadic eyes were accentuated by dark eyebrows that tilted up from the bridge of his nose. He greeted abruptly, and then asked where it was that I intended going. Senegal, I replied.
'By Almighty Allah! You are surely insane!' he exclaimed, playing to the crowd with grandiloquent, sweeping gestures.
'Insane? Then may Allah be thanked!' I replied, grinning. He grinned back, and scowled, and for a few seconds I was unsure as to whether he was going to hit me. Then, he proceeded to empty out the contents of a tricolour bag into my hands: two cans of sardines, a can of skipjack tuna in tomato sauce, a can of pineapple chunks, a packet of peanuts, a carton of Austrian pasteurised milk, and even a small bottle of Perrier.
'Monsieur le Toubab, you have the good fortune to have the eyes of a madman. May Allah give you strength, and give you health.' With that, and before I even had time to consider protesting, he turned and walked away through the gaping crowd. A moment later, one of the shopkeepers ran up to me and explained (almost apologetically) that the man himself was a little m'zaza, though I needn't worry about accepting his gifts, because the madman was also quite a rich man!
As we walked off to find a truck, we were stopped by a plump, middle-aged bidan, whose face I cannot recall, but whose pot belly I can.
'Hey, Toubab, where are you going with that bicycle?'
'Look here, do you not understand that there is no road to Nouakchott? Toubab, I have a taxi, look...' He took the Guinean aside, apparently to fix a price both for he and I.
'I will do you a favour,' he continued. 'Five thousand ouguiya. Only.' I smiled, but shook my head.
'But the sand comes right up to here,' he protested, as he levelled a hand at his waist. 'You cannot cross that on your bicycle. Come with us, come.' He made to walk off, but still I shook my head. He wanted me to haggle, but my mind was made up. Instead, I asked him directions for the road to Atâr and, sensing that I was serious, he acquiesced and pointed to one of three distant mountains rising out of the afternoon haze. It looked like a breast. All I had to do was cycle towards it for about twenty kilometres. Then, if I was going in the right direction, near the mountain I would see the ruins of the village of 'Aggui and four nearby balises (erratic road-markers not unlike telegraph poles). 'It is easy to find,' the taxi driver assured me, though that much, I knew, I doubted.
I left Choum pursued by hordes of children, all yelling and shouting and screaming at me to stop. I suppressed my haste and turned round to yell farewells and good wishes, greetings that echoed back from a barrage of frantically waving arms. I looked at the children for the last time and then, with the biggest grin in the world, I turned round, climbed on to the bicycle, and pedalled away.
* * *
The distant breast-shaped peak by which I was supposed to navigate rose like an iceberg above a shimmering sea of mirages. The sky was still and clear, the plain that surrounded me flat and featureless: a stony hammada dusted with a carpet of pebbles and sand that made cycling luxuriously easy. The ground skimmed by effortlessly to the sound of gently stirred gravel and the smooth oily whirring of gears and cogs, and for an hour the whole world was perfect in its simplicity.
Neither simplicity nor perfection, however, last forever, and as I cycled, the ground began gradually to sand over. With the passing of each kilometre, the effort required to keep the bicycle moving increased. I started sweating, and in the dry air my mouth soon became parched. Here and there sand drifts had begun to form around dead bushes, scrub that years ago had flourished in the ample waters of a now completely desiccated stream. The dunes of Erg Akchâr were beginning to dominate. Rising near Choum, the erg stretches southwest along much of the five hundred kilometres to the coast around Nouakchott. As I advanced, the mirages receded to reveal the gently undulating forms of sand dunes proper, stretching around and past that mountain. The shroud of sand grew heavier, and vague vehicle traces appeared, more often than not going in every direction but the mountain I was heading for. Yet more sand and yet more tracks, dozens of them, each one unique to a particular journey in the past. Although the divergent tracks did nothing to reassure me of my own bearing, there was something satisfying about ignoring them all in order to leave behind my own.
In places, the piste consisted entirely of washboard corrugations - a series of compressed troughs lying sideways across the track, each measuring up to a foot in depth, and placed within a foot or two of the next. The corrugations demanded a reduction of speed to walking pace, lest the unavoidable pummelling damage the bicycle, myself, or both. In consequence, cycling rapidly became frustrating. Hour after hour of bouncing in and out of endless ruts with the bike lurching like a seesaw as the wheels alternated between trough and ridge, was not my idea of fun. Hour after hour of seemingly getting nowhere, and with no alternative but to walk. Hour after hour of not even being able to sit properly on the saddle without being thrown painfully onto the crossbar... Despite it being late afternoon, the heat was oppressive, and I was sweating profusely. Even the slightest additional effort would result in fresh beads of sweat forming on my brow, that would then splash down over the dusty handlebars and onto a couple of water flasks, already empty. In my frustration born of tiredness, I just stared at the ridges passing hypnotically beneath me, counting them in between the distractions of avoiding particularly deep troughs or isolated boulders.
My trance was shattered by a small explosion, followed by the flapping of my front tyre... and no pump either. I cursed my lousy luck, though I had absolutely no intention of returning to Choum. Apart from the humiliation, I figured that the possibility of another flat was overwhelming, especially given the dozens of punctures I'd already suffered in the Moroccan and Western Sahara. Foremost in my mind, though, was the belief that if I couldn't even surmount this relatively minor obstacle without outside help, then I might as well give up. So thinking, I remounted the bike and rode off, or at least I tried to. The puncture made keeping the bike steady extremely difficult, for the wheel rim could now slide about freely on a wide strip of rubber, without the tyre itself slipping on the ground. This often resulted in the bike veering unexpectedly, and sometimes violently. The flat also placed the brunt of the shocks from the uneven track onto my wrists and back, and both became sore.
The ruins of 'Aggui huddled on the sand at the foot of the mountain. Except for a few low walls that delineated the husks of what were once houses, the old village had been reduced to piles of shapeless rubble. The blackened chassis of a 1940s Renault stood incongruously among the stones, a reminder both of colonialism and of the graveyard that the desert has become. Past the village, a short line of wooden balises did indeed point the way to the Route Nationale. It is a grand name for something no more substantial than an infrequently used track, which often vanished altogether under the sands. Nevertheless, the Route Nationale made off into a wide and sandy valley. The sand was much thicker here, which forced the track into two deep ruts [ornières] which were impossible to cycle on. The landscape, though, was beautiful, with its soft and sensuous cusps and curves. As the sun sank deeper into the obscurity of the hazy horizon, a cascade of rusty iron reds showered the distant, broken-backed hills, their bases still separated from their jagged peaks by mirages. I stopped to look back at the way I had come, but all I could see were my own half-engulfed tracks stretching far out on a flat sandy plateau, tracks which for a while were etched in the soft sand with long, sharp shadows. Somewhere in the distance was the village of Choum, lying prostrate next to the rails and already far, far away. It was strange to consider that I'd effectively followed the same track all the way from England. But it wasn't like a railroad, travelling along a predetermined line from A to B. Rather, I was laying my own tracks, and I was leaving behind my own traces. The thought pleased me.
The first stars were beginning to pierce the sky when I noticed the flickering of a lantern on the opposite flank of the valley. In the nascent obscurity I could make out the outline of a tent, pitched beside the low silhouettes of a couple of acacia trees. Standing still, the gentle whisper of the evening breeze seemed to me to caress the shrill bleating of the nomad's goats. In the usual custom of camping near others (to dispel suspicions of impending razzias), I left my bicycle under a lone thorn bush and walked over to introduce myself. I was greeted warmly and with much aplomb by an amiable old man with hollow cheeks and spindly hands, these almost as black as his cheche. Along with his two teenage sons, he insisted vociferously that I should stay with them a while to talk and eat. The tent was surprisingly simple in construction. It was like a miniature but skewed circus big top: a large canvas sheet strung over an off-centre shoulder-high stave, secured with numerous guy ropes. The sides near the ground were left open and could be closed with flaps to protect against the elements. There was very little inside, save a large sack of rice reading 'USE NO HOOKS' that doubled as a cushion, two thick cotton blankets, and an anonymous metal chest upon which various cooking utensils had been placed.
We sat outside the tent to a meal of boiled rice and camel meat, huddled around the comforting amber glow of a lantern. Accompanied by the plaintive bleating of goats and the gut-wrenching growls of camels, we talked. Tarkhit, a zenaga of the Tajakant group of Moors, began the conversation with a flood of questions, rather in the manner of an interrogation. It was an impression that was accentuated by his eyes, which glared at me as he spoke in needle-sharp flurries of French. In between his initial over-inquisitiveness, I managed to interject a few questions of my own. Tarkhit had two wives in Atâr, six children (he wanted more), and a herd of over a hundred goats and two dozen pack-camels that he grazed in and around the Adrar's foothills. His life was a constant search for water and pasturage. In winter, he followed the rains north, and in summer he followed them south, a continuous search that has prompted the ever-poetic Arabs to call the pastoral nomads 'the sons of clouds'. In the past, tribes were known to ride towards grass that had sprung up over two hundred kilometres away, but the past few years, complained Tarkhit, had been unusually harsh. The rains were dwindling, and were coming later each year. There was now very little grazing land left, even in the once lush Adrar, which was almost threadbare as a result of overgrazing. It is estimated that over half the Adrar's cattle perished in the droughts of the 1970s, and then again in the early 1980s, and I cannot recall even once having seen cattle in Mauritania. At times, the situation became so bad as to provoke bloody quarrels and raids between rival groups of nomads, who were forced to graze their herds on the same land. With this in mind, I was proudly shown a gleaming antique rifle with which Tarkhit claimed to have foiled two bands of armed raiders.
As a result of the worsening situation, Tarkhit had decided to sell most of his camels as and when the opportunity arose, probably in Atâr or the famous oasis town of Chinguetti. The prospective sale depended on the arrival of a group of Malian caravaneers who, he had heard, were looking to buy replacements for animals lost over the last few months. Indeed, Tarkhit himself had lost over two dozen goats and half a dozen camels over the last year alone, and the meat that we had just eaten was from a bitch that had died only three days earlier. The caravaneers themselves, said Tarkhit, would almost certainly have lost more animals when crossing the wastes of El Djouf.
To my mind - from a European perspective - Tarkhit was surprisingly fatalistic about the future, and the phrase 'Insha Allah' tended to follow a good many sentences. All the same, his fatalism was certainly not resignation, but rather a philosophical and theological acceptance of some greater and unknowable force, the Will of God. Tarkhit believed that his fate ultimately resided with Allah. If his herds and therefore his livelihood were to survive, then that was only due to Allah, whereas if his herds were to perish through lack of water or grazing, then that too was the Will of Allah. As Albert Hourani, the Lebanese historian of the Arab peoples, commented: 'belief in a God who created and sustained the world could give meaning to the blows of fate.' The attitude is prevalent among most nomads, among whom I found little of either pessimism or optimism. There is no need for these emotions, for everything is predetermined by Allah, or, in the case of non-Muslim nomads such as the Tuareg, by some superhuman abstraction of Nature or Fate.
Towards the end of the evening, I told Tarkhit a story that I had often recounted in Morocco. It is the true story, as far as I know, of the son of some French tycoon, who had rebelled against the wealth of his family when young by giving away his not-insubstantial pocket money to school friends. In the same way, the family fortune, when it eventually passed on to him, he also wanted to give away. By ridding himself of the burden of his wealth, it seems that the young man hoped to achieve his freedom. The problem was that the money was in held stocks and shares, and by the terms of his late father's will, he was only able to squander a comparatively small amount each year. The poor wealthy son soon grew desperate at the irony of his situation, and apparently, the newspapers said, he'd even contemplated joining a monastery in order to rid himself of his unwanted riches! He was desperate, that is, until he struck upon the brilliant idea of trading his original shares and certificates for ones in companies reckoned to be on the verge of collapse, for such a manoeuvre was permitted by the terms of the will. Thus, the problem of discarding his money seemed to be over, until, by some horrendous twist of fate, some of the bad apple companies that he'd counted on doing badly began unexpectedly to do well, and before long he had even more money than he'd started off with! All this had happened before the crash of October 1987, and so, tragically, the young man was so distraught at his ill luck that he flung himself off the top floor of the luxury Marina Baie des Anges in the Côte d'Azur.
'What?' exclaimed Tarkhit. 'That is all? He killed himself!' Tarkhit's initial consternation dissolved into helpless roars of laughter. 'Ha ha ha! Too much money! By Allah, he killed himself? Hoo-hoo-hooo...'
In return for my little offering, I was treated to half a dozen traditional tales recounted in a mixture of French and Hassiniyah, wonderful stories and fables that help keep alive the nomadic tradition of each tribe, preserving an oral continuity with ancestors that binds people much more strongly than the dusty leaves of leather-bound books. The fable I recall the clearest is the following, of which countless versions have been told:
'This story, and Allah knows that I speak the truth,' began Tarkhit, 'this story took place many, many years ago, at the time when the desert was a paradise of cold rivers, rolling meadows, and aromatic forests, where there lived one thousand different kinds of animals, and the skies were always full of birds. These were prosperous times and there were many large towns, of which the one called the River of the Great Stork was by far the most beautiful and pleasant. Its houses were large and spacious, and were decorated with beautiful murals that depicted each family's proud past. Yet, amongst all these beautiful houses, one in particular stood out from the rest, for this was the house of the sharif who lived with his seven wives and seven sons. By all accounts, they were happy together. All, that is, except for the mother of the second son. She was an exceedingly jealous woman, for she saw that it was the eldest son who, as heir to the sharif's title, received all the attention. So jealous did she become that one fateful day, when by chance she was alone with the eldest son (who was still young) in a forest, she conspired to sell him as a slave to a passing merchant. After much heart-rending searching, the family became resigned to the fact that the son had fallen prey to a lion or some other wild beast, and so the inheritance passed on to the second son. For many years thereafter, the evil woman lived happily with her sordid secret.
As the years passed by, the tragedy was slowly forgotten, although the town was never quite as happy as once it had been. Then, another fateful day, in a far away city at the other end of the land, the merchant, now on his deathbed, confessed the whole sorry tale to his faithful manservant, who was, of course, the eldest son. Though the merchant could no longer recall the name of town, the son resolved to return to his family, and after many years of roaming the country like a beggar, he came to the River of the Great Stork. By a divine stroke of fate (Allah has His Ways) his mother happened to set eyes on him, and she immediately recognised him. Imagine the joy when the news was broken: the whole town celebrated with one hundred days of festivities, so happy were they at this miraculous return.
But let us not forget the fate of the evil stepmother, for so ashamed was she of her wicked deed, that she ran away into the forest and was never heard of again. It is said that the forest demons punished her by turning her into a fly.'
A large black fly,
Hideous and aggressive,
Turns and turns
above the water lilies of the mysterious pond.
Is she born of jealousy?
Or is she born of sadness and envy
For her to dare not land
on the white petal crown of the lily?
Moorish poem (10)
* * *
I slept badly, and awoke as the last of Tarkhit's animals were being driven northwards down the valley towards Choum. I could hardly have felt worse: stiff limbs, swollen eyes, sore back and wrists, and a dull headache. I was hot, sticky, knackered and still sleepy, the latter because of one particularly large darkling beetle that had kept me awake for much of the night by clamping its sizeable pincers firmly around my nose. The third time that I'd felt a sharp pain coming from my proboscis, I launched my assailant into orbit, reckoning that I would have made good my escape by the time it managed to crawl back and disturb me again! My panniers, incidentally, and therefore my food, had become infested with a colony of ants, and as a result, the first hour of my day was spent picking them off my bread and sifting my peanuts. Another half hour was spent repairing the bicycle. I tried to soften the shocks of riding on a flat tyre by stuffing an old T-shirt between the rim and the tyre, but the shirt tended to bunch up and so made cycling even bumpier than it had been before.
I left several hours after dawn, the white sun already blazing down from its zenith. The broad valley that had begun past the ruins of 'Aggui continued southwards as far as I could see, rising gently all the time. There was sand everywhere, though there were sporadic patches of rocks and vegetation, roughly defining the path of some ancient stream or river. For the first few hours the vegetation survived, albeit sparsely. The sand, however, remained - a torrid river of yellow grains flanked on either side with a low line of serpentine hills. The ornières along which I was travelling became deeper and softer, forcing increasingly frequent bouts of walking. Sometimes, the sand gave way to short stretches of corrugations, making it difficult to decide which of the two I hated more. Tracks appeared and disappeared, in places completely obscured by deep sand drifts that not only forced me to walk but carry my bicycle, all forty kilos of it. I learned a lot about cycling in sand in those few hours: the telltale signs of colour, of ripples, and the engulfed vehicle traces that warned of impending quagmire. In places, the roots of decapitated acacia were visible and meant firmer ground, albeit at the risk of more thorns finding their way into my tyres. As the day wore on, however, all the vegetation vanished.
Late that morning, a Peugeot 504 station waggon roared past me, only to skid to an abrupt halt amidst clouds of dust and sand. It was the taxi driver from Choum.
'Ah, there you are, my insane friend! Radiance be upon you! You okay? I hope you have not been thirsty?'
'Of course not,' I replied, and then asked him if he could spare any water. He leaned back into the car to confer with his passengers, and after long deliberations gave me two litres.
'They did not want to stop for you,' he confided, 'or give you any water, but I told them that you were my mad Ingleezi friend!' In the back of the car, ten passengers busily pretended that they hadn't seen me. With a cheerful 'B'slama, Ingleezi,' the driver clambered back in and drove away.
By midday I had already drunk the taxi driver's two litres, but felt still thirstier. My frustration grew hourly as only more sand appeared on the horizon to compensate for my progress, and my exhaustion, and indeed my anger, increased as my water supply dwindled. The thermometer stuck at 52ºC. Twice I fell off the bike, and I stumbled as I walked, swearing and cursing the desert. Yet, passing over one sand dune, my gaze met with a most astonishing sight. Stretching as far as the horizon, where the sand merged with the sky in a flurry of mirages, was a veritable forest of surreally weather-beaten boulders, tossed about a flat and pebble-strewn plateau as though by some gigantic, cataclysmic mind-storm. Huge rocks stood isolated like those in the metaphysical gardens of Japan's Zen Buddhist temples. The place was beautiful, and would have been most meditative had it not been for the scorching heat. The boulders reminded me of Henry Moore's sculptures, possessed of a most sensual beauty, shaped and honed to perfection by the endless abrasion of wind and sand and water. My imagination, numbed by the monotony of the day's cycling and long-since starved of even the slightest glimpse of another naked human form, revelled in the inherent sexuality of these deliciously moulded rocks. Soft and rounded female torsos, convoluted and provocative, powerful and eternal like the desert of which they were born.
The track wound its way around these strange monoliths in great fluid arcs, infinitely more aesthetic than travelling in stubbornly linear fashion. These rock-strewn lands are known locally as Turab el-Hajra, the Land of Stone. Despite the absence of life, it was a strangely reassuring land, and for a while I quite forgot my tiredness and thirst. But the stomach is never one to feast merely on emotion, and so I stopped beside one particularly large boulder for lunch, squeezing myself as best I could into the few inches of shade it afforded from the sun. Several handfuls of peanuts and a can of sardines later, I stood up and was most surprised to find myself reeling in the heat. Suddenly, I felt drained, and the thought even came to mind of giving up and waiting for a lift. This much I can't explain. Maybe I had rested too long? Perhaps I was experiencing the beginnings of dehydration? Or perhaps it was the sudden shock of the heat? Whatever it was, it had crept up unawares and I was now worried at my sudden physical deterioration. The temperature still hovered around fifty, and I realised that at this rate I would not reach Atâr until the following day. Worse still was that my water and food supplies were beginning to run low, for I had not counted on the extra day that I might need to reach the town. Wearily, I slumped over the bicycle, oblivious now to the beauty of my surroundings. The salty sweat from my forehead stung my eyes and blurred my vision. Past the last few boulders, the tracks started down into another sandy valley. Again, the impossible-to-cycle ornières and again the reappearance of a few thorn bushes and clumps of grass that seemed to be floating on the sand like gulfweed on the Sargasso Sea. By now, my thoughts were directed almost entirely by my frustration. The monotony of alternately cycling and walking, together with the heat and my tiredness, served only to blight still further my hopes. 'Oh, to hell with it,' I thought, as I foolishly carried on drinking my precious water, though I was to find out to my cost that drinking too much in extreme temperatures only makes one hotter and even thirstier than before. Another hour passed with no sign of the mountain pass that according to my map lay on the road to Atâr.
Sometime in the afternoon my hopes were lifted upon sighting a few skin-and-bone donkeys stood beside the track in a clump of thicker vegetation. Their presence seemed to indicate the proximity of nomads, although I could see nothing to betray human presence. I shouted a greeting, but heard nothing but my echo returning unanswered from the flanks of the valley. Depressed, I walked on, feeling hotter than ever, even though the sun was beginning to relax its hold on the day. Mid afternoon is the cruellest time because the midday heat still lingers and your bones begin to fry in their burnt sleeve of flesh and skin. Whenever I touched my forehead to wipe away the sweat, I experienced the uncomfortable sensation of seeming to rub holes into my skin. The sand also was hot, and baked my leaden feet as I walked. Mid afternoon is a hopeless time of day, half way between the clarity of dawn and the calm reflection of dusk. Mid afternoon is the time of day when hope turns too easily to despair and you begin not to care any more about the day, which can be fatal.
I was about to give up when I spotted a small white building in the distance, a sight that gave me renewed energy, though it still took a good hour to reach it. My arrival startled a slight old man who had been sleeping on a woollen blanket.
'Marhaba w'sahala,' he greeted: be welcome and feel at ease.
While Caucasian in features, the old man had very dark skin and a surprisingly sonorous voice. The racial legacy of the Moors has certainly produced some strange mixtures. As is customary in the Sahara, I was offered a bowl of zrig and a handful of dates. The man insisted that I stay until evening.
The hut - a one-room shelter typical of the Sahara - was constructed of plywood sheets and corrugated tin, but had no windows save for three shutters arranged like cat flaps near the ground. These were intended to allow cool breezes into the building whilst excluding the sand, in spite of which the inside of the hut was sandy anyway. The plywood gave the hut a pleasurable musty odour, and the glow of daylight filtering through the gaps in the roof and the shutters made it quite cosy, if a trifle hot. The hut was devoid of any furniture, save for a few rickety shelves that were nailed to three corners of the room. On these were arranged an assortment of tools, cooking utensils, car spares, and food. In the other corner stood three butane gas cylinders and a goatskin butter churn, over which, to my amazement, hung a red and white Manchester United F.C. scarf! As far as I could gather, it had been presented by someone on a 1974/75 British Joint Forces Expedition to the Sahara.
Because my host spoke only Hassiniyah, we resorted to sign language. Conversing in this way was surprisingly easy, even for explaining quite complicated matters, though the conversation tended to take the form of simple questions and answers. Naturally, my host wanted to know where I'd come from, but when I unfolded a map to help explain, he didn't even recognise the outline of his own country. So instead, I pointed north, and then, describing the arc of the sun to mean a day, I indicated 140 on my fingers and pointed to a drawing of a camel on my notepad (I reckoned one 'camel-day' to be approximately thirty miles). The old man was astonished - the furthest he'd ever been was ten 'camel-days', from the Adrar to Nouakchott in 1960 to witness the Independence Day celebrations.
For over ten years now, the man had made his living by supplying petrol, soap, food and other essentials to passing motorists. He also cannibalised any abandoned vehicles in the vicinity for spare parts, which were then sold to passers-by. The untethered donkeys that I had seen were used for this purpose, as were four camels that were presently being grazed by his son.
As we were conversing, there was a terrible scream outside the hut. I turned to see a small girl come tearing inside to hide trembling behind the old man. Then a little boy, also screaming, came running in, and then another. Finally, another round of shrieks and shouts were unleashed as a man of about thirty - presumably the old man's son - came in laughing through the door, holding in front of him a rake upon which was perched a two-foot long spitting dhab lizard.
'Grrrr!' he taunted, to another salvo of screams.
The lizard, needless to say, was not overly impressed with all this, especially when it was accidentally dropped onto the floor, at which the young man himself screamed and ran out of the hut. Spitting some more, and with the children still screaming, the lizard scurried off to take refuge under a rug, by which time the old man and myself were in hysterics. It took almost a quarter of an hour for the son to pluck up enough courage to creep back into the room, tie a rope around the lizard's tail and drag it outside. The Moors, for all their fighting prowess, are scared stiff of lizards.
I left the old man, who was still giggling inanely, as the sun was setting. I had been forced to accept a good few litres of water, a dusty carton of milk and some biscuits, gifts for which, as usual, I was forbidden to pay. In the stark evening light, I could now see clearly the mountain pass - Aouînat et Mlis - that I had worried about missing: the first ascent into the Adrar itself (literally 'the Mountains'). The track, no longer as sandy as it had been, consisted once again of corrugations, made harsher than before due to a lack of cushioning sand. There were also more thorn bushes, the odd severed branch of which lay across the track. The sun set when I was half way up, and so I settled down among clumps of spiky grass. The half moon rose soon after dusk, gliding into the sky with the silent grace of an ocean liner coming into berth. The sand around me was lit with the eerie yellowish glow of waxlight, and a few delicate cloud sylphs in electric-blue swam above me, teasing. As I had progressed through the Sahara, I had come to appreciate that one of the desert's greatest attractions is the poetry of its night, its cool tranquillity, its silence that seems never to have been broken. As though I were mesmerised by a film, or entranced by a concert, I would sometimes stare for hours at the colours in this darkness, listening to its silence and losing myself in a wonderful feeling of well-being. From the tree of silence hangs its fruit, tranquillity, goes an Arab saying, and, often, I never felt more alive than when enveloped in this shroud of silence, this pensiveness, my thoughts and my dreams. It is dreams that make Man great, and not necessarily their fulfilment. Dreams give hope, for they give one something to live for.
The Arabs also say that day effaces the promise of the night. Morning, and I still hadn't managed to sleep properly. Worse still, I was struck by a most fearsome lethargy, which was to make the day's travel exceedingly difficult. Thanks to the old man in the hut, food was no longer a problem, although the biscuits had been reduced to powder by the corrugations.
As I was packing away the last of my things, I was startled to see a man walk up to me. 'Drink?' he motioned. Bemused, I followed him over the rocks to the right of the track, and down into a rocky depression that I had not previously noticed. At the bottom of a narrow gorge, only a couple of hundred yards from where I had been sleeping, was a well. Crowded around it were perhaps two hundred camels, complaining like cantankerous old colonels, as half a dozen nomads relayed themselves in the tiring task of filling a couple of clay troughs from two skin buckets. The nomads were too busy to talk, so I filled my bottles, thanked them, and returned to the bicycle.
At the top of the pass - a stony and windblown ridge, slightly convex in shape - stood a few stone walls. This was a seasonal n'zala for pastoral nomads. For a few weeks each year, while their flocks and herds graze the surrounding hillsides, a nomad family or clan pitch their friq here. The ground was strewn with oxidised stones, baked black by the sun and polished by the wind.
I walked the bike down into the next valley, a basin filled with sand that was studded here and there with a few flat-topped acacia. In the centre of the valley was another well, from which six nomads filled goatskin guerbas. The well was surmounted by a wooden pivotal arrangement that enables water to be drawn using animals. I arrived as a woman and her daughter, both veiled from head to toe in black, were walking three donkeys to a friq beside the next ridge of mountains. Each donkey carried six or seven bulging guerbas, painting trails of water on the sand. The track continued along a mixture of corrugations and sand drifts before winding up towards the next pass, Te-n-Zâk. Again, the heat was seething, and I was beginning to feel the worst of it. The climb up the pass took over two hours, including several rests to catch my breath, and by the time I reached the top I was exhausted.
Once over the pass, and fed-up with walking, I resolved to cycle the rest of the way to Atâr, irrespective of my stricken bike. This decision was stupid, but typical of my stubbornness, since the rocky descent made my back and wrists even more sore. Steering was hard with the puncture. Twice the bike veered unexpectedly, and twice I fell off. Twice the bike was jolted so violently that bottles were sent flying and I lost three litres of water as a result. Sweat poured off my face and I was beginning to feel dizzy and nauseous. The carton of milk was already rotten, and the heat was so severe as to have melted the insides of my plastic water bottles so that the liquid had turned a dirty brownish red and tasted sour.
Towards early afternoon, I rounded the peak of a small hill to be confronted with an expanse of vegetation and dwellings. But as I approached, it became apparent that this was not yet Atâr, since there were no more than a dozen stone-and-straw huts in all. This was the once-fortified oasis settlement of Ksar-Torchane. Straw-woven sandbreaks protected small plots of millet, and corn and grasses grew in the shade of several towering date palms that followed the underground course of the Séguélil wadi. The crops were protected from marauders and other scavengers with a vicious barricade of thorn brush and barbed-wire, as were the village's wells. But even in the relative verdancy of Ksar-Torchane, the recent droughts had left their mark. Patches of greyed and withered millet interspersed the healthier crops, and the only wells that were not barricaded with thorns or fences were bone dry. Yet, it was the inhabitants who, more that anything else, betrayed the lasting effects of drought. Their expressions combined amazement with condescension, and they refused point-blank either to give or to sell me any water, saying that Atâr was only 20km away.
This was unfortunate for me, since my remaining water was so hot and putrid as to be undrinkable. The heat and the corrugated track, my hunger and generally bedraggled physical shape, exacerbated my nausea and compounded my exhaustion. Although I knew that I was near Atâr, I felt as though this whole heap of human and bicycle would sink without trace into the voracious sand, and I swear that the next twenty kilometres felt at least like two hundred. My legs cramped up (which they had never done before) and the pain was searing. My eyes hurt. I felt sick. A cold sweat broke out on my face, and I realised that I was shaking uncontrollably. Then, I threw up. My head whirled. No longer able to be supported by my aching neck, it was slumped over the handlebars, straining my bloodshot eyes still further as I tried to see where I was cycling. As a result, I just stared at the ridges moving hypnotically beneath me, battling to keep my lacerated eyelids from drooping over my stinging eyes. I looked up, but my head was spinning, hallucinating. The striations of the track drifted up to become superimposed on the sky, which turned from grey-blue to purple, and then green. The shimmering white sand turned into a boiling mass of red liquid. I stared again at the hazy horizon, but it had vanished. My eyes closed, at last, even though I knew I was still cycling. Many were the times I deceived myself into believing that what were in fact old gnarled scarecrow trees were groups of waving people running towards me. Then, my shivering returned, and I had to stop cycling to prevent myself falling off or from being sick again. In this feverish state, I was both shocked and scared, especially after what should have been - in principle at least - an easy ride.
After what seemed like an age, I rounded another hill to be welcomed by the jumbled silhouetted skyline of Atâr. I had lost all sense of time.
* * *
I stopped beside a small grey hut on the right hand side of the road, and gazed, mouth agape, at a lush field of green millet. Over it, jets of water scattered their precious life. The millet stalks stooped gently in the breeze, and between them, I caught glimpses of dark-skinned girls wandering about hand in hand, their skins glistening across the rainbows. On impulse, I left my bike and dashed off to join them under the gushing water, and for several minutes I stood there, motionless, feeling cold wet fingers caress my sunburnt face and outstretched arms.
I turned round to see two girls in their late teens, smiling coyly.
'Alaikum Salaam.' I was too drained to smile back. All that I felt able to do was stare, hoping that the girls would understand how I felt. The last two days had virtually petrified the flesh on my face, and for the first time I felt that I could understand and relate to the hard-faced, minimalist expressions of the nomads, expressions that relegated all but the strongest and barest feelings to the back of the mind. Without a word, one of the girls disappeared into the nearby house, and reappeared a moment later carrying a ceramic bowl filled with fresh zrig. I mustered a half-smile and thanked them, before lifting the bowl with trembling hands to my chapped lips. I closed my eyes to take a sip, letting the cool liquid trickle slowly across the base of my sand-papered mouth, soothing and embracing it, before easing itself down my throat. Then another sip, and another, until I was pouring down the rest almost laughing.
Both sisters - Aïsha and Aïssata Mint Allaf - were slender, and cut tall and graceful figures. In my state of mind, they were, at that moment, the most beautiful things in the world. Aïssata was the eldest, and wore a colourful robe of gold, earthy brown, and olive green, splashed with red. Her sister, who was rather shy, wore a similar robe, but in shades of saffron and cobalt blue. She soon disappeared into the house, leaving me alone with Aïssata. I didn't and couldn't really say very much, so instead I stared hypnotised - or rather, exhausted - at her. Around her neck, she wore a cross-like pendant that reflected shards of sunlight. Large urn-like beads were threaded into her hair, around which she had wound a loose, black cotton shawl. Her earrings consisted of several golden pendants threaded together, their motifs being a fusion of a ring and a triangle, a fertility symbol that is found even in Asia. Still she smiled, and motioned for me to follow her indoors.
A few nervous questions established the fact that the sisters were originally from Oualata, a town in southeastern Mauritania that lies on the ancient salt road from Idjil to ancient Ghana. The town is apparently renowned for the beauty of its women. Exactly what this means, though, is difficult to say, for both the Tuareg and the Moors - especially the Brakna of the centre and south of the country - have a penchant for fat women. Plumpness, or preferably gross obesity, is considered by many to be a sign of great wealth and fertility.
'The largest and fattest are the most admired. To be a real beauty with them, a woman must have such a degree of obesity as will render her unable to walk without two assistants', noted René Caillié of the Tuareg. Of the Moors, he mentioned that their conception of beauty: 'consists in enormous embonpoint; and the young girls are therefore obliged to drink milk to excess... At twelve years old they are enormous'. It said that some women are so fat that they become bedridden, a (desirable?) effect similar to that produced by the old Chinese tradition of foot-binding. All of which, I suppose, means that Aïsha and Aïssata were probably considered to be monstrously ugly. I also learnt that being Muslim didn't prevent Aïssata from asking, quite unabashedly, whether I would marry her or her sister! I tried to explain that I was only nineteen years old and that marriage might be just a little premature, but judging by their giggles and awe-struck expressions, I suspect they understood that I was betrothed to nineteen already!
* * *
The town of Atâr lies on the western cusp of the Adrar massif, of which it is the regional capital as well as its largest settlement (it has a population of around 20,000). The Adrar, together with the adjoining Tagant Mountains, is the historic heartland of Mauritania, and effectively shelters Atâr from both the trade wind and the Harmattan, and therefore from most of the sand. Until the droughts of recent years, the Adrar received an average of about seven inches of rain a year, and every autumn the Séguélil wadi on whose banks Atâr rises, would flood to fertilise the soil. The Adrar is one of the Sahara's six major microcosms, and is without doubt Mauritania's most important agricultural region, producing dates, millet, sorghum, barley, watermelons, tobacco and vegetables, albeit in quantities nowhere near large enough to make any impression on Mauritania's massive import requirements.
Despite being surrounded by hills, Atâr is a flat and broad town. The only things, beside the mosques, to breach the skyline are the occasional acacia or date palm that peek out from between the buildings, and the telegraph poles, devoid of wires, that stand to pointless soldierly attention. The roads - wide and sandy thoroughfares - are flanked with terraces of one or two storey houses whose uncluttered decor, red clay plaster, and false battlements evoke some of Marrakesh's architectural simplicity (that city, after all, was built by the Almoravids). Most of the dwellings are made of clay-clad stone, and are strung together in rows of up to a dozen houses, all doors and no windows. The doors and shutters are often brightly painted in red, green, yellow and blue, and add a touch of gaiety to the otherwise featureless town.
Two white-skinned Moors in flapping white boubous stand hand-in-hand in the main square, staring saucer-eyed at the arrival of this very odd-looking European and his even stranger wheel-machine. I wave and they wave back. There are people everywhere, in dozens of small groups and clusters, standing, sitting, arguing, laughing, chatting, and all, it seems, converging on me. Old men in floppy indigo or black turbans sit in front of their shops fiddling with white prayer beads while waiting for business or the next call of the muezzin, whichever comes first. In the distance a man stares. A blue veil is draped across his face so that only his eyes are visible. Similarly veiled women walk around in pairs, with huge bales of straw balanced on their heads, or else baskets filled with branches for turning into charcoal. It still amazes me to see how they can perch anything from a small urn to a billy goat on their heads, and still be able to walk, turn, twist, bend, run and defy the laws of gravity in such a graceful manner!
Two young black girls in white frilly dresses, also holding hands, run barefoot across the sand to avoid a dusty Peugeot station waggon that careers blindly towards them. The older girl has a funny little cherub's face, and screams. Her skin shines in the sunlight and she has a long flowing mane of thinly braided hair. The little girl is snot-faced and has her free hand stuck in her mouth. Her hair is shorter and frizzy, and she seems scared on seeing me. In one corner of the square there is a clump of gnarled palm trees, providing dubious shelter for an old battered Land Rover and a truck with no wheels. If it wasn't for the motor vehicles and the constant throbbing of a distant generator reverberating throughout the town, one could quite easily believe oneself to be in another century.
I soon enlisted the help of a few nosy villagers to try and locate a bicycle pump, though with mine being the only bicycle in town and with today, May 25, being African Liberation Day (ie. a holiday), I despaired somewhat at my chances of success. For the next few hours I wandered through Atâr with my youthful guides. It seemed as though everyone we talked to knew somebody else with a bicycle pump, but when we found that somebody else, they would invariably direct us to yet another person. Dozens of houses and almost every shop on the way were visited, including those in the smith's quarter, where finely incised silver jewellery, copperware and saddle fittings are made. More than once I managed to get ejected from a shop by its owner who was annoyed at the thirty or forty children who were trying to squeeze in.
Then, miracle of miracles, someone appeared with a Chinese 'Squirrel Brand' bicycle pump. It cost me a small fortune, but who was I to argue? The next item on the agenda was food, meaning bread and peanuts - for they were the only cheap provisions not requiring cooking that could last several days in the desert. Again, the same problems with the shopkeepers and my over-enthusiastic entourage, the size of which was growing by the minute. Constant chattering. Faces: suspicious, grinning, joking, finger-biting, apprehensive, inquisitive, happy and sad, confused, bold... Grown men stood around on the peripheries, chewing profoundly on sticks whilst contemplating the spectacle. Like in Choum, children touched or just stared at my smashed bicycle, pointing out helpfully that one of the tyres was flat. Others stared in bemusement at the crusty remains of what were in fact still my cycling gloves tied around the brake-levers. One group of old men shooed us away like flies because we were disturbing their peaceful afternoon's rumination. I sympathised, having the same problem myself, for I was again beginning to feel my tiredness, and my patience with the crowd was wearing thin. All I wanted was to be left alone in peace, yet I felt like a zoo animal cooped up in a cage with a thousand fingers pointing and five hundred faces leering. Whenever I stopped, the crowd closed in and began pushing and shoving to get a better view. I could hardly breathe, let alone move, and the sun glared. There were just so many people, too many people, especially after the stillness and desolation of the desert, hateful and exhausting though it had been. Everyone touching, squeezing, groping. Three hours I had brought one bicycle pump, six small baguettes and severely frayed nerves. I still needed to find water and peanuts, to get some rest, to eat and to repair the bike. In peace. But there was none to be had, not even the faintest glimmer.
The crowd had ballooned to over a hundred people - if anything, an understatement - and not just children. I wanted to escape. I wanted to be able to fill my aching lungs with fresh air, but instead I breathed in a stuffy mixture of dust and the smell of the crowd. I felt suffocated. Claustrophobic. Trapped, like in the web of some giant spider, invisible. The heat seemed to increase interminably. I felt dizzy again and my head started spinning. I began trembling once more, shaking. I turned round to see yet more stares and laughs and fingers pointed, and in the distance even more people were being attracted towards the spectacle. I turned again. Yet more stares and laughs and hands pointing.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a shiny Land Cruiser that had just appeared at the far edge of the square. To my surprise, I saw that I was being filmed by a European who was perched atop it. I took my chance. With the intention of momentarily distracting the crowd with the new arrival, I walked up to the vehicle. The man was still filming as I greeted him.
'Err, bonjour,' replied the Frenchman. 'Are you the madman with the bicycle?' he asked. He'd evidently heard about the nutter in Choum.
'You look remarkably well,' he lied (I know this because I later saw my reflection in a mirror). 'How do you feel?' he asked, still talking from behind the camera.
'Yeh, punctures. And you?' He shrugged. The crowd was even larger, and a background patter to our conversation had started: 'M'sieur, gimmoi un balong.'
'Viens, viens m'sieur...'
'Do you always talk from behind your camera?' I asked as I pulled a grotesque face at it. This seemed to prompt an old lady - wonderfully cross-eyed, toothless, and grinning - to examine the camera.
'Ah, la télévision?' she asked, still grinning. I told her that it was Moroccan TV. 'Ah,' she said thoughtfully as a grubby finger reached out to touch the lens as she read out the 'C.C.D.' logo, much to the annoyance of the Frenchman but to the delight of the crowd.
The Frenchman invited me back to the Hôtel de Marie so that I could wash and have a rest, and he kindly ended up paying for me to stay the night. He, along with another nineteen people, had each paid over twenty thousand francs, plus petrol and expenses, to spend two weeks driving from Paris to Dakar in a convoy of ten 4WD Toyotas. The convoy had arrived in Atâr last night, and had presumably passed me lying asleep and unnoticed at the foot of the Aouînât pass. It seems as though they had been delegated in Choum with the unofficial task of assuring that the madman was alright - a veritable motorcade of baby-sitters!
So far, they had covered 4,000 kilometres in eleven days, whereas it had taken me almost three months to cover the same distance. Most galling for me was not that they had done all this in luxury (I felt perversely superior to them in having done in the 'proper' way), but that they had somehow managed to wangle permission from the Algerians to travel via the usually closed northern section of the 'Mauritanian Way' accompanied by Polisario guides. Being the 15th anniversary of the Front's formation, the French had been made guests of honour at the celebrations held in Tindouf. By all accounts, the organisation of the event had been impressive, and had even included a brief sortie into Moroccan occupied territory, where a few symbolic mortar salvos and bursts of machine gun fire were offered in the name of Allah.
The hotel (its very existence surprised me no end) was situated on the western outskirts of town. A modern concrete structure, it made every pretence to appear both affluent and traditional, but failed on both counts. It is said to have been a fort for the French Atâr Camel Corps, though this seemed most unlikely given both its size and its garishly painted false brickwork. Its windows were secured with grills of butterfly motifs, and a tall unfriendly wall shut off the hotel and its grounds from the inquisitive eyes of Africa outside. A couple of other Land Cruisers were parked in the yard beside a clump of pitiful shrubs - the rest of the French party had gone on a two-day trip to Chinguetti. Inside, the lobby was bare but for five chairs, a wobbly table and a bar. The latter housed very expensive French mineral water, a few bottles of Orangina, and the exceedingly grumpy maître d'hôtel. He was middle-aged, short, and balding, and had been nicknamed 'Monsieur Non' by the French on account of his inability to say anything but 'no'. The most amazing thing about him was his fantastical plan to build a swimming pool beside the hotel!
* * *
Because of its plentiful water supply, and comparatively agreeable climate, the Adrar has been populated since prehistoric times. In parts, the desert floor is strewn with stone age tools and spearheads, and there are several mysterious stone circles (similar to ones in Senegal and other parts of West Africa), together with hundreds of examples of prehistoric cave art. The most enigmatic of these are a few equine engravings belonging to the so-called 'chariot period'. Horses, I was surprised to learn, had thrived for centuries in the Sahara, having first appeared around 1200 BC (a thousand years before the advent of the camel). Though no longer to be found in the desert, that they had once lived in the Sahara was a sign of the great climatic changes that have occurred over the intervening centuries. Chinguetti (Shinqit), the name of the celebrated fourteenth-century oasis town 120km to the east of Atâr, means 'the horse's springs'. It is by far Mauritania's largest oasis, and perhaps for this reason is often said to be the seventh holiest city of Islam. The oasis lies on a now almost defunct caravan route from Atâr across El-Djouf to the salt mines of Taoudenni. It is a route that once provided the only direct means of communication between the Moors and their Tuareg cousins, and in its heyday, Chinguetti was considered so important that all of Mauritania was known as the Turab Shinqit, the Land of Chinguetti.
The most puzzling aspect of the horse-engravings is the depiction of chariots, which has led to speculation that there may once have been a couple of trade roads reaching across the great desert, perhaps several millennia before the arrival of the Arabs and the subsequent establishment of the camel caravan trails. Herodotus, writing two and a half thousand years ago, spoke of mysterious Garamantian nomads who: 'have four-horse chariots, in which they chase the Troglodyte Ethiopians, who of all the nations... are by far the swiftest of foot.' At the time of Christ, Strabo - another great geographer - mentioned that chariots were ridden by the equally mysterious 'People of the Sea', presumably Berbers from the Mediterranean.
These early trading routes, in addition to the spiritual purity of the desert, were crucial to the success of the Almoravids, which were founded in the cradle of the Adrar early in the eleventh century. Within the space of twenty years, they had succeeded in expanding from an initial band of around 500 puritanical ascetics, to ruling over an empire that stretched from West Africa to Spain, and from the Atlantic to parts of what is now Tunisia. Their first sultan was Yusuf ibn Tashufin, born in the Adrar and leader of the powerful Lemtuni tribe (hence the ancient name for the 'Mauritanian Way', Tariq [Way of] el-Lemtuni). Rekindler of the flame of Iberian Islam, and vanquisher of El Cid, ibn Tashufin had in the years before the Almoravid jihad resided in a small ribat (fortified monastery) ten miles from Atâr. The Almoravids, it is certain, could never have achieved their success had it not been for the then already extensive trading routes that radiated out from the Adrar. The foundations of Atâr itself (the name means 'the road') were laid at about the same time as the forging of the Tariq el-Lemtuni, and the subsequent establishment of other roads either passing through or starting from Atâr secured both its and Chinguetti's future as important trading towns. By the time the Portuguese led an expedition to the region in the fifteenth century (to procure gum arabic for the use of drapers), Atâr was evidently a centre of some renown. It appears that the town continued to flourish, to such an extent that in the late-seventeenth century an English bounty hunter named Cornelius Hodges opined that Atâr was 'very neare as bigg as ye Citty of London'.
Atâr and the Adrar remained important enough for the French to fight a long and bloody campaign at the turn of this century in order to secure its trade. Resistance to the French penetration and their policy of 'civilising the savages' was so fierce that total 'pacification' of the ungrateful and anarchical Adrar tribes was only achieved in the 1930s, three decades after the first French incursions and only two before independence was gained. (11) As a result, very little remains to remind one of the French occupation, with the exception of a handful of military advisers and doctors, and the spectacle of a group of old men who daily played a version of petanque in the sandy hotel courtyard.
* * *
The morning air reverberated to the dull but reassuring rhythm of a distant tam-tam, once used to relay messages but now only played for tradition's sake. The sky had clouded over during the night, and hung grey and heavy, hot and sticky. Breakfast was a joke: a cup of coffee, a slice of bread, and a blob of apricot jam. By now, my metabolism had speeded up to such an extent that I was easily devouring over four pounds of bread and a pound of peanuts a day, as well as anything else at hand, and so I sought to supplement breakfast by unearthing the baguettes I'd bought yesterday. To my dismay, I found that they had also become infested with ants. I would have to wait until late afternoon to buy some more, but, as I didn't want to waste a day (my visa had only six days to run, though in fact this wasn't to be a problem), the ant-bread would have suffice. In any case, Adem, whose room I had shared (and who had refrained from the Chinguetti excursion on account of his driving partner being a lunatic), had kindly offered to bring some extra provisions with him when the expedition left the next day, in the hope that we would meet somewhere along the road.
I spent the rest of the morning cleaning the bike and patching up my inner tubes, one of which had mysteriously gone down overnight. The spectacle of a white man sat on the ground repairing a bicycle proved to be a source of endless entertainment for the local children, who sat with me, cross-legged, in the hotel courtyard. Whenever I rose to move the bike or to pick up a tool or take a drink, I would find a dozen pairs of hands already there to help me.
As I was securing the panniers for the journey ahead, someone grasped my arm from behind.
'Ah, so it is you ze mad Engleeshman wiz ze bicycle!'
'Let me see...' My arm tightened in a squeeze.
'What? No bites of scorpion! 'ow about snakes, 'ave you been attacked yet? No? Ah, you are too lucky. 'ow do you do it, levitate?'
It was Giles, Adem's driving partner, on his return from Chinguetti. His bloodshot eyes had almost dropped out of their sockets, and he spoke with a heavy Marseillais drawl, interspersing every other word with dopey sounding expressions like beh, urr, oue and err. He had left the rest of the convoy near Chinguetti and had instead taken a 'short cut' back to Atâr across the mountains. He was stoned out of his tree.
I sympathised with Adem, though I could also easily see the attraction of driving stoned across unmarked desert tracks at a hundred miles an hour.