3 Songs in the Sahara
As the sporadic sounds on the horizon rose, then died, then rose, again and again, I fiddled with the new audio recorder. It was unused and the tiny chrome microphones shone too bright for the dusty desert night. I clutched it to my stomach as I walked and fingered the unfamiliar buttons, only withdrawing my hand from the warmth of my jacket pocket when Madani got a ways ahead of me. I’d showed him the recorder soon after arriving in M’Hamid, only a few hours before. He turned it over in his hands and told me it was beautiful, but it would take me two weeks to shake the embarrassment I felt holding out that small, expensive tool. To shake the thought that I was stealing songs from that place.
That first night there was to be a full moon, but it had not yet risen and I stumbled behind Madani, through the darkness. We cut across the irrigation network that blankets the oasis, my gaze floating from the brightening horizon to a sky broken by palm fronds. I’d been trying to count the steps between the narrow waterways, which were flanked by calf-high levees, loose crumbly chunks that I tripped over consistently.
One… two… three… four… Ahh! damn…….
… Two… three… Ooff!
Oahed… Jouj… Tlata… Rabâa… Rabâa… Rabâa…
I climbed a palm and looked out before we departed for the kasr, the mud metropolis in the center of it all, but the lattice of still-damp canals was lost in the last orange of dusk. I’d been trying to figure it out since, to find its rhythm. Lengthening my steps, using my toes to grip the tips of borrowed sandals, two sizes too small. Madani? Come marcher au ce truc? Marche comme dromadaire? I imagined myself gliding over the uneven ground as a camel does. The year before, I had not been enough of a camel and the villagers let me know. The drums of our music are the footsteps of camels, I’d been told, play like you are riding. No, no, no! The stride of a camel is not the stride of a horse! If I could walk like a camel I could play like a camel, and perhaps I could find my footing in the maze. Madani laughed. More silence. I tripped over another rise then music, much louder than before, no longer just noise. I could discern the wail of a wandering flute and a dull rumbling of drum. I reckoned thirty more minutes.
The ksar is called M’Hamid el-Qadim, the old M’Hamid, plain of gazelles. It is still inhabited mostly by the descendants of the Malian traders who built it, nomads with a strong taste for dates. In the days before the dam they were herders, returning to the village only for months three, eight, and nine, when the palms were laden with those dark sugary droplets. I’ve seen Madani call them Ortmort, black man. Or Afriqi. Not due to race but to heritage. The oasis here has likely supported settlements for five millennia, all here are ancient immigrants and all rely on the palms for protection from the ever-encroaching desert.
The music stopped as we arrived at the high gate marking the start of the ksar, the final line of defence in the days when the warrior tribes still rode the valley. Between mud spires high above me fangs of sky shone indigo. I walked out from the mouth of the desert and my chest tightened, the dry cold air of the night or uneasiness. I felt I was entering a world forbidden to me.
Your first day back in the desert is Eid an-Nabi, thanks be to God! I recalled the greeting I received at the bus station in town. The birthday of the prophet Muhammad is celebrated by all Muslims but I thought I’d watched the festivities in Marrakech two days earlier. Again I asked for clarification. Is it a religious festival? Oui. Yes, a religious festival. An Islamic festival? Non. The date farmers of Old M’Hamid are Sufis, like their cousins to the south, in Gao and Timbuktu. There, Islam was introduced not by conquest but commerce, by caravans carrying salt, gold, and slaves. Features from earlier religions were absorbed, desert shamen venerated as saints, rites of forgotten origin.
Because I didn’t arrive in M’Hamid (New M’Hamid) until sundown I’d missed the main event. The men of the village had been dancing all day. When a spirit possessed them they would cry out, dance faster. A few held spoons of cedarwood, long and beautiful, with which they struck their foreheads to the rhythm of the drums. Faster, faster. Skin split, blood dripping down nose and chin. Others used knives, dulled by the generations. Just past the gate was a broken-backed street, lined with structures higher and smoother than any I’d seen. It was narrow but the sand here was hard packed, easy walking. We rounded the sudden corners and stooped under palm trunk beams when the route tunneled through a building , into darkness so deep that I could see the sound bounce from wall to wall.
A year before I’d woken up in the desert. From Tangier the trip took one full day, an overnight train to Marrakech and a bus ride over the mountains. A crowded train; I sat in an open space between two cars with the youth of the cities. Their rotten teeth tainted the words that snapped from between them. From the outskirts of the Red City I watched the sun rise through wisps of dust that kicked off the tracks where they die, my mind numbed by a night without sleep. Gare de Marrakech is the last train station in the south, one measure for where the Sahara begins.
By that point I knew I was going to the desert, though when I left Spain for Morocco I did so cluelessly. It was my final month of a semester off from college and by then, what started as a carefully planned overland trip from China to the Atlantic had melted into aimless wandering. One evening I lost my way in the narrow streets of Sevilla. In Triana a woman sang on her rooftop and I listened from across the river imagining al-Andalus, Muslim Spain. The chiming of cathedral bells, from high in the Giralda, softened to a muezzin’s call. I listened for Arabic in the guttural songs of the cantaora and the pain of Flamenco finally took me, I had not felt it before. That night I mentioned to the Arab tears I heard in that singing to Shachaf, a shy Moroccan-Israeli, who was letting me sleep on his couch for free. He’d come to Andalucia after completing his military service to become a bailaor, a dancer.
Flamenco is not Spanish music, no. It is the music of Moriscos and Romani. From his father he’d learned of the lyrical poets that crossed the Straits of Gibraltar when Spain and Morocco were one. When the Christians retook Andalucia, the Muslims and Jews that could not flee took refuge with the Gypsies. That is Flamenco. I found a list of Moroccans looking for free labor and emailed them all, then I too fled the city. In Tarifa I received a reply. Marhaba. You are welcome in Zagora Province. Zagora, Zagora. I repeated it aloud as I boarded the ferry, almost ashamed by the perverse joy I find in knowing nothing about my destination. Two days later I met Madani.
Madani’s teeth are a flat yellow, stained from thirty years of tea and tobacco. They protrude from his upper gum like those of his namesake, al-SbaH, the lion. Once he told me that he bent them like that on a can of tuna. He’d been riding a camel back to the village after days without food and had nothing else to puncture the tin with. The children in town tell me he is called SbaH because he is the fiercest man in M’Hamid. He knows the desert the best.
A friend of Madani’s had put up the help wanted ad and another responded to my query; though he has learned to speak near-perfect French from his interactions with tourists Madani, like most in M’Hamid, cannot read or write. For two weeks I served as his secretary, responding to emails at the lonely CyberCafe in town. Yes, tell them all to come. Madani seemed desperate for more helpers, I was the first in quite some time. Marhaba, marhaba, all are welcome. He did not receive many emails. I also helped Madani on his small patch of land, located on the fringe of the oasis, halfway between Old M’Hamid and New M’Hamid. Together we scratched at the ground with a shovel, a broken hoe, and our hands, and Madani answered the simple questions I asked about his life.
Almost a decade ago, Madani put forward his life savings to purchase what was then just rolling dunes. He built walls and planted palms, reclaiming desert for the oasis it once was. He built small mud huts and rented them out to the few tourists that ventured so far from town before departing on guided excursions into the open Sahara. Sometimes he guided their trips to the desert, the only way to make real money in a place like M’Hamid.
At that point Madani had been guiding for half his life, and though the work was infrequent it was better than the few alternatives, seven-day weeks at a construction site in one of the big cities, or the 25-year commitment that comes with joining the Moroccan military. Madani joined the military once, but he deserted after receiving the $1000 signing bonus, only a few days in. He’s also made the pilgrimage to Marrakech; like almost every other young man in M’Hamid, Madani’s hands are still deeply scarred from the cities.
Madani should be a chief. His father, the last chief of their tribe, passed away when he was thirteen or fourteen. Back then, the family was still nomadic. They travelled the entire Draa River Valley, from the headwaters in the central Atlas Mountains to its mouth at Tan-Tan, a few good months of walking. As chief of the tribe, Madani’s father was well off. The hundreds of camels and sheep herded by the family would be worth almost half a million dollars today. When he died however, Madani’s older half-brother, the son of the chief’s first wife, took the entire herd and abandoned them to build himself a mansion in Guelmim, a month’s walk downriver. Madani was left with his mother and sister to provide for and no way to provide for them. They were forced to seek refuge in town.
Nomads had been pouring into the newly-built New M’Hamid for more than a decade at that point. In 1980, the year in which Madani thinks he was born, the Moroccan government dammed the River Draa at Oarzazate, a medium-sized city ten days north of M’Hamid. The seasonal river, which ran underground for most of the year, was a ribbon of life in the otherwise hostile Sahara, providing the necessary habitat for gazelles, desert foxes, and, of course, for the nomadic peoples who learned it’s every bend, generation by generation. The Sahara has traditionally been governed by a fragile network of tribal affiliations but Madani’s preordination as chief meant nothing in the village of refugees, he learned to hustle to survive. Madani told the tale of his childhood in pieces as we kneeled over stringy seedlings he hoped soon would feed him. I gleaned more and more information as we grew closer, as my Arabic improved. I told him how my mother had provided for her children alone, that I’d helped her provide for my brother for the last few years, that that was a wonderful feeling.
At night we spoke of happier things, music eventually. At sundown each night we sat down to an endless pot of tea and a small battery-powered speaker. There were only about fifty songs on the device and after the first few days I began to recognize some of the tunes. During lulls in our conversations I listened to the soaring guitar and repetitive melodies of the Desert Blues. I learned about Tinariwen, the grandfathers of the genre, and how the music had spread all the way from the Tuareg lands of northern Mali. I sang with Madani over the sands scraping away at the walls outside, I continued singing the songs of the desert when I returned to America, thinking about how I could get back.
On my second trip to M’hamid I sat by a window and was awake for it all. From Marrakech the mighty Atlas look blue but as we drove towards them the line between mountain and sky sharpened. The sheet of snow draped over the peaks seemed too clean for this dusty place. Palmeraie gave way to pastureland, then even rows of cactus at the start of the foothills. S-turns, up and over passes then back down. Higher and higher, the air was cool even in the afternoon sun. The bus stopped in an Amazigh village on the far side of the mountains where the road bends down towards the Sahara. I stepped out into a warm breeze and shivered, for it tasted of sand. From that tiny highway outpost the expanse was half the horizon and I gazed upon it with the eyes of an rambler come home. My heart and my lungs and the tips of my fingers stretched to fill the emptiness and for a minute I let the wind lift me up.
Before boarding the bus I came across a curious man in white and blue. He was darker than the fair mountain Berbers and a battered banjo dangled from his neck on a length of twine. I walked by him slowly and when he caught sight of this foreigner, a rare appearance, he lept into a heroic ballad. The twanging from his fingers flowed too fast for the bastardized French, which I could not understand, but I pulled a five dinar piece from my pocket for the privilege of standing next to that instrument. Merci! Frances! Vous etes Frances! Like his banjo, the man’s once lustrous face had cracked. The lines rippled up his cheeks as he smiled and my coin vanished between folds in his clothing.
Ana Ameriki. Americain. He must be a travelling musician, I thought, from somewhere to the south. I introduced myself to him in Arabic, slightly embarrassed to use fusha, the archaic classical variety which I studied at school. I am Mustafa. I am in Morocco collecting the music of the desert, the desert blues. Will you please play a song for me. I told him of my brother in the desert, how I’d lived with Madani for a few weeks and how I was returning for three. He said nothing but began to pluck at the strings, slower now. The corners of his mouth fell back and his eyes turned away. One of the strings, the shortest, was not metal but hide, and each time his pinky curled towards it the banjo rattled like a snake. These winding repetitions, shrill and unsteady, were not the desert blues, and the ancient words that rose up to meet it were neither dialect nor fusha. The man sang in Berber, the language of North Africa before the Arabs invaded. Ghornia Amazighia! A Berber song!
The word Berber comes from the latin for barbarian, and only recently has the oft-marginalized group reclaimed its identity as natives of this land. He tells me that Amazigh means free man and that his music is Gnaoua. I learn that Gnaoua singers are healers, that their chanting, which can last for hours, is a bridge built for the faithful that they may be touched by the seven saints. Later, on the bus, I will write down the snippets of his explanations that I understood; seven sacred colors… matched with musical patterns… incense.., mystical trances brought on by dancing and the path to spiritual renaissance opened by the guembri, the three-stringed lute my teacher had traded for a banjo long ago. I will close my eyes in concentration and grasp at the spirits that travel the plains and the mountains and the endless Sahara. I will curse it all for forgetting to pull out my audio recorder. Before leaving I gave the gnaoui one of the packs of guitar strings I’d brought to exchange for songs. He kissed the package and blessed my journey.
Highway nine ends in New M’Hamid at a traffic circle barely deserving of that title. For much of the first week of my music collecting journey I sat at a restaurant opposite that last scrap of pavement, listening to tinny songs from cell phone speakers; I recognized some from campfire sessions the year before. The restaurant was built to cater for tourists, but that traffic too has evaporated. As the headlines coming from across the Middle East became more sensational over the past decade foreigners stopped coming this far into the desert, opting instead for the dunes of Merzouga or just day trips from the cities. In the mornings we walked the five kilometers into town from Madani’s plot. The elders in town greet him by name and he introduced me as his brother, from America. Some remembered and I was happy to see friends I’d forgotten. Mustafa! al-Amriki!
I understood the dialect spoken in M’Hamid better than any other I’d come across in Morocco. This is because the dominant culture of this part of the desert is Hassaniya, from M’Hamid over the mountains into eastern Algeria and as far south as Western Sahara and Mauritania, parts of Mali even. One thousand years ago the Beni Hassan tribe began migrating to this region from Yemen, a trip of many thousands of miles that, even on camelback would take years. Until a few centuries ago, when they became gradually less nomadic, the Hassaniya were major drivers of trans-Saharan trade and their merchants peppered routes criss-crossed the chest of Africa, through Niger, Libya, the Sudan. On the silent restaurant television I watched shells scream through the skies over Sana’a with her long-lost sons as they drank tea and gossiped. Beyond the sea of sand their primordial homeland was collapsing, the government had just fallen, but those voices of Old Yemen spoke of other things.
They mostly spoke about money. About camels, and aunts, and uncles, and cousins, but mostly money. There is never enough money in M’Hamid, though competition for tourism dollars is not as fierce as elsewhere in Morocco. The men of the coffee shop got word that Madani was to take a group of French into the desert and there was much debate about who would be chosen as his co-guides. It seemed that the fleeting tourism employment opportunities in M’Hamid were rationed out to capable young men in the village by Madani and the other men around the cafe tables, most of whom I learned were also seasoned guides. I listened closely to their conversations, for I was to join Madani and the group for my first trek into the open desert, but I could not understand, and instead, I imagined walking past the dunes behind my hut, over which the sun set each night.
On our third day out of M’Hamid we stopped outside the big erg on the border. The boys Madani had hired drew up the tents on a bare patch of ground between the dunes and served the French tourists peanuts and dried figs as they chatted. The dates were the last of October’s harvest and had been stored underground for weeks wrapped in plastic.
et tu devriez……………… le vent rancuneaux
Their teeth were gummed up with sweetness. Lips puckering, smacking. Words carried away by the wind, comprehension lost.
Out the flap of the tent I could still see the bones of the Lesser Atlas, a pale ridge left to be worn away by the sands, and as the French ate I gazed at Algeria. A military outpost was perched on one of the peaks and the thin straight lines of its communications towers seemed to puncture the softness of the mounds of sand below. I had not realized the border was so close.
All morning a strong breeze had been kicking up sand but it died down as I left camp. At the top of the first dune the air was still and I blinked my eyes happily. The dunefield was a band of shadowless ripples, pale and delicate like the grooves on an elephant’s tusk before it is polished. To the southeast there appeared to be no horizon, and the invisible curve of the earth fell away in the distance like at sea. I tried to imagine the Atlantic hundreds of miles away, folded into the strip of dark blue draped across the hazy sands. Dividing the valley in two, a distant river of pale green tamarisks betrayed the slow moving water fathoms below the rocky deathbed of the Draa.
A great dune lay before me. It had been rising on the horizon since the day before but not until witnessing it as a whole was I able to guess at its enormity. It looked close, not large. Madani had said that this dune is the second tallest in Morocco, six hundred feet, but there is no way to differentiate a dune that is small and near from one that is large and far away.I decided I’d be able to get there and back in a few hours and would have time to make sand bread with the boys.
To the base of the dune took less than an hour. To summit took almost as long. From the rounded peak I saw that the crest I’d ascended was a gentle S. I had stopped looking up mid-climb. The dune stayed close but it didn’t get closer, just larger so I marched with head down, watching rivulets of sand drip from my footsteps down its sides in slow motion.
I surveyed the dark stitch I’d left across the folds of sand surrounding me and could see camp but just barely. The two light tents and three dark camels were one speck of color to the North under the long blue blade of the Moroccan Atlas, which rose sharper than the Algerian ridge but more fragile. I took off my sunglasses and turned my face to the sun. I closed my eyes as tightly as I could and let it dance about the brilliant grey behind my eyelids. I lay down and melted into the warmth of the sand on my back and my calves. It burnt the top of my feet but I waited and let them go numb. Laying my head back onto a pillow of sand, the peak of the dune, I felt grains of sand roll across my cheeks, carried by puffs of wind a few at a time. I let the wind pile sand around me as it picked up only to carry it away with a violent gust. My head was protected by a shesh, weightless yards of cotton wrapped tight around my face. I watched the glow of sunset with my shesh pulled over my eyes, stretched into a mesh of fine thread. In the distance a sandstorm darkened the valley, rolling in from the West slowly like date syrup. Sand blocked out the sun.
I told Madani I’d stayed atop the great dune, I didn’t want him to be mad at me, but when I turned to leave the storm had not yet reached the erg. I jumped all the way down the long S ridge, taking three steps with straight legs and pointed toes, then flinging myself off the side. Weightlessness. The steep shoulder of sand was forgiving. It gave way up to my knees. At the bottom I looked back, the wind had become a gale, heavy with grains of sand too fast and fine to see. Invisible specks danced across the lenses of my sunglasses as I began the long walk towards camp. I knew that I wasn’t in danger. I’d been able to see the camp before the sands rolled in and I still had an hour or so left of twilight.
Between the lower dunes run flat sections of ancient mud baked hard by the sun. I followed them like a maze through the dunes. Dunes and dunes, up and over. In the absence animal and plant life, the wind felt like a living being. On the crests it screamed in my face and I wanted to scream back. I thought of Madani back at camp, jumping from the tent when he found out I was missing. Retying his shesh as he sprinted into the dunes to look for me.
In the valleys I could lose myself. The ground didn’t give way and the walking was easier. Sand too heavy to be lifted by the wind flitted across my bare feet. From every direction it whispered like a rainstorm, far off. People in the village say that the sands of these dunes sing the future. Just a few years ago an old Swiss woman sat here and was told the exact date she was going to die. I walked quickly and listened for my destiny but all I could hear was a high cry in the distance Mustafaaaaaa! Mustafaaaa! and the quiet roar of the sand. I walked faster and yelled back at the auditory mirajes. Madaniiiii! I took off my sunglasses and realized how dark it was, then put them back on and walked faster. I knew I shouldn’t run but I did. Then I yelled at myself when I stopped.
As I made it to what I thought should have been the edge of the erg darkness was falling. Purple dunes lining the horizon where I had expected the rockier terrain of our campsite. Running around in the Sahara desert like an idiot, like a tourist. I should’ve told someone I was going at least. I pictured Madani riding one of the camels back to M’Hamid to gather a search party and wanted to bury myself in the sand from embarrassment. It was getting cold and if I didn’t get back to camp within the next hour I would have to bury myself in sand. There is no humidity to hold warmth in the desert, and the temperature can plummet into the low forties in the time it takes to start a fire. I was wearing a T-shirt.
The great dune was just visible in the distance through the sheets of rolling sand. Before heading into the desert Madani had told me a story about getting lost. It is not rare for even the nomads to get lost in those dunes. It is how we learn, he’d said. When he was a youth he was overtaken by a sandstorm while herding camels. For a night and two days the wind blew and he wandered in search of his herd without sleeping. He said he finally found them not by seeing or hearing them but by smelling them. He swears it. The wind had mercy on him and carried the scent of two dozen camels across the erg and he followed it back over the dunes for hours. That’s the way grazing camels find their way back to camp. Smoke from the nomad’s fire can draw them from fifty kilometers away. I sniffed the air but could smell nothing through the layer of dust that encased my nostrils. Finally I gave up on my navigating and turned to climb back up the dune to look for fire. I powered up the hills of sand back up the massive shadow.
The high winds died down as I approached the base half an hour later. I had run much of the way and kneeled for a second to rest, looking up the slope towards the peak. Right above me a patch of sky cleared and the first star of the night shone a soft orange. I stared at that star the whole way up the dune, trying not to think of what was going on back at camp. I knew Madani would be a force to be reckoned with, ripping across the dunes like a tornado with his tiny flashlight. I didn’t realize I’d made it to the top until I stepped over the other side and when I turned to look back towards the valley I fell to my knees in relief and let the sand hold me. The storm had almost passed and in the distance, where the definition between the dunes dissolved I could see the glow of a fire. There were three points of light below, spread between the camp and the great dune. I knew I was saved. I let myself enjoy the beauty of the void before me. The horizon had been swallowed by the night and the flashlights weaving slowly through the erg looked like stars fallen to earth.
The week after leaving the dune I left the desert. In Ouarzazate I took my first shower of the month. I let the short green grass of the north swallow me as my train puffed across the plains and I forgot the infinite browns of sand. The bustle of Casablanca drowned out the solitude I’d become accustomed to. I flew back to the United States and went back to school and the names and faces of M’Hamid faded.
I still speak to Madani when technology permits. I ask about his family and he asks about mine. He asks when I’ll be returning and we talk of all the camels we will have when we return the nomad life, he and I. One day it will happen, we’ll cross Africa from Morocco to Yemen. In the winter, when months of Vermont darkness have me drained, I tie up my shesh and listen to Tinariwen, imagining that the snowdrifts are just dunes, whitened by a high noon sun.