In a landscape so barren… She is still so happy
July 3, 2009
TUNISIA – We were driving at the edge of the Sahara Desert in southern Tunisia on a sandy dirt road. We had just come from a surreal visit to an abandoned set from one of the Star Wars movies: a cluster of ancient mud buildings that, on the inside, turned out to be concrete sprayed on chicken wire and two-by-fours – real Hollywood, authentic inauthenticity, the genuine fake.
We had been pretty much alone there: my aunt and uncle, my wife and myself, and Dahoud, our driver/guide, a Tuareg wearing his tribe’s traditional blue robes and turban and driving a Toyota Land Cruiser.
Now we were alone still, our car the only one on the road through the desert. We rattled along in a cloud of dust and sand. In all directions there seemed to be just exactly one thing: nothing.
And then suddenly there was a young girl – perhaps 10 or 12 – standing by the side of the road, wearing a brightly colored top, a long skirt, a scarf covering her head. She was holding a baby fox in her arms, a “fennec,” the desert fox of North Africa.
She stood there in hopes that a passing car of tourists would stop to admire her captive pet and perhaps give her a few coins.
Our driver pulled over and rolled down the window. He and the girl talked in Arabic. Then he turned the wheel sharply and headed off the road, across the desert sand.
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We jounced and jostled for perhaps 10 minutes and then stopped.
At first it seemed as if we’d simply traveled the short distance from “almost the middle of nowhere” to “exactly the middle of nowhere.” There was nothing
in sight except sand and a few scattered clumps of brush and rough desert grass.
But Dahoud set off walking and we followed.
And then we saw … well, what were we seeing? It took a little time to puzzle out what it was. Then the pieces began to fit together and we realized it was the simplest of desert campsites: a tent that looked like something children would pitch in a suburban backyard, blankets draped over sticks, behind a windbreak of canvas and palm fronds; behind it, a kind of corral built mostly of palm fronds with a few bits of wire; and in front, at the base of a clump of grass, a small fire with a tea kettle sitting in the embers.
As we entered the campsite, a woman stood, waving in welcome, her face, weathered and creased from sun and wind, split in a wide toothy smile. She radiated a kind of joy that was hard to explain or understand, but impossible to ignore.
She was the matriarch, this was her home. She lived here with six of her seven children; her husband and one other son were somewhere else in the desert, many miles away, with their small herd of camels, the family’s only real wealth.
She and Dahoud spoke briefly in what might have been Arabic – or some other, more obscure, desert tongue. We were given to understand that they knew each other, a tribal connection. Dahoud had been born into this same life in the desert, far from any settlement; but he had left that behind to move to a small city and find work as a driver and guide. He had managed to maintain contact with this family and had known they were camped somewhere along this stretch of road. As a favor to their friend Dahoud, they welcomed us as rare visitors.
Still smiling, a beacon, the woman, Ayesha, led us into the tent. At its tallest point, it was not much more than waist high. A few blankets covered the sand. It was perhaps ten feet wide, six feet across. It was home to all seven family members.
We sat there for a moment, trying – without much success – to imagine what this life might be like. We crawled out and stood again.
The corral held perhaps a dozen or so sheep and goats. A few chickens ran through the campsite. Chickens in the desert. They seemed oddly out of place.
We wandered through the campsite. There wasn’t much to see. The young girl with the fennec was there; she let us hold her pet if we wanted to. A small white puppy was tied to a clump of brush. He was, as all puppies are, excited to see anyone, desperate to have his belly scratched.
An older white dog, perhaps father to the puppy, was tied a few yards away, but we were warned to stay clear of him. Apparently these dogs live wild in the desert and though they are friendly as puppies and can be somewhat domesticated, they turn dangerous as they grow older and can be savage with strangers.
One of the sons, in his teens, brought out a battered one-liter plastic soda bottle. He held it up to show us there was a snake inside.
Waving us back, he shook the snake out of the bottle. It scrabbled across the sand, a sidewinder. The boy harassed it with a stick to keep it from escaping. He poked at it, steered it away from a clump of grass where it was trying to disappear. He herded it back into the bottle, somehow forcing it through the narrow neck.
“Dangereux?” we asked Dahoud. Is it dangerous? He spoke French, but no English.
“Mortelle,” he answered, “Directement.” Immediately fatal.
Deadly snakes. Vicious dogs. We saw two other full-grown foxes – one a fennec, one a more ordinary red fox – tied to other clumps of brush.
Life was difficult here for animals.
It was difficult for people as well.
There was no electricity, of course. They had to travel several miles, on foot, to get water. They were miles more from anything that could be described as even a village.
But this was home. They spent the summer months here at the edge of the Sahara. When the weather cooled, they headed deeper into the desert.
We walked back to the fire at the edge of the camp.
Ayesha sat on the ground by the fire. One of her daughters brought a round tin plate with a ball of dough on it. Dahoud held the plate and Ayesha carefully flattened the dough into a disk, perhaps a foot across and an inch thick.
She took a stick and scraped most of the embers and ashes aside. She placed the dough directly onto the hot sand and remaining ashes. Then she used the stick to push the rest of the embers and ashes on top of the dough.
For the next few minutes, while the bread baked in its bed of coals, Ayesha held forth, speaking a language none of us – except Dahoud – could understand.
But as she talked, she radiated that same joy we had seen when we arrived. Her eyes glittered; she waved her hands and gestured out at the surrounding desert. She clapped her hands to the sides of her face and laughed gleefully. She sang a little song and laughed again.
I have to admit that a small corner of my mind wondered if she was mad, a lunatic. What, after all, did she have that could make her so happy?
And yet, clearly she could not be anything other than very sane and, more than that, deeply competent. This was her family, her encampment. She was obviously in charge and they were not just surviving in these harsh conditions, they were thriving.
Time passed and Ayesha used the stick to scrape the ashes away from the dough – now baked into a round flat bread.
She tossed the disk into the air, spinning it, to cool it and throw off some of the sand and ashes.
The she took a piece of cloth and smacked the bread again and again to remove the last grains of sand.
She broke the bread and offered each of us a piece.
It was still warm, fresh-baked and delicious.
By now, the sun was sinking toward the horizon and we had miles to go before dark.
So we stood and tried, wordlessly, to convey our gratitude for her hospitality.
We walked back to the Toyota. Looking back, we could see Ayesha, standing, silhouetted against the setting sun. She was waving good-bye and singing into the desert air.
And I realized that she was quite probably the happiest woman I had ever met.