BY WILLIAM LANGEWIESGHE
THE SAHARA IS A DESERT SO VAST THAT NO AIRPLANE CAN DIMINISH IT. CERtainly this one couldn’t. I sat behind the pilots in the cockpit of an Air Algeria turboprop lumbering at 18,000 feet across southern Algeria. The airplane was a Dutch-built Fokker 27, a stodgy forty-passenger twin, doing 220 miles an hour; it had come from the capital city, Algiers, on a roundabout threeday run to the oases. Now we were bound for Adrar, an oasis remarkable even here for heat and lack of rain. It was midday, midsummer. Outside, the Sahara stretched
in naked folds to the horizon, brilliant and utterly still. It was blanketed by a haze of dust, suspended not by winds but by heat. The only sign of people was a trace of smoke rising in the distance. Below us a canyon cut through the downslope of the Hoggar Mountains.
To the south lay the Tanezrouft, a plain so barren that drivers in the open desert mistake stones for diesel trucks, and so lonely that, it is said, migrating birds land beside people just for the company.
The captain wore a white shirt with epaulets. He had pasty skin and the look of an experienced pilot—bored, dissatisfied, underexercised. He flew with sloppy control motions, like someone enduring a machine that he does not like. For him this was a tough assignment. He was from Algiers, which is on the coast, and had not had time to acclimatize. He must have suffered at night in the oasis hotels.
For me the flight was a luxury. I leaned over the ventilator and enjoyed the coolness, knowing it wouldn’t last. We had come to a road called the Trans-Saharan, a faint scar running north-south across the desert. It was a route I had traveled by bus and truck. Maps show it in bold ink, like an established highway, but much of the pavement is broken and unusable. Across the center of the Sahara it dissolves into bands of braided tracks. Drivers get lost, and each year some die of thirst.
“There is nothing out here,” the captain complained. He spoke French, which is the second language of the Sahara, after Arabic.
I thought, Nothing here? But this is the Trans-Saharan, the route of dreams, a way across the desert! On earlier trips I had felt every mile of it. I remembered one ride on a truck, in a passenger box thick with heat, bodies, and dust. We laughed when the first bump threw us from the benches; the second bump smashed us against the ceiling, and suddenly it was no longer funny. For two days we held on, waiting for the pounding to end. That was the worst. Elsewhere in the Sahara I had felt other miles—by foot, communal taxi, cargo truck, moped, even river steamer. I had come to the Sahara as others might travel to the Himalayas, to see the world in its extreme. There is no other place as hot and dry and empty. There are few places as hostile to life. Yet it is lived in.
The captain was disgusted by the place. He said, “You let a sheet of paper fall and it takes forever to hit the ground. It’s the heat.” He tried to be polite. He asked me about the condition of the road. He asked me where I had been and where I was going, and why. He knew I was a waiter, and also a pilot, and this made him doubly distrustful. Why would a pilot travel so much by ground? And what was there to say about such emptiness? I tried to explain. He seemed worried about me.
I worry too. The problem is not how little there is to say but how much—not how empty the Sahara is but how complex. Geographers still disagree about the most basic terms. For instance, if “desert" is defined by dryness, should the pluviometric threshold be six inches of rain a year or twice as much? Should “desert" be defined by variability of rainfall? By rates of evaporation? By hours of sunshine? Or should we choose a human standard and define deserts as places we can neither plant nor settle without irrigation?
Underlying these choices is the question of whether isometric lines drawn on a map can ever encompass the real thing. Describe the Sahara? We can’t even measure it. Keeping this in mind, here are a few facts:
• The Sahara is the world’s largest desert, about the size of the United States including Alaska. It fills the northern third of Africa, stretching 3,100 miles from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. In the north it is bounded by the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean. In the south it encounters no geographic barrier. There it has expanded into the populated grasslands of the Sahel, uprooting millions of people, throwing them against one another, and spawning wars. Expansion, which is apparently the result of long-term climatic changes, accelerated by overpopulation, overgrazing, and deforestation, is neither uniform nor ineluctable. There are years even now when rainfall and vegetation push the desert back. From north to south the Sahara is at present about 1,200 miles deep.
• There are two central mountain ranges. The Hoggar Mountains, of southern Algeria, climb to 9,852 feet, and the Tibesti, of northern Chad, culminate at 11,204 feet, the highest point in the desert. The rest of the Sahara is flat, made up of plateaus and low hills covered mostly by gravel and rock. Only a fifth of it is sand, formed into dune seas known as ergs. One fifth is still a lot of territory. The Libyan erg alone is the size of France.
• The Sahara is geologically ancient. Its basement is gently arching granite, dating back five billion years to the beginning of geologic history. As the continents drifted and the global climate shifted, northern Africa became ocean, forest, lake, swamp, desert, and ocean again. A series of inundations over millions of years laid down the sedimentary plains visible today. The rocks hold mineral riches: oil and natural gas in the north, uranium in the south, iron and phosphate in the west. For the desert people, the most important discoveries have been the vast aquifers in the north.
• Unlike deserts caused by features of topography, the Sahara is a weather desert, caused by the flow and physics of the atmosphere. Imagine it as a solar-powered air pump. The thermal equator, a line connecting the hottest points on the globe, runs through Africa ten to twenty degrees north of the geographic equator—in other words, just south of the Sahara. As air is heated along this
line, it rises. As it rises, it cools, and forms rainstorms. These storms define the southern limit of the desert. Meanwhile, at the surface the rising air sucks in dense Saharan winds from the north. These winds in turn are replenished by the air directly overhead. Since the sinking air contains virtually no moisture, northern Africa is a desert. The weather is a closed loop, completed far above the surface by southerly winds.
• Evaporation rates in the Sahara are the highest in the world. The relative humidity averages 30 percent, and it has been recorded as low as 2.5 percent. If you measure dryness by the net yearly amount of radiant heat at the surface versus the amount of heat that would be necessary to evaporate the annual rainfall—the so-called dryness ratio—the excess evaporative power of the Sahara ranges from a factor of ten to infinity. The ratio is high partly because there is so little rain. Most of the Sahara receives less than three inches a year. (New York’s annual rainfall is forty-three inches.) Even the wettest areas, along the outer edges, suffer from unreliability: it may rain today and next week, and then not again for years. There are large areas where nothing grows. At the center
of the Sahara are 800,000 square miles of hyperarid plateaus, some of which have been practically sterilized by drought. In such places bacteria die quickly, and cadavers, partly mummified, decompose slowly. Think of sundried apricots.
• In the open desert the most successful animals are human beings. The most common are mice, ants, and flies. There are also jackals, bats, lizards, vipers, long-legged spiders, and scorpions. Butterflies and birds fly long distances across the worst terrain. Antelopes, mountain sheep, ostriches, and foxes, once widespread, have fallen to the repeating rifle and the all-terrain vehicle. Of the large Saharan mammals only gazelles remain, and they, too, are being hunted into oblivion. Camels do not exist in a wild state. They may roam at large, but they are bred and branded. Camels are valuable, because they endure in the desert almost as well as Toyotas.
OF THE TWENTY PASSENGERS ABOARD THE AIR ALgeria Fokker only one was a woman, and she was veiled. She sat stiffly, not daring to look outside, while her children wandered the aisle. The men seated near her wore white robes and turbans. They were Arabized Berbers and Berberized blacks—traders, students, soldiers on leave. Some had the beards of the Islamic revival. In the back sat four Tuaregs, lanky, fine-featured nomads of the central Sahara. They smelled of woodsmoke, and wore chèches, long cotton strips wrapped around the head and forward across the nose and mouth. The chèche is more than an answer to sun and dust; it masks the wearer and gives him the power of anonymity. The Tuareg are renowned warriors. They fought off the French into this century. Now, across the Tanezrouft, in Mali and Niger they have risen again in rebellion against the central governments.
The Tuareg are Berbers too, like most people in the Sahara. “Berber” is a broad descriptive term that includes a wide range of groups descended from Eurasian horsemen who arrived 3,000 years ago. It derives from barbarus, Latin for “foreign and uncivilized,” and, unintentionally, it still expresses a common attitude toward North Africans. Saharans are also called Arabs, which might be a more polite label. The Arabs are if anything overcivilized. Their armies came to the northern Sahara in the seventh century A.D. Though the armies didn’t stay long, Arabs interbred with the Berbers, and imported a language, a culture, and a new religion—Islam. Over the following centuries this potent Arab combination spread south, gradually weakening and replacing the Berber traditions. Today, although there may yet exist in the Sahara some “pure” Arabs, and there are a good many pure Berbers, the majority of the Sahara’s population represents a mixture to some degree.
The Sahara is an Islamic desert, but this does not mean that it is a unified desert. Throughout the Sahara you hear the refrain “Our Islam is the true Islam,” implying that the neighbors’ is not. The neighborhood consists of ten sometimes unfriendly nations. Recent events in the Persian Gulf have heightened their differences. As you might suspect by looking at a map, the borders between them are arbitrary. They were drawn to meet the needs of colonial administration, and they remain wild and unmarked. Nonetheless, when you cross one, what is surprising is not how little the desert changes but how much the context does.
In the south are four landlocked countries—Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan. These are miserable places, bearing the brunt of the desert’s expansion and plagued by civil wars. Along the coastline are the five countries of the Mahgreb: Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. None is happy. Mauritania is brutal and xenophobic; Morocco suffers under a reactionary king; Algeria and Tunisia are politically and economically bankrupt; Libya, the only wholly Saharan nation, has been cursed with Muammar Qaddafi. Egypt, to the east, along the Nile, is a riverine society with problems too intricate and particular to summarize here.
Throughout the Sahara a sense of change is in the air. Socialism, liberalism, and military rule have failed. Pan-Arabism has proved to be an empty promise. But over the past few years a potent ideology has resurfaced—Islamic fundamentalism. Islam is a religion that provides for both law and government. Ever since the Iranian revolution it has taken on new relevance, as an alternative to the models of the West, as a homegrown answer to disorder, corruption, and inequality. The large, vigorous fundamentalist movement has become the dominant political factor in the Sahara.
North African fundamentalists are Sunni Muslims, less frantic than the Shiites of Lebanon and Iran. No one knows what will result if they take over. Will there be more Irans— radical, repressive, and hostile to the West? Or will something new and more benign be created? In Algeria the Islamic party may eventually seize power. An Islamic government there would have profound—perhaps revolutionary—effects on the entire region.
Water in Adrar
A DRAR IS A PROVINCIAL CAPITAL IN CENTRAL ALGEria, a town of 15,000, laid out in wide streets between ocher buildings. It sits at the center of a region of oases known as the Touat, astride an ancient caravan route from Gao and Timbuktu. I went there to look at irrigation. My host was a young merchant, Moulay Lakhdar Miloud. Moulay is a title of respect. There are a lot of Moulays, and many seem to know one another. I once heard the Sahara described as the United States of Moulay.
Moulay Miloud is a bachelor with a narrow, intelligent face and a moustache. His friends call him Uncle Moulay. He was dressed in a pressed white robe. We sat on the floor of his living room and waited out the hot midday hours, drinking brown water from a plastic jug. The water was brown because Miloud had mixed in cade oil. The cade is an evergreen bush that grows in the Atlas Mountains. Saharan nomads use its oil to seal the inside of goatskin water bags. Miloud did not have a goatskin, but he came from a long line of desert travelers. He bought the oil in small bottles and added it to his water for flavor and good health. The mixture smelled of pine sap and tasted of clay. Miloud smiled, pleased that I liked it. But I would have drunk anything. I had been for a walk.
“It’s raining less,” Miloud said. “And every year it’s hotter. Nomads can no longer survive this climate.”
I believed him.
The house, like Miloud, was small and immaculate. It had a fan and an evaporative cooler. The living room was furnished Saharan style, with mattresses, pillows, and colorful rugs. Black-and-white enlargements of nomads hung on the stucco walls. A guitar stood in the corner. The Cosby Show, which is broadcast by national television, flickered soundlessly on a TV screen. A stereo played screechy Saharan music. In the hallway, by a portrait of Bob Marley, was a postcard of three naked women. They were grotesquely fat. Miloud said, “In the summer even the mind shuts down. You get tired of television, music, and books. There is no stimulation. There is little to say. You are too much indoors.”
For good reason. Outdoors the temperature was 124° Fahrenheit. During my walk the air had been still, the sky milky with dust. There was no shade. The streets were deserted. The heat hit hard, a physical assault, burning skin, eyes, and lungs. I felt threatened and disoriented. I had drunk my fill beforehand, but an hour without water was all I could stand.
The Sahara is hot because it is sunny. In Adrar out of some 4,400 hours of annual daylight there are 3,978 hours of direct sun, on average. (Paris, home of the great Saharan colonizers, gets 1,728 hours of sun.) Elsewhere in the desert the count is equally high. And this is steep-angle sunlight, powerful stuff. In the winter, air temperatures can drop to freezing at night and rise to 90° by noon; soil temperatures can fluctuate so brutally that rocks split, a process called insolation weathering. In the summer the Sahara is the hottest place on earth. The record, 136° Fahrenheit, is held by al Azizia, Libya. Airborne dust makes things worse. It traps heat radiated by the hot soil, and is why in Adrar the desert does not cool much on summer nights.
Late in the afternoon Miloud and I drove an old Renault to one of the outlying oases. The road was paved. It led past neglected palm groves and then across rolling sand and dirt. In the far distance I could make out the dunes of the Erg Chech, the enormous and uninhabited sand sea that extends 600 miles, across Mali and into Mauritania. Miloud said, of the land on either side of the road, “In the winter all this is green.” Translation: if it rains, a few translucent grasses may sprout. The average annual rainfall in Adrar is less than an inch.
The two dozen oases of the Touat sit at the receiving end of the largest dry watercourse in the Sahara, an ancient riverbed called the Messaoud. It is a long, shallow depression where water still lies close underground. Oases are not the waterholes of public imagination but irrigated groves of date palms. They are artificial creations. The ones in the Touat are famous for the engineering of their traditional wells. Known as foggaras, these are gently sloping tunnels, burrowed for miles into higher terrain. Since their paths are marked by frequent mounds around excavation shafts, they look like the diggings of giant moles. The foggaras were built centuries ago, not to find water but to bring it to the oases in a constant flow. They are self-filling subterranean aqueducts. They are not, however, self-maintaining.
Our destination appeared as a green line against the dusty sky. The line became a palm grove and an ancient fortified village, or ksar, of about a thousand people. In searing heat we walked through the streets—a warren of baked mud and dark, built-over passages just wide enough for a loaded camel to pass. There were no camels now, only a few sad donkeys hauling firewood. The inhabitants were Haratin blacks, descendants of slaves, who still occupy the lowest level of Saharan society. Racism exists throughout the desert, though it is tempered somewhat by the egalitarian precepts of Islam. I do not mean to suggest that modern Islam has brought enlightenment to the Sahara. Fundamentalism never seems to promote understanding. But Saharan society is noticeably different from ours in the way it is softened by the vitality of its religion.
A band of dusty children followed us into the desert to the foggaras. Water was still flowing, but the foggaras were slipping into disrepair. One reason is that maintaining them—digging them out, shoring them up—is dangerous and difficult work, and since the abolition of slavery there has been no ready supply of labor. A more immediate reason was in the concrete shelter nearby. It housed an electric pump, drawing water from a bored well. The modern world had arrived, and no one was complaining.
The system of distribution was still the traditional one. We followed the ditches that carried the water back to the village. Upstream it was drawn for drinking; downstream it was used for washing and sewage. The water that finally flowed toward the palm grove was, let’s say, rich in nutrients. It was also precious. Water rights are inherited, bought, and sold, and are more valuable than the land itself. Within the grove the water is divided and metered through finger-width gateways into an intricate branching of channels. In the end it spreads into individual plots, separated by dikes and protected against wind and sand by adobe walls. There the date palms grow.
Date palms are well adapted to the Sahara. They thrive on sun and heat, and will produce fruit in water that is ten times as salty as human beings should drink. Though they require large amounts of irrigation for the first few years, they then tap into groundwater and become self-supporting. They also shade the irrigated vegetable crops—most commonly corn and tomatoes.
This grove was small by Algerian standards—about a half square mile of junglelike vegetation. We strolled through it on dirt paths between the plots. The shade was dense, but it provided no relief from the heat. Dead fronds drooped from the trees and littered the ground. Miloud pointed to them and said that when he was young, the farmers would have been ashamed. Yellow butterflies flitted about. Ants carried oversized trophies. A turbaned man hacked at the earth. A ditch gurgled with polluted water. I stopped to list the other sounds: the distant music of Arab horns, a dove cooing, a donkey braying, a cricket, birds trilling, children laughing, the thunk of a woodchopper, a sharper hammering, a rooster crowing, flies buzzing, a chanted prayer.
EARLY ONE MORNING Miloud and I drank coffee at a café. The conversation turned, as it often does with young Saharans, to religion. I listened and tried to understand. But when Miloud mentioned his hatred for Jews, I answered back. I said that he was mythologizing them. I said that even if, as an Arab, he resented Israel, he had to distinguish Jews from Israel. I said that he even had to distinguish Israelis from one another. He retreated to history and talked of what he called ancient crimes—the Jews’ unwillingness to accept the new word of God and his Prophet. Muslims have a strictly chronological view of progress: their faith rests in the idea that Mohammed was the final prophet, and that his message supersedes all others. I asked Miloud how he could hold individuals responsible today for the deeds of their distant ancestors. I said, What if I were a Jew? He answered, But you are not. He was unbending, and our arguments became circular.
I remembered a conversation with a policeman in another oasis. He said, “The French? Oh, yes, we fought a war; we hate them.”
I asked, “What about the Russians?" The oasis had a military base and a small contingent of Soviet advisers.
“They are godless. We hate them, too.”
“And the Germans?”
“They are fascists. We hate them.”
“Oh, no, Algerians do not hate Americans.” He hesitated. “Except for imperialists and Jews—we hate them most of all.”
Since there are few Jews remaining in the Sahara, the anti-Semitism there has become somewhat academic. It is disquieting nonetheless. I have friends in the northern Sahara whose daughter is a bright, charming schoolgirl, a picture of sweet innocence. Once when I was over for dinner, she smiled and said, “If an Israeli ever came here, I would . . .”
“What would you do?” her mother asked gently.
“I would kill him.”
The television news had been filled with brutal home videos of the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising. They have become a staple of Islamic solidarity.
THERE IS A LIMIT TO the insulating qualities of adobe construction, a temperature extreme beyond which walls go critical and begin to magnify the heat. I have studied this: the walls do not cool down at night; at dawn the inside surfaces are hot to the touch; by day they are hotter still. The houses become solar ovens. Concrete is worse: it gets hotter in sunlight and no less hot after dark. In the big Soviet-style buildings you can burn bare feet on the second floor. Air-conditioners and evaporative coolers are rare, and replacement parts are rarer.
During the peak months of summer people move outdoors. In the morning and late afternoon they sit in the shade cast by the walls. At midday they hide as best they can, under an awning or a tree. Strangers flock to the hotels, where the lobbies have fans and high ceilings. The secret police flock there too, for the same reasons, and also to investigate the strangers. Everyone waits. At night, while hotel guests lie trapped in their rooms, the Saharans eat and sleep in the gardens.
Miloud and I went to dinner in Adrar at the house of Nouari, a bookish construction engineer. He had also invited a tall, shy hydrologist, who the next day was to guide me through a modern irrigated farm north of town. The four of us sat on carpets in the sand behind the house. It was a sweltering night, the temperature still over 100°. The stars were blackened by dust. The meal was lit by kerosene lanterns on a barrel. Nouari’s wife and mother cooked for us but did not appear. Sexual apartheid reigns in much of the Sahara, and pudency demands that women stay hidden from male guests. I made no mention of the women. Nouari poured water from a pitcher and we washed our hands.
We started with raw milk and dates. Nouari said, “The Prophet recommended dates.”
Miloud added, “Milk and dates make a complete meal. They are all a person needs to eat.”
Nonetheless, we also had tripe, couscous, and melon. Afterward we drank tea brewed by Nouari on a butane burner, and the discussion returned to dates.
Dates are so important that oases are measured by the size of their groves. The largest have more than a million trees; the smallest have a thousand. After the Algerian war of independence against the French, which ended in 1962, the groves were nationalized by the socialist regime. Later they were privatized, returned to the original owners, but they have not recovered their earlier glory. The inhabitants of the oases are crazy about their dates. They eat them directly off the branch; they dry them and eat them; they bake, boil, and fry them and eat them. They are date gourmets, and can distinguish hundreds of varieties by taste, texture, and color. They know date facts: that a thousand dates grow in a single cluster, that half the weight of a dried date is sugar, and that dates are rich in minerals and vitamins. Nouari listed them, taking care that I note every one: “Vitamins A, B, C, D, E.”
The hydrologist added, “Dates help against cancer. Research is being done in the United States at a big university.”
Nouari described the yearly pollination performed by the farmers. He recited the line from the Koran that is read while this is done: “In the name of God, mild and merciful.”
Miloud observed that the tree itself is a wonderful resource. With help from the others, he went through all the uses of it. They are too many to list here, but they can be summarized as follows: things that can be done with wood and palm fronds. The hydrologist finished by saying, “The Prophet loved the tree too.” It is not surprising that the neglect of the groves in the Sahara has added fuel to the fire of Islamic revolt.
THE HYDROLOGIST’S NAME WAS SOLLAH. IN THE morning he took me to see the irrigated farm, which he called a model. It sprawled across 800 unshaded acres in virgin desert—an American-style operation, privately owned, with a bright tractor and a crew of Haratin black workers. Circular irrigation systems stood over wheat stubble. There were greenhouses, and plots of tomatoes, peppers, pimientos, cucumbers, melons, and cantaloupes. There was plenty of mud. This was modern agriculture—energetic, productive, and perhaps wasteful. I told Sollah that it looked like farms in California. He was pleased, and asked why. I answered, Cheap water. This pleased him even more, because it was his water. He had directed the government crew that drilled the first well.
We went to drink the results. Two pumps drove a heavy flow of water into a holding tank. The water was sweet and cool. They had struck it with an Oklahoman rig at a depth of 450 feet. The water ran dirty with sand and mud for two days, and afterward turned clear. The
project took a month to complete, which is about average. There are several crews like Sollah’s in the province. Together they have been drilling forty-five wells a year. Every well has produced.
Most of the Sahara is too dry for drilling. If you do hit water, either there is too little or it is too salty or too expensive to pump out. It might sustain a few settlers, or people passing through. It is not worth the cost of getting to it. But here, in the northern third of the desert, large reserves of fresh water lie under the parched surface. The shallowest have for centuries irrigated the towns and oases. They can be got at by foggaras and hand-dug wells. They are susceptible to drought and overuse; the water table falls, crops fail, and settlements must be abandoned. But if it rains, even far away, eventually the shallow reserves are replenished.
Of greater importance for the future are the deep aquifers, whose discovery was a by-product of the search for oil. The mere knowledge of their existence has had a profound effect on life in the Sahara. Known as confined aquifers, they are pools of fresh water trapped in permeable rock strata at depths of 300 to 6,000 feet. They hold
as much water, according to one estimate, as the Amazon River discharges in two years. That is a lot of water. What’s better, much of it is under pressure. Once tapped, it rises to the surface and forms artesian wells. Geysers have shot hundreds of feet into the air. Wells have been capped to keep villages from flooding.
Water works powerfully on the souls of Saharans. Muammar Qaddafi has launched an agricultural revolution in Libya, and is building gigantic irrigation projects. He believes he will transform his sands. If for nothing else, he is respected for this. Other Saharans have equally grandiose dreams. Miles of tomatoes, potatoes, rice paddies, fish farms, horizons of grain—the United States of Moulay. If there is water in the desert, anything is possible. Sollah, a quiet and rational man, was suffused with the glory of his mission. Even the taxi driver who took us out to the farm had an opinion. He believed that irrigation would eventually bring rain. Call it reverse desertification, the trickle-up theory.
But there is a problem. The deep aquifers are being recharged very slowly, if at all. This means that the aquifers contain mostly fossil water, deposited long ago, when the Sahara was not a desert. The water that Sollah and I were drinking was perhaps 5,000 years old. In western Egypt well water may be five or ten times as old. My comparison to California was only partly correct. Much of the irrigation water in the American desert comes from rivers and reservoirs—short-term, renewable surface supplies. Some waste is perhaps affordable. The deep water of the Sahara is different: you pump it here for keeps. Like oil, it is not renewable.
A second problem is that despite the large reserves, only a small fraction of the stored water can be extracted economically. There are many reasons for this, including lowering tables, loss of artesian pressure, expense of drilling, expense of pumping, and increasing salinity. Scientists argue that new wells should be drilled sparingly, and water used wisely. They use terms like “practical sustained yield"—meaning you take out no more than is going in. They say an aquifer is like a bank account—if you must draw it down, the reason should be to build a return in the long run. They warn about unchecked exploitation, and talk about the end’s coming as soon as 2025.
Their advice passes like wind. Saharans are no wiser than the rest of us. They dream of green. It is the color of Islam. In Algeria the fundamentalists have promised to make a garden of the desert. Words come easily.
Life in Tamanrasset
A LGERIANS CALL 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 w as 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 cafés. 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 show 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.
A DDOUN 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 distriet, 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 w ith 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 youngest 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 w;as 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.
A DDOUN 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 Côte d’Azur he was thrown out of a café 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 wall. 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 hyperdip - sia, 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.
DRIVING IN THE NORTH IS NO LONGER SO DANGEROUS. A network of hard-surfaced roads branches out from the Trans-Saharan, linking the oases. The roads are narrow and sometimes interrupted by drifting sand, but well maintained. Although the distances are great, help is never far away. There are cargo trucks, passenger buses, army convoys, occasional private cars, and swarms of yellow taxicabs. These taxis, mostly beat-up Peugeot station wagons, shuttle from one oasis to the next. Airline managers must dream of such schedules: the taxis never leave with less than a full load, and they arrive when they please. In that sense they are like the bush taxis of black Africa, but they are less crowded (only six passengers) and better driven. They are also better driven than the cabs of New York, and much cheaper. For the price of a trip from Grand Central to La Guardia, you can travel a full day in the Sahara. The desert undulates under a brilliant sky. You pass a ruined fortress, a stand of palms, a camel wandering untethered, a dry riverbed filled with refracted sunlight, shimmering like water. There is no dispatch radio. Instead, a tape deck plays melodic readings of the Koran.
The south is different. There are few roads and few taxis. You drive most of the time over open desert, following tracks that are braided, eroded, obscured by dirt and sand. The braiding occurs when one driver gets stuck and others detour around the signs of trouble, making new tracks. Still others follow, mire down in turn, and pick new ways through. The Oregon Trail used to braid the same way. In the Sahara every truck, every car, every motorcycle leaves its trace. This repeats itself over the years until a route consists of a band maybe twenty miles wide of crisscrossing tire marks. Intersecting routes lead off to unknown destinations. Seen from the air, the tracks might make sense; on the ground they become hopelessly confusing. People follow them in circles. There is no one to ask directions from, and no one to help you if you break down. South of Tamanrasset heavy traffic on the Trans-Saharan means two trucks passing ten miles apart, on opposite ends of a basin.
This is a subject close to Salah Addoun. His father was lost in the desert while driving with friends. It was 1962, the year of Algerian independence. Addoun’s father wrote farewells on his chèche. He survived a month and was the last to die. The next day his body was discovered. Addoun was six.
Years later Addoun set out on a trip at sunset, to avoid the heat of day. After a full night of driving he came to some lights—and found himself back where he had started. As he says, Allah did not choose his death then. More recently he was a passenger in a desert taxi across the sands southwestward from al Golea to a village called al Homr. After a while one of the passengers said to the driver, “Where are you going?”
“To al Homr.”
The passenger said, “No, al Homr is toward that star there.” He pointed to the left. The driver was unsure. The passenger took the wheel and followed the star to safety.
These are the skills of the nomad, and they require an encyclopedic knowledge of the land. One old man explained navigation this w’ay: “Yes, by the stars at night. In daylight by local knowledge of the desert—this soil, this tree, this ruin, these tracks, these shadows before sunset. It is passed down from father to son, and spoken of among friends.” He said “local,” but we were discussing the smugglers who drive hundreds of miles across the open desert.
Concerned about the number of drivers lost in the south, the Algerian government has marked the main routes with metal pylons every ten kilometers. Ten kilometers is 6.21 miles, and drivers still get lost. For marking the Trans-Saharan south of Tamanrasset, the authorities decided on something more visible. This is the stretch that causes the most trouble. For 280 miles the route descends across infernal badlands to the border with Niger. There are no wells and few landmarks. Drivers take days to negotiate it. The solution was to be 451 white concrete markers, one every kilometer. A kilometer is 0.621 miles, an easy distance for seeing from one marker to the next. Addoun’s company won the contract. It was springtime. He set off from Tamanrasset on foot, followed by a three-man crew in a Land Cruiser carrying supplies and topographic charts. Over two weeks he walked the entire distance, surveying thirty kilometers a day and driving stakes at the prescribed intervals. He did this as casually as you or I might go for a weekend stroll— no photographers, no expedition flags. Once the stakes were in place, he returned to Tamanrasset, gathered a larger crew, and set off with trucks carrying steel molds. Pouring the concrete took an additional three months. Thinking of his father, I asked if the walking had been a pilgrimage of sorts. He smiled and said he had needed the exercise. I asked if his markers would make the driving easy. He said no, he was not a dreamer. Smugglers and adventurers would still get lost. People would still take shortcuts, break down, or get stuck. And the tracks would still braid.
I CAUGHT A RIDE ON ONE OF A PAIR OF BATTERED trucks exporting dates down the Trans-Saharan to Agadez, Niger. It was the only public transportation available heading south. Addoun saw me off. He introduced me to the chief driver, a bearded man with quick, amused expressions, whose name was Ali. He wore stained trousers, a ragged shirt, and no shoes. Addoun had told me that Ali was the best: he practically lived in the desert. He was a trader as well as a driver; the trucks and the cargoes belonged to him. The dates were lowquality export varieties in burlap sacks. I asked Ali what he would return with from Niger. He said chickens.
The other driver was a gaunt, silent Tuareg, who spoke no French and little Arabic. I was assigned to his truck. Addoun gave me a chèche against the sun and dust, a blanket for the nights, and a sack of oranges to share with my fellow passengers. On my truck there were ten of them—Tuaregs and black Africans, immigrant workers heading home. They peered down at me from atop the cargo. I threw my duffle on board and climbed up to join them. Each driver had an assistant, and started rolling without him. The assistants pretended not to notice. At the last possible moment they swung into the cabs. It was late afternoon.
By sundown we had settled into a rhythm. The trucks were like great beasts, guided lovingly across treacherous terrain. We wallowed and rolled, hesitated, backed, and shuddered. The gears ground. On high-speed level ground the engines bellowed and the tires heaved dust, and we hit twenty miles an hour. It was not to be a fast trip.
The darkness closed around us, and we probed it cautiously with yellow headlights. The trucks competed for the lead. Now we were ahead, watching our dust swirl around Ali’s lights; now we were behind, tasting his dirt, following his single red taillight. We made camp late, drank from fifty-gallon drums lashed to the chassis, and built two miserly fires. Campfires in the Sahara are fed by twigs and refuse, and are sparing of fuel. I have seen entire meals cooked on a few scraps of cardboard. Tonight we baked unleavened bread in the sand below the fires. After scraping the loaves clean we shredded them into goat stew, and ate from communal bowls. The air turned cool. I walked away and rolled myself into a blanket under brilliant stars. The desert was silent.
Hours later a truck passed. I heard its engine clearly,
and after a while saw its lights creeping through the distance. It crested a rise maybe five miles away and disappeared. Someone was pushing hard for the border, giving dimension to the night.
We left before dawn, and the next day passed through a land of torn hills, where sand lay in pockets too deep to escape. This was why passengers were taken along: the trucks bogged down often. You could sense the trouble coming on: the double-clutching of uncooperative gears, the desperate shifting-down, the shuddering loss of momentum, the halt, the surrender. We dug ourselves out with hands, shovels, and sand ladders. The sand ladders were ten-foot segments of portable runways from the Second World War—perforated metal strips, designed to link together and support the weight of an airplane. Now they supported the export of dates. Each truck carried a pair. I sometimes had the feeling we were digging our way across the Sahara. Other people had not succeeded; we passed the rusted hulks of their cars, partly buried in the sand. I saw an old Volvo, a Lada, Renaults, Peugeots, Volkswagen buses, and a Fiat clustered around the worst spots.
In the late afternoon nomadic children materialized from the empty desert. They ran toward us in a flock, waving plastic bottles to be filled. We stopped and gave them water. They had copper skin, ragged robes, and hair in wild dreadlocks. They begged for sugar, but we had none. I finally spotted their camp at the base of a hill—two tents, some goats, a camel, a woman watching. The children waited for us to leave. They stood looking up, shielding their eyes from the sun. Then they trudged off, lugging the heavy water bottles. They lived this way, off the traffic of the Trans-Saharan. It has become a moving oasis.
That night I mentioned to Ali that I had seen only one of Addoun’s markers. Ali answered, “It’s better to find your own way.”I asked when we would get to the border. He was amused by the question. “Maybe not tomorrow,” he said.
Maybe not ever, I thought the following afternoon. Against all reason, the trucks had been driving in loose formation, miles apart, as if to demonstrate that maddening disinclination to prudence that one encounters so frequently in the Third World. I was angered but not surprised when we lost sight of each other. After an hour in a maze of trackless basins, I began to worry. So, apparently, did our driver. He parked, killed the engine, and without a word marched off to a nearby hill, where he stood looking. I followed him. In all directions the land was empty. I left him there and returned to the truck. My concern was not Ali but the ignorance of our driver. I sat and waited. The desert was calm. I had hours to consider the worst. Somewhere out here, perhaps not far away, the Belgians had been lost.
They were husband, wife, and five-year-old boy, driving a Peugeot sedan for resale in Burkina Faso. At first their trip went fast, from Algiers through the northern oases to points south. Eventually the pavement ended. They were prepared to spend nights in the desert, but the driving was slower than expected. They were encouraged when they made Tamanrasset. After resting there they pushed on, planning on three days to the border.
When they got lost, they still had plenty of gas, and they set out to retrace their route. This was not easy, because the ground was hard-packed and rocky. They grew even more confused. But getting lost was part of the adventure, a special game for carefree Europeans. We know this because the woman later wrote it down. People dying of thirst in the desert often leave a written record. They have time to think. Writing denies the isolation.
The ear broke down. They rationed their water and lay in the shade of a tarpaulin. The rationing did not extend their lives. They might as well have drunk their fill, since the human body loses water at a constant rate even when dehydrated. The only way to stretch your life in the desert is to reduce your water needs: stay put, stay shaded, and keep your clothes on.
The Belgians hoped a truck would pass. For a week they waited, scanning the horizon for a dust-tail or the glint of a windshield. The woman wrote more frantically. Their water ran low, then dry. They grew horribly thirsty. After filtering it through a cloth, they drank the radiator coolant.
Water is the largest component of our bodies, but we have little to spare. In the hottest desert we can lose it (mostly by sweating) at the rate of two gallons a day while resting in the shade, or four gallons a day walking. Because sweating keeps us cool, we function well in extreme heat as long as we have plenty of water. We need a lot of water—say, half again as much as a camel over the course of a year. The rule is to drink until your thirst is gone and then drink a little more. If water is available, you naturally maintain your fluid content within a range of a quarter of a percent. If water is not available, juice, Coke, or beer is just as good. Apparently, radiator coolant also works. But what happens when it all runs out? Inevitably this becomes the question for anyone stranded in the Sahara. I can only list the symptoms.
Thirst is first felt when the body has lost about 0.5 percent of its weight to dehydration. For a 180-pound man that amounts to about a pint. With a two percent loss (say, two quarts) the stomach is no longer big enough to hold as much as the body needs, and people stop drinking before they have replenished their loss, even if they are given ample water. This is called voluntary dehydration, though it is not a conscious choice. Up to a five percent loss (about one gallon) the symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, flushed skin, irritability, increased pulse rate, and mild fever. Beyond that lie dizziness, headache, labored breathing, absence of salivation, circulatory problems, blue skin, and slurred speech. At 10 percent a person can no longer walk. The point of no return is around 12 percent (about three gallons), when the tongue swells, the mouth loses all sensation, and swallowing becomes impossible. A person this dehydrated cannot recover without medical assistance. In the Sahara it may take only half a day to get to this stage. Now the skin shrinks against the bones and cracks, the eyes sink, and vision and hearing become dim. Urine is dark and urination is painful. Delirium sets in. In a hot desert climate, as the body dehydrates, a disproportionate amount of water is drawn from the circulating blood. The blood thickens and finally can no longer fulfill its functions, one of which is to transport heat generated within the body to the surface. It is this heat that ultimately kills. The end comes with an explosive rise in body temperature, convulsions, and blissful death.
After the radiator coolant was gone, the Belgians started sipping gasoline. You would too. Call it petroposia: Saharans have recommended it to me as a way of staying off battery acid. The woman wrote that it seemed to help. They drank their urine. She reported that it was difficult at first, but that afterward it wasn’t so bad.
The boy was the weakest, and was suffering terribly. In desperation they burned their car, hoping someone would see the smoke. No one did. They killed their son to stop his pain. Later the husband cut himself and the wife drank his blood. At his request she somehow broke his neck with a rock. Alone, she no longer wanted to live. Still, the Sahara was fabulous, she wrote, and she was glad to have come. She would do it again. She regretted only one thing—that she had not seen Sylvester Stallone in Rambo III. Those were her last lines. The family’s remains were found later, and returned to Tamanrasset.
SIT, WAIT, YOU WILL FIND YOUR ORIENTATION. AL1 drove up after several hours. He had been behind us, stuck in deep sand over his wheels; we had not been lost at all. We headed south again, and arrived at the border late in the night, at the village of In-Guezzam.
To find In-Guezzam, go to the end of the earth and keep driving. It sits on a hot plain, a sad settlement of adobe and concrete—a customs outpost and police station, a café, a gas station, a dirt runway, and a few houses. We spent the morning at the Algerian exit post, filling in forms and answering questions from hostile policemen. When they released us, we drove off into the braided noman’s-land that separates the two countries. These noman’s-lands exist everywhere in the Sahara, presumably because the countries are too hostile to put their posts back to back.
After fifteen miles we came to the border station at Assamakka, Niger. A line of fifty-gallon drums stood in the dirt, a roadblock without a road. On the other side was a settlement of shacks, a tree, and a barracks. The soldiers were black-skinned southerners. One wore an Australian bush hat and carried a Bowie knife. Another wore twin pearl-handled revolvers. A third fingered an automatic rifle. I wondered what they had done to be banished to the remote north of their country. They seemed discouraged by fate, and resentful at being waked from their midday dreams. After taking our passports they ordered us to unload the trucks, every sack. Then they went back to sleep. Children emerged from the shacks, hawking cigarettes, soft drinks, and chickens. Two Ethiopians approached me for help. They had been deported by Algeria and refused entry by Niger. For weeks they had been stuck between the countries, living on donations from passing strangers. They were hungry and sick. I gave them my blanket and my last oranges. They handed me a crudely written letter to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. I promised to pass it on when I got to the capital, and I did.
The guards returned to probe the sacks for hidden weapons, which they said were being smuggled to the rebellious Tuareg. Ali remarked, “Why would we come through this checkpoint? It is a big desert.”He seemed amused, and infinitely patient. The guards pawed through our luggage, confiscating the small stuff—pens, batteries, and rolls of film. They did not ask directly for money. After another day they seem to have realized that Ali would outwait them. They stamped our passports and let us go.
IN ARLIT, 150 MILES TO THE SOUTHEAST, YOU HAVE made the crossing and have arrived suddenly in black Africa. Arlit, in Niger, is a uranium town. The streets are noisy and bustling, and travelers from the desert are greeted by energetic hustlers. The Sahara is all around, but now the road is paved. It leads south for another 150 miles, to the ancient caravan center of Agadez.
Agadez is a poor, mudwalled town, dominated by a sixtee nth-century adobe mosque and its Sudanese-style minaret, rising ninety feet above the dusty streets. Once, the town sat on the southern fringe of the desert, and prospered on a booming trade in slaves, gold, and salt. Now the desert has moved farther south, and the town runs on a little commerce, a little charity, and a little international aid. There are wells here, and government offices. As a result, the population of Agadez has swollen with refugees from the droughts. The refugees remain even when the rains come. Their herds are dead, and they have nothing to return to.
From Agadez I took a bus 550 miles southwest to Niamey, the capital of Niger, and watched the desert disappear. It was a good, clean bus, with air-conditioning and a stereo. The driver sat upright and wore lightly tinted sunglasses. There was drama in the way he drove, flashing through villages, overtaking the cars ahead. He had a multi-tone horn, and he could make it talk. Thanking, scolding, proclaiming, the Niamey bus was coming through.
At first the land was barren, a desert of gravel and gullies. Then acacias became more frequent. Three hours out of Agadez the country turned to rolling, eroded grassland, inhabited in the valleys by isolated families. Later the grass turned thicker, and the country began to resemble American rangeland, with goats and long-haired cattle. There were villages of round huts and cultivated fields of hand-planted corn. Then we came to a reservoir, the first open water I had seen in thousands of miles. The wind pushed up little waves that lapped the shores. The shores were farmed. There were flooded trees. I delighted: water is life.
We stopped only for roadblocks and prayers. At the roadblocks illiterate soldiers peered at our identify papers and tried to record our names in ledgers. They asked me to help. At prayer time the passengers knelt together in the dirt, and the driver responded by playing a cassette of the Koran.
After dark we drove along the border with Nigeria, through frequent villages. There was no electricity and no moon, and the night was black. In the markets lining the road the vendors lighted their wares with kerosene lanterns. There were hundreds of them, casting flickering orange light on thousands of milling villagers. Everyone was outside, enjoying the evening. We stopped for dinner in the largest town, and I wandered in the crowds, listening to the constant calling. Sitting on a bench with others, I ate a bowl of rice with a spicy sauce, impossible to see in the darkness.
In Niamey I went to the national museum to find the remnants of a famous tree. It was an acacia, and it had grown in the Ténéré, the great sand desert east of Agadez. For hundreds of miles in any direction it was the only tree. Maps showed it. Then, in 1973, a Libyan truck driver collided with it and knocked it down. The trunk was hauled to the museum. Out in the Ténéré a simple metal statue was erected. Someday I will go to see it, a most peculiar monument to driving in the desert.
Desertification in Mauritania
SOME 400 MILES TO THE WEST OF NIGER, BEYOND Mali, lies Mauritania. I flew to Nouakchott, its capital, which is accessible in virtually no other way. There are no tourists in Mauritania. It is one of the world’s most wretched countries. Malnutrition and disease are endemic, and in bad years there is famine. There are few roads, schools, or hospitals. Politics is driven by poverty, fear, and racial division. The military rules repressively. The towns are in disarray. For all this the Sahara can be blamed. The desert is expanding rapidly and has overwhelmed the country.
Mauritania was given life by the French in 1960, as a desert nation to be ruled by desert nomads but to include a fertile strip of savanna and riverland along the southern border. In thirty years much has changed. By leaps and bounds the savanna is turning to sand. The drought has done more than damage the savanna; it has deepened the desert itself. Dunes have buried whole villages.
In theory there are solutions. You can drill wells, irrigate crops, stabilize dunes, and plant trees. You can teach people to use the land more carefully, not to overgraze, overcut, or overpopulate. You can balance indigenous and imported technologies. You can preach hope that agriculture in the south might someday feed the country’s two million people.
In fact there is little reason for optimism. Only rain can threaten the desert, and in recent years there has been mostly drought. The power of weather dwarfs human effort. In the past decades the pluviometric threshold of six inches of annual rainfall—the minimum for grazing—has moved south sixty miles. Nouakchott, once surrounded by grasslands, is now swept by blowing sand.
The Sahara is mercurial, and does not attack in regimental formation. It sprouts in barren patches here and there, perhaps a hundred miles ahead of the absolute desert, and bypasses the greenbelts planted to block its advance. Greenbelts are trees, Maginot lines in a losing war against the climate. If they survive, they protect only themselves. Farther on, around a well, near a village, for miles outside a city, the land goes bad. People steepen the decline once it has begun. There are more of them than ever before, wielding better tools. But it is hard to blame them. They cannot wish themselves away, and they must eat. The land cannot support them. The rains have stopped. This is the process called desertification.
The flight gave me no preparation for the conditions in Mauritania. I sat comfortably in the airplane watching the sun set against the ocean horizon, drinking strong black coffee. A fog bank lay below us. To the east the Sahara stretched in graceful plains. I sampled a pastry. I wiped my hands with perfumed towelettes. Then we were on final approach over a coastal desert of sand and gravel. Shacks passed by the right wing. We landed, and disembarked by a ramshackle terminal. The dusk was thick with heat, dirt, and humidity. Within minutes my shirt was soaked through.
Mauritania is edged on the west by the sea, on the north by the Polisario rebellion of the Western Sahara, on the east by the roadless desert, and on the south by hostilities with Senegal. The Nouakchott airport is the gateway to the outside world, and the few flights are booked weeks in advance. With some regret I watched the airplane depart for Mali. The remaining daylight was gray and threatening. I did not like the looks of the soldiers who loitered on the ramp, eyeing the passengers. I stood in the crowd, fighting mosquitoes and flies. Ahead, the police were carefully checking identities, and bodily searching the men. I wondered what they hoped to find.
The other passengers were native Mauritanians, returning from the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Most were Moors, members of a Berber subgroup who speak an Arabic dialect known as Hassaniya and who form the upper caste of Mauritanian society. The men wore traditional Saharan robes, while the women wore full dresses with colorful scarves, and went unveiled. Though many people undoubtedly spoke French, none would talk to me. They were reluctant to be seen with a foreigner.
Mauritanian society is closed and hierarchical. Below the ruling caste of Moors is a Haratin class of slaves and ex-slaves, known as Black Moors. Slavery was banned in 1980, but it continues today. That is less shocking than it might seem: free people die of starvation in Mauritania, and some slaves prefer their servitude. The third level of society, below the Haratins, is made up of farmers and pastoralists from the sub-Saharan south—black Africans with ties to Senegal and Mali, who have never been integrated into the desert society. They inhabit the savanna and the prime farmland along the Senegal River, and constitute perhaps half the population. The Africans are a problem for the ruling Moors, who despise and fear them and worry that they will rise in revolt. The Moors would like to reduce their numbers.
In April of 1989 riots broke out for three days, during which 400 of these “foreign" blacks were hunted down and slaughtered. Afterward Mauritania expelled as many as 170,000 of them, calling them Senegalese. Senegal responded in kind, and the two nations settled into the state of near-war that exists today. In Mauritania the persecution continues. Along the Senegal River the army is driving people from their land. There are rumors of killings. In the name of national security the area has been closed to outside observers.
OFFICIALLY IT IS CALLED THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF Mauritania. This is a cynical play on words, but one with relevance to the country. In Mauritania the military has assumed not only command of the government but also the trappings of Islamic purity. Islam there has become a tool of social control, wielded to enforce discipline. Shari’a, the severe Islamic code, was instituted in 1980, both to pre-empt the small fundamentalist movement and to reinforce the power of the ruling Moors. Since then the government’s Islamic rhetoric has grown stronger, and for the same reasons. The African underclass, though devoutly Muslim, is not pleased. Arabism and Islam are closely linked. By declaring its religious credentials, the military has aligned itself with the Arab north, at the expense of the Africans. In Mauritania policy usually boils down to racial division. For now no one dares to object. The military knows what it is doing. As the Sahara squeezes the populations together, the choice is between Islamic discipline and ethnic disunity, between the military and all-out civil war. In Mauritania, Islam is martial law.
Nouakchott itself is a political creation, founded in 1957 as the capital of the soon-to-be nation. It is a dispersed, low-rise city of boulevards and blockhouse architecture—a place that speaks of the Mauritanian expanse. Goats wander the alleys. Donkeys haul loads of precious firewood to be sold in small bundles. The buildings are concrete, crumbling, dirty, and hot. There are few cars and fewer trucks. Scant downtown traffic lights regulate the flow of green Toyota vans packed to the limit with thirty or more passengers. The wind blows constantly, carrying the desert with it. Sand is everywhere. Slowly it is turning even the busiest streets into tracks. Inside the buildings workers sweep it, shovel it, and take it back outside.
The most surprising fact about Nouakchott is its size. Downtown you might guess it at 100,000 inhabitants. The actual number is closer to 800,000—more than a third of the entire country’s population. Most of the people are Moors. They live in squatters’ camps that ring the city, and are discouraged from coming downtown by government policy and lack of transportation. Many are semi-nomadic: if the summer rains come, they leave with their goats for the open desert. When the season changes and the land can no longer support them, they return to the capital, where there is electricity and water. The goats graze on refuse, at times on cardboard alone. The people have more elaborate needs. They suffer hunger and sickness, but in Nouakchott, at least, they manage to stay alive. Nouakchott is Mauritania’s most efficient distribution center for foreign food and medicines.
I drove out to the squatters’ camps with a Moorish businessman who explained his work as “sometimes import-export.” We went to the animal market, in a sea of tents and flimsy shacks. Pencil-thin nomads crowded around us. My host said, “They are not as miserable as they seem. They think that by living like this they can force the government to give them housing and land. It is mostly fakery.” And these were his fellow Moors. I wondered what he thought of the black Africans.
We bought a struggling lamb at the market, forced it into the trunk, and drove home. The businessman lived in a two-story concrete house with a large parlor. It was too hot inside, so we sat out back on a rug in the sand, and drank Coke and traditional Saharan tea. Nearby a slave slaughtered and skinned the lamb. I write “slave” without being sure. He was a Haratin black with a peaceful face. He wore no chains. This is the modern form of slavery—a lifelong but willing servitude. I have seen it also in Tamanrasset. If I had asked, he would have been called a friend of the family. He was clearly more than a servant.
It was the week of the tree. On the television news we watched a government minister plant a sapling in the desert. There was no mention of world events. The businessman sneered. “They are confused and afraid, and don’t know what to say. So they say nothing.”
We went to his office, in a shabby building. He sat in grand style behind a large desk. On the wall hung the mandatory portrait of the President, Colonel Taya—a handsome man with a moustache. I sat at a coffee table. We talked business—about the economic potential of Mauritania, the iron deposits in the north and the rich fishing grounds off the coast. We talked imports and exports. He argued that American magazines need permanent representatives here. He discussed the strategic importance of the country. He was like a man on dry ground pretending to row a boat. The room had not been swept, and sand was accumulating in the corners.
INSHALLAH: GOD WILLING. YOU HEAR IT AGAIN AND again in conversation, a sort of cultural reflex, a constant reminder of faith. We will meet for tea, God willing. The weather will change, the rains will come, and our herds will survive, inshallah. And if none of it happens, that, too, is God’s will.
Westerners accuse Islam of excessive fatalism—but fatalism is just the ingredient necessary to function in the Sahara. I talked to the director of the Peace Corps in Mauritania, who said that the American way is to take action today for a better life tomorrow—which is equally a statement of faith. In Mauritania the Peace Corps has proved largely impotent. The desert twitches, anti sweeps aside good intentions. If nature has been subdued in the industrial West, in the Sahara it, or God, remains the primordial power. You live here as a guest. Soon you learn to think like others, and find yourself even in your most private thoughts saying inshallah.
KIFFA IS THE CAPITAL OF A REGION CALLED THE ASsaba, 350 miles to the east of Nouakchott, on the paved road that crosses southern Mauritania. The road is interrupted by frequent security checkpoints. Immediately to the south there is trouble on the river; to the north there is desert. The law is as capricious as the weather. The soldiers are uncertain. I went by air to Kiffa, and overflew their scrutiny.
Once a fertile savanna, the Assaba has come under full assault by the Sahara. The airport at Kiffa is a dirt runway scraped through the brown scrubland outside town. I waited to disembark while an old woman tried to descend the stairs. She was a back-country Moor, a nomad from the open desert. For minutes she hesitated in the doorway. She gripped the rails and surveyed the angle. Her problem was not physical inability but understanding. These were her first stairs: she had climbed them to get on the airplane, and now she had to figure a way down. A crowd at the bottom shouted advice. She turned one way, then the other, and finally started down backward. Halfway down she ran out of ideas and froze. Her expression was anguished. A group of men came from below and lifted her to the ground.
It was summer, the end of the rainy season. A cumulus cloud towered in the haze and humidity. No one dared hope for a storm; for months the sky had been full of false promise. The land was sparse. The people at the airport looked idle and unhealthy.
I do not know the population of Kiffa, and I am not sure anyone does. It looks like a town of 10,000; I would guess that because of drought the number is triple that. Still, it is dispersed and uncrowded. Stone houses line empty dirt streets. The place is brown and tan, like the desert dust that settles on it. Groups of young Moorish men in white and pale-blue robes walk abreast. They are haughty and unwelcoming. Here, too, relations between the races are difficult. There is a market, run by African women, where the heat is magnified by the confines of airless alleys. Elsewhere there are a few small grocery stores with butane refrigerators to keep bottled drinks cool. There is no electricity. People dig individual wells and drink tainted water. There is no sewage system. Cholera, polio, measles, tuberculosis, malaria, typhoid, hepatitis, a host of parasites, and probably AIDS exist here. One death is hardly distinguished from another.
I stayed in Kiffa with a Peace Corps worker named John Stingley. At age forty he was a wizened, balding man with a full beard and a cautious expression—not the poster image of an enthusiastic volunteer. Stingley was a sometime rock musician and forester from coastal Oregon. His last job there had been as a low-paid technician, trudging the rainy slopes and counting saplings. He told me he joined the Peace Corps out of curiosity. He said he wanted to dry out his boots.
He was idealistic, too. With three years of forestry school behind him, and a lot of practical experience, he thought he could do the world some good. The Peace Corps had sent him to the front lines to plant trees and fight the Sahara. He was a better soldier than most. Near the completion of the two-year tour only fifteen of his original group of forty-one volunteers remained. The others had quit owing to sickness and discouragement. Stingley himself had lost thirty pounds and gained back only fifteen. He lived in Kiffa utterly alone, with little backup. His relations with the local authorities were poisoned by corruption, mistrust, and racial politics. Stingley stayed on, but he no longer believed he could help. He had grown his trees and watched them die. He blamed Mauritanian neglect and the weather. Now he was only counting the days until the end. It is not easy to fight a hopeless war.
The Peace Corps rented his house from the biggest landlord in town. It was a two-room bungalow at the center of a walled dirt yard. With the exception of a scraggly tree by the porch, the yard was bare. This embarrassed Stingley, who said he would have planted it except for the herds of neighborhood goats. They were the bane of his existence. They bounded over the walls and wandered the yard at will. Goats are among the worst culprits in desertification. They eat even spined plants, and destroy young trees by cropping them down to their roots. Stingley hated them with professional vigor, but he might have missed them if they were gone. Together he and the animals danced a mad ballet. When he spotted them in his yard, he stepped threateningly off the porch and waved his arms. They watched and pretended not to care. He started after them, and they thundered around the house in mock fright. He was nimble and sly, and doubled back to catch them by surprise. They thundered the other way, just out of reach. He threw stones; they pranced. If he cornered them, they escaped over the wall and returned later to test his vigilance.
We drew water from a deep well at the front of the yard. It was a laborious job of hauling up buckets hand over hand and filling plastic jerricans. Stingley did not mind. He filtered and sterilized the water with the patience of a man living alone. His housekeeping was immaculate. He cooked on a camp stove and ate simply. He kept a daily journal in tight handwriting. He was proud that he had not been sick for months.
IN BRILLIANT SUNLIGHT THE NEXT MORNING WE WENT to the nursery, where a crew of Africans cared for seedlings under Stingley’s direction. The laborers were employees of the Mauritanian forestry department, to which Stingley was attached as a sort of extension agent. They had not been paid in months, and were growing weak from malnourishment. Stingley claimed that the bosses were keeping the wages. He could not bear the suffering of his men and had lent them money from his own meager salary. In return they treated him as their friend and protector. He had protested on their behalf, to no avail. He was frustrated by his inability to help.
Still, he brightened up among his seedlings. There were some 40,000 of them in the nursery, grown in sacks for transplantation. He led me through, bending over them, cupping the fragile leaves in his hands, discussing the attributes of the different species. Mostly he raised mesquite, which roots well in difficult soils, finds water, grows fast, and can be cut to the ground and survive. The other seedlings were acacias, desert bushes, and a local tree called the neem, which was his favorite, because of its resistance to goats.
Within the confines of the nursery the project was successful: after several reseedings Stingley had achieved a 90 percent germination rate. I asked about the longerterm prospects of survival. He shook his head. In the United States the survival rate is roughly 80 percent; he guessed survival in Mauritania to be at most eight percent, depending on the project. He blamed livestock, lack of care and watering, and the weather. He described walking through old projects in which every sapling was dead. He described watching his own saplings die.
We discussed the current crop. Most of the trees were intended for planting along the roads leading out of town. The idea was to fight drifting sand. But there were no trucks or crews available, and already the planting season was ending. Stingley had heard rumors that in fact many of the trees were destined for the yards of the governor and the chief of police. He shrugged. “At least they might get watered.”
Other trees were being given away on the street. One afternoon, as we watched, the nursery crew handed 15,000 seedlings over a fence to crowds of women. The women seemed delighted. Stingley was skeptical. He had wanted to sell them for a token fee and include instructions on how to plant them. I asked him if he thought any would survive. He smiled quizzically and answered, Inshallah.
We went to see recent plantings at the northern edge of town. They were mesquite bushes, regularly spaced across the upwind slope of a long, powdery dune. A group of children from nearby houses followed us across a fence and along the crest. The land to the northeast was a vast eroded plain, a desert shadow of earlier savanna. A few sturdy trees remained, but the grass was gone, turned to dirt and sand. The land was harsh but not lifeless. Spiny bushes had taken root along the washes and in the shelter of rocks. A car track led across the plain and disappeared into the distance. Out there the main mass of the Sahara stretched in eternal buttes and sand seas. The sunlight was relentless; it pushed away even the memory of rain.
Here on the dune the mesquite plantation had failed. The sand had kept moving, exposing the roots of the bushes, slowly killing them. The fence sagged where we and others had climbed over it. Soon it would let in the goats. I asked the children which way the dune was drifting. They pointed here and there. But I could see for myself that it threatened their houses. The sand was slipping into town.