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William Langewiesche
Excerpts from Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert
(Pantheon, 1996)

From Chapter Seventeen:

Lessons In History

In the morning the man named Aissa stood in a walled dirt yard barking unnecessary orders to immigrant Malians who were loading goats into the back of two Toyota pickup trucks. Dust swirled in the sunlight. The goats stood flank-to-flank so tightly packed that they had to crane their heads upward to breathe. I would like to think that from the beginning I did not trust Aissa, but the truth is I suspended judgment. He was a wiry sharp-faced man, about thirty, barefooted, in a billowing shirt and black-and-gold embroidered pants. He draped a pure white chèche dashingly over his shoulders, like an aviator's scarf, and wore rings on several fingers. I know now he was the type of man who would watch himself in any reflection. This morning the reflection would be me. He watched me watching, and after a suitable delay, came over to hear himself speak.

He said that later, if it still pleased him, we might visit the rock paintings of the Tadart. But first we would drive three days east to Djanet, across 500 miles of rough desert, and some of the goats would die. There would be other passengers, too -- Tuaregs who spoke only Tamachek. But I did not need to worry. I would accompany Aissa in the lead truck. He told me he was an excellent driver, and also the son of a powerful man. They were a family of Chaamba Arabs, authentic nomads from the vicinity of Ouargla. I would find this fascinating. If I had any questions, he would know the answers. He spoke many languages. His close friend was the crown prince of Belgium. He had girlfriends in every major city of Italy.

Hear William Langewiesche read this passage (in RealAudio 2.0):

  • Introduction (00:37):
    RA 28.8, RA 14.4

  • Part One (2:27):
    RA 28.8, RA 14.4

  • Part Two (3:07):
    RA 28.8, RA 14.4

    (For help, see a note about the audio.)

  • We started off. The other truck was driven by Aissa's servant, a masked Tuareg of the black lower classes. His name was Abdullah. He seemed friendly, and perhaps a little stupid. He drove too close behind us, deep in Aissa's dust. Nonetheless, only an hour out of Tamanrasset, I had begun wishing for his company.

    The route took us north of the Hoggar Massif, across a desert of black oxidized sand and gravel. The track was unmarked -- easy to follow where it narrowed through canyons and passes, more difficult where it spread across plateaus. We passed a hamlet of stone huts. Aissa played a tape of Beethoven sonatas, and impressed himself by listening.

    The wind was hot. We crossed sand dunes. Aissa asked me to notice that he rarely engaged the four-wheel drive. I admitted that he was a good driver. For a brief stretch across salt flats he hit 80 miles an hour. Abdullah lagged behind.

    We stopped for lunch and a rest in the shade of a stunted acacia tree. In the afternoon we entered a desert of basins and ranges. A herd of gazelles leapt away from us. We descended and the air grew hotter. Creeping across a dry riverbed, we blew a tire. Aissa allowed Abdullah to catch up and mount the spare. The spare was flat. Abdullah inflated it with a bicycle pump.

    "Don't worry," Aissa said. He held two fingers together. "This is how I am with the desert. If you love a woman, she can never hurt you. The desert is my woman."

    Oh, I thought.

    A goat in the back lay down to die. Aissa twisted its ears, forcing it to stand again. He seemed to take pleasure in this. He said, "As long as the goat stands, he will survive."

    "Maybe he needs a drink."

    "I told you not to worry."

    "I don't. I won't. He's your goat."

    Aissa looked hurt. I regretted my irritability. We drove on in silence. The goat died. We abandoned its carcass to the shade of thorns.

    Aissa said, "You see, he lay down."

    I surrendered. "You were right."

    Aissa nodded. Reminded of himself, he asked, "Did you notice that I have drunk no water today?"

    "Tell me," I said wearily.

    "You -- you drink whenever you get thirsty. I have trained myself not to, so I don't need water like you do. If we had to survive out here, I would last longer."

    "I'm glad."

    The day ended. The night exploded in stars. We settled on a sandy shoulder between piles of volcanic rubble. The Tuaregs walked away to say their prayers. They returned, and squatted close to the fire. Abdullah cooked a stew. Over tea, Aissa showed me snapshots of his women. "These are not all," he said. "I have thirty in France alone."

    "I can only imagine."

    He paused. "But I have never loved a woman."

    He had composed a poem to explain why, and he recited it to me. It addressed the moon rising over the Sahara, veiled by cloud, too shy to show herself because on earth there was one person more lovely still, the only woman Aissa could love.

    I asked Aissa to describe her.

    He couldn't, but mentioned green eyes.

    I wandered into the desert until the campfire became a flicker. The wind blew softly through the mountains. I lay rolled into a blanket, listening to the shifting sand. After the wind faded, the grains settled, and the desert became absolutely quiet. Past midnight, the cold interrupted my sleep. I huddled until dawn, absorbing the solitude.

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    Copyright © 1996 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.