Seven years ago I started writing “Tin Hinan”, a novel about Berbers and a woman who became ‘the mother of us all’…a Berber Queen. Tin Hinan is an actual historical woman, from the 5th century who left with her slave, Takama from Morocco and traveled by camel to the mountains of central Algeria. There is little known about her, except she consolidated the Berber tribes to fight the Arabs in the area. Berbers were not Arabs or Muslims then, having their own religions and culture, customs. This novel is a work of fiction, but I drew upon the stories of Berbers I knew when I was a belly dancer those years ago. Though they were modern Berbers mainly from Morocco and Algeria, they gave me much information on an older culture. It seems that many cultural things do not change so fast, especially when people reside in the mountains of both countries.
Sandstorms are a serious menace, today as then. There can be a split second between survival and death.
“Sahara surrenders very few realities, only illusions”.
We could see the Amour, the Ksour mountains. They were blue, gray blurs in the far distance. These were lower ranges, but would be arduous enough. I had never travelled this route, even with the few months Takama, Niefa and I plodded to the mountain range where Immel and his men found us. We were still in the desert, where our small party traveled from oasis to oasis. We had traversed the wadis, the Chelif and Tonil riverbeds, long stretches of oasis. The grass grew along the riverbeds when there was water enough to cultivate the foliage and where the palms and dates could dig deep into the sandy soil. Our scouts proceeded us a day out. We needed to be careful of the other caravans along the way. They also made sure we were headed in the direction of oasis, for water was our greatest concern. Ours was so small, less a caravan more a raiding party. We were not, but we still could draw suspicion. Immel said the majority of caravans had a thousand camels, but some of the Arab caravans had up to twelve thousand camels! What a sight that must be, stretching out as far on the horizon. Surely these caravans would carry the wealth of nations. From what Immel and his tribemen said around the fire at night, this wealth was made up of many things. Gold, salt, slaves, cotton and silks. Watermelons, spices, fruit, the kola nut and cotton seeds for planting.
Ah! Cotton was essential. There was no other cloth to use in the desert. It protected from heat of the sun, and the bite of sand. I learned to spin thread and weave cloth on small looms only two feet wide, but there were bigger looms in some tribes. We stitched the lengths of cloth together and dyed it with indigo for the rich, dark blue that our men wore around their heads and across their faces. We also dyed the cloth with different flowers and herbs and fixed the color with camel urine. But mostly we left it white and let it bleach out in lengths in the sun. It looked like strips of snow in the sunlight!
Several times we watched long caravans from a distance. They were hidden by dunes, or distance. We did not get not close because we didn’t want to attract attention. Our little party of twenty some camels and pack animals would be of little interest to these big outfits. But we were careful, only approaching the smaller caravans. Of course, we knew the Berbers were the guides even in these big Arab caravans. They were well paid crossing the deserts from far flung towns with produce or booty. Large slabs of salt, to be cut into smaller portions sold in the markets to the east and west had been brought from Mali in the south. All this would make their way to foreign cities. This salt was so necessary for daily life. It was the basis of preservation of food.
It was a miracle that Takama and I didn’t succumb in the desert during our first crossing to the mountain where Immel found us. Our navigation was from oasis to oasis, but we were more guided by luck and the scent of water in Niefa’s nose than our own abilities. Now I understood how much of a miracle it was: yes, our course was different, and there was some purpose for this much longer route Immel was taking but still, it was by favor of the gods and goddesses. Path- finding in the desert was a reading by stars, wind patterns, sand dune formations and even the color of the sand. Immel and his men knew all these things of the desert, and we didn’t. Perhaps that is why our appearance before them occasioned such wonder and disbelief from the elders of their mountain ksar.
Somehow we had survived.
There is a saying, probably Berber, as we are a wise people. “Sahara surrenders very few realities, only illusions”. Perhaps it was also because our perception of distance was so unreal. What looked like an oasis in the distance was only a shimmering of heat on the endless landscape. Our trek from oasis to oasis had to be exact, within a day’s foretelling as we could die in the desert if our reckoning was off even by a few miles. But Immel and his men were experienced in the desert, and I felt safe we would not perish. Of course, there were other factors to consider about our survival, but that was not assured by any god or goddess.
One late morning near noon, when the day seemed to be exactly like the day before, and the day before that, a wind picked up and the camels started to be restless, bellowing and groaning , their nostrils flaring, as if they were scenting something in the air. Suddenly we knew why. There was an enormous cloud in the distance–stretching from the ground to heaven. The sky had turned a dull orange. It was very strange from the azure blue of just a few moments before. But it wasn’t a cloud, it was that most fearful of dangers– the sandstorm! We could hear it coming, though it was miles off, a pounding roar like nothing else. Immel and the other men gathered on their uneasy camels to discuss what to do.
There were some hills off to the west. Though we could not outrun a sandstorm, to attempt to do so would mean certain death, the hills might offer protection. We turned towards those barren hills, whipping our camels into a gallop and clustered together, making the camels and pack camels to lie down together. We got on the leeway side of the camels, and prepared for the storm. We huddled together, and I saw Takama’s face, her eyes black and fearful, before she pulled her hood and cloths over them. She had taken the two foxes in their cage, had covered them with the loose woven basket and heaped some of our luggage over them. If she had to, she would lay herself over their basket to save them. She had grown so fond of them.
Immel wrapped me in his burnoose and pulled me close. I could feel his excitement and fear, as his heart pounded hard in his chest. Takama cuddled behind me, almost digging underneath the camel. We had made it in time, as the wind and the sand came barreling down the desert, and even though we were protected by the men and the covering of cloth, the sand was hard, abrasive on our clothes. No one said a word, for to open your mouth would mean sand and dust, dust carried by the wind above the sand, small and dangerous pieces of rock and dirt, would enter our throats and go down our lungs, suffocating us. The sun was blotted out. It was if nighttime had fallen at noon.
The roar of the storm was ten thousand demons and zars riding the wind. Even if I didn’t have my ears wrapped shut, I could not have heard the sound of a human.
It seemed as if I had fallen asleep. I felt the heaviness of a deep sleep, but it was the heaping of sand all around and over us that was weighed me down. Suddenly the roaring stopped. The storm had worn itself out, and the silence around us was unnatural after the roar before.
I heard Immel’s voice, as if from a long distance. He was shaking me to consciousness. I wanted to go back to sleep, but this was not the sleep of the night. It was the sleep of an almost-death. We were covered in sand and we shook ourselves to feel our limbs. We had survived one of the worst perils of the desert. Our camels had long lashes on their eyes, something to keep the sand out. Their nostrils closed to keep their lungs safe. Thick and rough coats were also the reason they had not been beaten, flayed by the sand, but they too, had to work their way out of the heaping sand. With bellows and groans and the help of the men, they pulled themselves upright, shaking themselves, creating miniature sandstorms in the doing.
Takama uncovered the basket and the foxes were gone! Her eyes caught mine and I saw her sadness. They were gone, swept away by the djinn of the sandstorm. Though Takama was desert bred and strong, she fought to hide her tears. One of the men, who saw her distress, came over and bending down, started to dig away at the sand. There, popping out their long noses, were the two foxes! With the intelligence of desert animals, they burrowed down in the sand, safer from the storm than we above.
It is said that “The Desert is the realm of the Spirits” and to pilgrimage there is to come face to face with your mortality. The night brought spirits, demons, zars, as they rode the cold night air. They also appeared during the day, when travelers were caught far from shelter, and had to survive the elements as best they could. The roar of the sandstorm carried the voices of ghosts—men and camels who had perished in the Great Sahara for millennium.
If history was to be believed, 50,000 soldiers of Cambyese’s army, had marched across the middle Sahara to fight the Ethiopians, only to perish in the desert in minutes, buried by ten feet of sand. Their bleached bones, arrowheads and lances were left scattered across the barren landscape for 2500 years.
The Sahara Desert was well called “The Mirror of the Soul”. It made or broke men, and those who survived had their lives changed forever.