Life in Tamanrasset
Algerians called it the extreme south, with the same feeling that we put into our "Far West." It is the land of more so: drier, fiercer, and wilder, a desert of parched basins and volcanic mountains, of buttes, cinder cones, and confused black rock. You can walk for hours absorbed by the drama of desolation and distance. The view is mesmerizing, like a night sky. The peaks give it depth; the nomads give it scale. It is the central Sahara, a long way to everywhere. Then you turn around and find Tamanrasset.
There are no date groves in Tamanrasset, and few trees. Perched nearly a mile high in the Hoggar Mountains, it is the boomtown of the Sahara. Northerners criticize it as an austere place, where Islam is practiced strictly, alcohol is forbidden, and Arab women, even veiled, rarely venture onto the streets. There is no telephone connection, no good road, and no decent postal service -- only a downlink for national television. Groundwater is so limited that new households are not allowed to hook up to the municipal system and old households are severely rationed. People live on deliveries from private water trucks that scavenge supplies from distant wells. Despite plans to pipe in water hundreds of miles from the south, no one expects the situation to improve. The town is growing too fast. Over the past decade its population has swollen to 45,000, mostly with northerners seeking their fortune on the frontier.
The reason is trade. Tamanrasset sits at the geographic heart of the desert. Linked to the north by 1,200 mostly paved miles of the Trans-Saharan Highway, it dominates a network of dirt tracks stretching into Mali, Niger, and Libya. The trading works by barter: Algerian food is transported from the north and exchanged for new and used consumer goods that come in from the uncontrolled economies to the south. It is a difficult business, and much of it is illegal. There are worries about border police and soldiers, breakdowns, banditry, and death by thirst. Nonetheless, plenty of people are willing to take the risk. In the Extreme South everything that moves comes through Tamanrasset.
The oldest building in town is a small adobe fort with crenellated walls which looks like a set piece out of a Foreign Legion movie. It was built by Charles de Foucauld, a French religious hermit who came here in 1905 to live among the fearsome Tuareg. At the time, Tamanrasset was an encampment of twenty straw huts. Foucauld, intending to found a monastery, chose it because of its isolation and poverty. He was a bit of a nut, and drew no followers. During the First World War various Saharan tribes revolted against the French, a faint echo of the European struggle. Foucauld took sides and began sending reports to the French colonial army. On the night of December 1, 1916, the rebels lured him out of his stronghold, bound him hand and foot, and shot him in the head.
After the war the French built a larger fort across the way, and Foucauld joined the French pantheon as a Catholic martyr in the cause of colonialism. The Foucauld myth still accounts for much of the tourism in Tamanrasset. This frustrates Algerians, who want the business but have an active memory.
Today the two forts are at the center of town and the main street passes between them. The street is crooked, shaded, and lined with adobe buildings stained ocher and set against a clear sky. Every evening, when the mountain air turns cool, people meet there to stroll and to talk in the sidewalk cafes. Arab and Berber businessmen make deals over sweet tea, pulling thick wads of cash from under their gowns. Black women in colorful print dresses balance baskets on their heads. Veiled Tuareg men ride by on camels. Barefaced Tuareg women lead their lovely daughters down the sidewalks. Uniformed soldiers stroll in twos and threes.
The style of the street is not completely spontaneous. Some time ago a German architect was brought in on a five-year contract to spruce up the place. Citizens now criticize his work. Particularly galling to them is a garish administration building in mock-Saharan style, and a public square with cement columns that cast no shade. The centerpiece of the square, in this town without water, is a fountain. It has never been turned on, and is slowly filling with garbage. To protect Tamanrasset from such mistakes in the future, an architectural advisory committee has been formed. Its guiding light is a young man named Salah Addoun. Tall and energetic, he has close-cropped black hair, dark Berber skin, and a ready smile. At thirty-four, Addoun is one of the most admired men of Tamanrasset.
He was raised in the desert, not far from Adrar. After six years of university studies in structural engineering and architecture, he moved to Tamanrasset. Now, while waiting for the licenses that will allow him to open the town's first private architectural studio, he works for his uncle's construction firm. His office is a concrete cubicle off an equipment yard -- a noisy, dusty, crumbling room lit by a single bulb that hangs from the ceiling. Addoun disdains luxury. He draws carefully on an inclined school desk, and is interrupted by questions from the yard crew. He builds houses for the middle class, shops for shopkeepers, and housing projects for the government. His designs are spacious, cool, and well adapted to the Saharan culture. There are separate quarters for men and women; he believes that the sexes must not be forced to mix. Addoun is a strict traditionalist.
He is also a fundamentalist Muslim, and has recently become more devout. Alienated by the corruption and incompetence of the political system, he has turned to the Koran for solutions. In fact, he believes that the Koran contains solutions to all the world's problems. Addoun is an intelligent and well-educated man. His absolute faith is hard for a Westerner to understand.
One day, while brewing tea in the mountains, we talked about fate. He said, "Two weeks ago my neighbor Boucenna went off with a driver down the Trans-Saharan toward In-Guezzam. Halfway there they broke down -- it was the carburetor. The driver hitched a ride in a passing truck to fetch a part, and he left Boucenna to guard the car. After a few hours Boucenna decided to leave after all, and he set off on foot. He made it twenty kilometers before he died."
"He must have panicked," I said.
Addoun shook his head. "Boucenna was not a coward. And he was not stupid. But for every man there are two times that are inescapable -- the time of birth and the time of death. These are not places but times. Boucenna walked because his time had come."
I said, "You mean death is everyone's destination."
"I mean there is a time, and it is predetermined."
We left it at that, unsatisfied. Even between friends some gaps are unbridgeable.
In this confrontation between civilizations the Saharans have an advantage: they know the West better than the West knows them. One window is France, the historical colonial master and current destination for emigrant workers. The other window is television, and it looks directly onto the United States. In Tamanrasset there are shows about cowboys, gangsters, suburbanites, teenagers. At a glance people can distinguish Los Angeles from New York, Texas from Florida. By observing us from the outside, they learn more than we might suspect.
Addoun and I spent an evening watching television in an open courtyard. A movie was showing, dubbed in French. A beautiful actress lay on the beach. I asked Addoun what he thought: was she a whore to exhibit herself?
He laughed at me. "Why, because of the bathing suit?"
"Your Islam will ban them."
"For our women, not for yours."
"What is the difference?"
"The difference, my dear friend, is purely cultural."
Later, perhaps to change the subject, he said, "You can tell an American movie by the cars. "
I pointed to the screen. "That's a Volkswagen."
"It's how they shot the cars -- they advertise them. You wait, there'll be a car chase. "
He said, "In French movies they advertise food. There's always a scene where they're eating dinner "
He thought for a while. "In Arab movies they show weddings."
Addoun has not yet married. He wants to start his business first, and build a proper house. His girlfriend lives elsewhere; she writes him regularly. He will not tell me her name. When he does take a wife, his friends may never meet her.
BY Western standards women in the Sahara do not have easy lives. Once, in a northern oasis, I met a modern-looking man in a business suit who ran a movie theater that women were forbidden to enter. His name was Amar Hamim. That week he was showing a cheap Hollywood movie. I forget the title and plot but remember some bare breasts and love scenes, a theater full of men, and an atmosphere thick with sexual tension.
This was in an oasis where the women who ventured onto the streets wrapped themselves in white shrouds and allowed only a single eye to show. Hamim and I were walking together when we passed one of them. At first she seemed like just another shrouded figure -- as anonymous and uninteresting as she was meant to be. But then we exchanged glances, she and I, and I discovered an eye of the most exquisite beauty -- oval, almond colored, lightly made up, with long lashes. The eye was warm, lively, and inviting. I didn't need to see more.
I nudged Hamim and asked if he had noticed. He smiled and said, "But she's married -- that's why she veils herself. "
"And your wife, does she wear a veil?"
"Of course!" He was shocked that I had asked.
Later I pointed to an unveiled woman in a tailored suit. "Who is she?"
"You know her?"
He shook his head.
"Maybe she works in an office." Women do, in the more liberal oases.
"She's a whore." He was emphatic.
It is difficult to understand how any woman could share this view, but many seem to. The Islamic revival, which advocates strict separation of the sexes, draws enthusiastic support from masses of young and educated women. Even in the cities they have returned voluntarily to the veil. They cloister themselves, and encourage their husbands and brothers to join the movement. They believe that Islam represents the true emancipation of women, here on earth as well as in heaven. They argue that it is the West that enslaves, with its moral decay and sexual exploitation. No one knows if this is revolutionary zeal or a sustainable attitude. There are other women who oppose the fundamentalists -- but quietly. They are trapped for now. Some Western observers believe that they will triumph in the end. They argue that sexual apartheid will prove to be the weak link in Islamic government.
ADDOUN and I went to lunch at the house of Moulay Lakhdar Abderhadim, one of the most successful businessmen of Tamanrasset. He lived in a wealthy district, out beyond the camel market. To the unaccustomed eye it was a dismal area. Chickens and goats picked through garbage in the rutted dirt streets. There were long, monotonous compound walls, crumbling and neglected, stained brown with mud and blowing dust. Only the vehicles hinted at money: black Peugeots, Range Rovers, and Land Cruisers, worth two to three times their price in the United States.
We knocked at a metal gate. After a delay, while the women scurried out of sight, we were let in by an old black man in a robe and turban. Addoun greeted him warmly and introduced him as a friend of the family, though clearly he was a servant. We entered a lush garden of fruit trees and flowering bushes. The house was sprawling, single-story, made of stone and adobe. Addoun knew his way, and led me into the sitting room, where Abderhadim reclined on a mattress watching a soccer game on television. Abderhadim is plump and soft, and has thinning hair. He wore a blue running suit zippered up tight around his throat. A blanket was draped over his legs; Abderhadim suffers from rheumatism, and it had flared up in his knees. Addoun and I sat on cushions on the floor. The doorway gave onto a courtyard, brilliant with desert light. Other men arrived. The servant came with a bowl of couscous, and sat with us.
Abderhadim said he was a trader in food, car parts, and other goods, as the opportunities arose. I asked him to explain. He said he was an importer by default. "Niger is very poor. But you can find everything there." I asked if it was difficult doing business across such distances, with no roads, no telephones, and nonconvertible currencies. He smiled and said, "We are all Muslims."
Another man, dressed in a white robe and turban, told a story to illustrate the social contract in the Sahara: His uncle was a trader in Tamanrasset who for years ran camel caravans to Niger and Mali, carrying dates and salt to the south, and returning with chickens. His name was Salem Ben Hadj Ahmed. In 1953, on the way to Agadez, Niger, he and his men came across the encampment of a nomadic family. The father and older sons had gone off hunting, leaving the mother and her youngese children. The woman made the caravaners welcome, gave them water, and prepared to slaughter a sheep in their honor. But Ahmed stopped her, since his men had killed a gazelle and had fresh meat. They ate the gazelle, and in the morning moved on. It was Ahmed's last trip; he was getting to be an old man. Afterward he stayed in Tamanrasset and sent out trucks to do his business. He died in 1968. News of his death spread by word of mouth through the desert. One day a letter arrived for his son. It was from Niger, and it said that his father had forty-five sheep there; he should come and get them. The son had never heard of these animals. He checked the will and found no mention of them. However, he set out for Niger and eventually found the nomad whose wife had offered the sheep so many years before. The sheep was Ahmed's, the nomad said, and so were her offspring.
The nature of the trade has changed little since then. The destinations are the same, as is much of the cargo. If anything, Islamic values have grown stronger. Over tea Abderhadim got down to details. Some of the commerce is legal. Dates from the northern oases are exported; camels, goats, and chickens are imported. The exports exceed the imports, and so over the course of a year the merchants of Tamanrasset build credit in the neighboring countries. Then, most springs, a fair is held in the town during which the government relaxes import restrictions. Consumer goods, mostly Japanese, flood across the borders. The fair is an exception to the regulated Algerian economy -- a sanctioned experiment in free trade. In Tamanrasset the balance sheets are returned to zero, and the goods are sold to buyers from the north.
But the real profits are in smuggling. Abderhadim admitted it reluctantly, and only because others were in the room. After pointing out that he himself never broke the law, he explained how it is done. The driver who carries a load of declared Malian goats into Algeria might on the next trip south head out with an outlawed cargo of Algerian wheat bought at subsidized prices. The truck that hauls Algerian dates down the Trans-Saharan to Niger might return by a less public route with a load of precious car parts.
"Electronics are the best," one of the guests said. "They are small and light and easy to hide, and they don't spoil in the heat."
And you can mark them up 1,000 percent.
The government has fought back with expanded patrols and stiff prison terms. It has declared a nationwide war on contraband, and is filling the jails with small-time bunglers. People in Tamanrasset are not concerned. The Sahara is a big place, and practically unpoliceable.
Before leaving, I mentioned the fundamentalists. They claim to be economic liberals. What if they take power? Might they not do away with the import restrictions? And wouldn't this undercut business? Abderhadim urged me not to worry. His logic went like this:
A free-market economy, though of course desirable, is only a remote possibility.
The Islamic fundamentalists are moralistic, which is of course also desirable. They might find new reasons to ban consumer goods.
Thanks be to Allah, business prospects in Tamanrasset remain excellent.
IN the town's poorest neighborhoods the houses are small and dilapidated but still private. Travelweary Land Rovers list through the streets. An old man ushers a donkey and cart out of a passageway. Veiled women duck out of sight when a stranger approaches.
Despite the obvious poverty, there is no sense of overcrowding or misery. The children playing in the dirt seem bright, well-nourished, happy. There is no denying the successes of Algerian socialism: literacy among the young is almost universal; medical care is free; in a country where under the French people sometimes ate locusts to stay alive, no one goes hungry. As the socialist system disintegrates, it is being replaced by other forms of welfare, including the extended family, money sent home from Europe, and the Islamic requirement to give to the poor. Money as well as power is being concentrated in the hands of the imams.
Misery in Tamanrasset is reserved for the desert outskirts, where refugees from Mali and Niger suffer hunger and disease. Most are illegal immigrants. They live in shacks and donated Red Cross tents. The smallest children go naked, and the older ones dress in rags. Flies infest their eyes. There are no medical clinics, no schools, and only a few wells. The men look for day work, the women take in laundry, and the young boys go downtown to beg and to hawk cigarettes. They cause trouble and commit crimes, for which they are resented. The parallels to Algerians in France are ironic and unavoidable.
The neglect is intentional. Two years ago the chief of police told me, "The drought is over. It's time they left." Since then many of the refugees have been deported, but the next drought has hit, and others have replaced them. It is a sign of the desperation farther south that people keep coming.
ADDOUN does not like the French. They imprisoned his father during the war of independence, and killed perhaps a million others. The memories are fresh. And there are more recent reasons. As an army officer, Addoun went to visit friends in Paris and Marseilles. I have seen pictures of him on the trip, standing erect in jacket and tie, looking like a movie version of a sophisticated Arab. He describes staying on Isle St. Louis in an elegant townhouse with linen napkins, fawning servants, and an immaculate bathroom. The luxury offended his spartan tastes. He fled south on the train, and suffered the hostility of his fellow passengers. On the Cote d'Azur he was thrown out of a cafe for being Algerian. Now in Tamanrasset he endures the French tourists.
Other tourists include Germans, Swiss, Italians, and sometimes Japanese. There are not as many now as before; the political troubles keep them away. But you see them wandering the streets in cautious groups. Most come in by plane and stay a few days on a package tour. They buy gifts, ride camels through the outlying hills, and are taken in fourwheel-drive caravans into the Hoggar Mountains, where they visit the Christian hermitage founded by Charles de Foucauld in 1910. The hermitage, staffed by monks, consists of five stone huts atop the 8,950-foot Assekrem Plateau, a windswept high point sixty miles from Tamanrasset. The view is desolate and unending. For a few dollars you can spend the night in a stone dormitory.
A different breed altogether are the Europeans who come to Tamanrasset on the Trans-Saharan. For them the town is just a way station on the long trip across the desert. The ones remembered are the lone eccentrics, the walkers, wanderers, bicycle riders, and lost souls. One man came through pushing a wheelbarrow. He was Swiss, and he pushed his wheelbarrow through much of Africa.
Most of the motorists -- the ones you see daily on the main street -- are more conventional. They travel in groups of four-wheel-drive trucks, usually to Dakar or Abidjan or some other famous place with a beach. The trucks are equipped with colorful decals, with placards proclaiming EXPEDITION, and with gas cans, tires, shovels, and steel tracks for the sand. The drivers are dashing and self-conscious, mostly Germans and French playing the explorer. They wear bandannas around their necks and swagger through the hotel, smelling of sweat and dust, talking loud. Addoun calls them "chichi." They seem to have seen too many cigarette ads.
Then there are those who pass through in two-wheeldrive luxury sedans, especially Mercedes. The cars are to be sold in Niger, or Nigeria, or points beyond. A Mercedes Benz is the ultimate earthly good in Africa, and the class of traders, politicians, and smugglers that floats on top has earned a new name -- the Wabenzi. Many of these cars on the Trans-Saharan are said to be stolen, provided with papers to satisfy the Algerian police. They are driven by experienced drivers. I talked to one Frenchman who had made the trip fifteen times before. He was barrel-chested and balding, with a drooping moustache and muscular arms -- a tough guy right off the docks of Marseilles. I asked if he worried about losing his way. No, never, he said. He did this for a living. I didn't ask what he had done before. He took me to see the BMW he was ferrying south. Under the dust and mud it was gleaming black and very new. It had a digital radio and a burglar alarm. I asked him if he ever had trouble. No, never.
There are others for whom driving a car, stolen or not, is a one-time adventure. Most are young, middle-class, and studiously carefree. They are thin, bearded Germans and tangle-haired Frenchwomen. In Africa they have rejected the constraints of European society. They wear Ali Baba pants and sandals, and have the kind of self-congratulatory conversations you hear between cruising yachtsmen in warm waters. These are the people who get lost. It happens most often after they leave Tamanrasset, somewhere on the way to the border of Niger or in the hundreds of miles of wilderness that lie beyond. It is fierce country. Every month it gives up the bodies of the naive and the reckless.
Recently four young Germans -- three men and a woman -- left Tamanrasset in a Mercedes. They drove south to within sixty miles of Niger and then turned east, probably to avoid the border police. They got lost. They wandered 400 miles to the Libyan border, turned around, wandered back, and ran out of gas. Their families came to Tamanrasset to search for them. They distributed copies of a poster with photographs. Absurdly, the poster was written in German. In bold print it read, LOST IN WEST AFRICA! Weeks later the Mercedes and three male corpses were found. The woman was presumed buried by blowing sand.
I saw the poster tacked to a wall at La Source, a hostel built around a spring of bubbling mineral water three miles outside town. I was there for tea with Addoun and his friends. The poster was in the entranceway, and the photographs had been slashed with a knife. When I remarked on this to my companions, they seemed unsympathetic.
"They're dead anyhow," one said, as if that explained the slashes.
"They brought it on themselves," said another.
Addoun was more expansive. "The families blamed us for not finding them alive -- but how could we have? Just look at the emptiness here."
Driving in the Sahara
THE dangers of driving in the Sahara are not limited to foreigners. Anyone can break down. Anyone can get lost. Salah Addoun has at various times said to me:
"When you break down, you have to be calm, because the desert is calm."
"When you get lost, you should sit. Wait. One hour, two hours, a full day. Sit. You will find your orientation."
"Tourists panic and drive aimlessly. They are afraid of the lion before the lion."
"As you believe in life, you must also believe in death."
In a northern oasis I met a retired truck driver, a lively old man named Lag Lag who had nearly perished in the desert in 1957. Lag Lag and an assistant were driving a diesel rig through trackless sand when they lost their way; after several days of wandering they ran out of fuel. They carried water, and so they were in no immediate danger. But the long-term prospects were not good. Walking out was impossible, and it was unlikely that anyone would come their way. The sun forced them into the shade under the truck, where they dug a shallow trench. Day after day they lay there, watching their water dwindle and waiting for Allah's will. They turned inward to Islam, and talked about death and afterlife. Though they had a small supply of food, they abstained from eating, fearing that it would magnify their thirst. Dehydration, not starvation, is what kills in the desert. And thirst is among the most terrible of all human sufferings.
The physiologists who specialize in thirst seem never to have experienced it. This surprises me. You would think that someone interested in thirst would want to stop drinking for a while. It is easy to arrange, and can be done safely. But the physiologists pursue knowledge, not experience. They use words based in Greek, which soften the subject. For instance, they would describe the Sahara -- the burning sand, the fierce, relentless sky -- as dipsogenic, meaning "thirst-provoking." In discussing Lag Lag's case, they might say he progressed from eudipsia, meaning "ordinary thirst," through bouts of hyperdipsia, meaning "temporary intense thirst," to polydipsia, by which they mean "sustained, excessive thirst." We can define it more precisely: since poly means "many," polydipsia means "the kind of thirst that drives you to drink anything. " There are specialized terms for such behavior, including uriposia, "the drinking of urine," and hemoposia, "the drinking of blood." For word enthusiasts, this is heady stuff. Nonetheless, the lexicon has not kept up with technology. Blame the ancients for not driving cars. I have tried, and cannot coin a suitable word for "the drinking of radiator coolant."
This is what Lag Lag and his assistant started drinking. They had been under the truck for several weeks. They wrote good-bye letters to their families and stuck them up in the cab. The assistant cried. Lag Lag was annoyed and said, "When you die, you die." He was a good Muslim. He lay calm.
Finally, the two of them having drunk most of the coolant, Lag Lag had an inspiration. He drained oil from the engine and poured it into the fuel tank. The assistant had given up hope, and wanted no part in the experiment. Lag Lag figured the oil would combine with the dregs of diesel fuel, and the mixture might ignite. He climbed into the cab, cycled the glow plug, and pressed the starter. The engine turned over and rumbled to life. The astonished assistant scrambled aboard. Spewing dense blue smoke, the truck rolled forward. After some miles they came to a track. With no idea where they were, or where the track led, they followed it. Allah was with them. A refrigerated van appeared, with water, meats, and vegetables. It was driven by a friend. They broke the seal on the back, built a fire, drank, and feasted. As the specialists say, they rehydrated.
The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.
Copyright © 1991 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1991; The World in Its Extreme; Volume 268, No. 5; pages 105-140.