Posts Tagged ‘The Sahara’

“Tin Hinan”, Chapter 3.

March 9, 2018

"Tin Hinan", Chapter II,  "Damaged Goods"


As I think back to those times, so long buried in memory, I wonder what I was doing. Only sixteen years old, such a tender age, and Takama even younger. We were two maidens driven by Zar-induced madness. There was no other accounting for what I did. Vigorously consulting the goddesses every night I never got an answer. False goddesses they were, or silent to my pleas. Safi. (enough)

The first few nights in the desert were sleepless with grief and anger. I didn’t think of the future danger. I didn’t dare. If I did, I would have turned back and then what face would I have? Our men were known warriors, but our women were just as strong.

Takama made the fire each night, bending over the fire bow and feeding our tiny blazes with twigs and dried camel dung from a sack. She drew precious water from the skins, threw in millet, salt, and we ate some of the dates. There was no variety in our diet, but I made sure Takama had packed my jewelry. Sold in a market town or oasis, this silver would bring a different food for our bellies.

Niefa and the donkey fed sparsely on the brush and wild grasses that pockmarked the desert. We had to be careful with our water, but Niefa was afterall, a camel and she could manage without much water. Takama’s donkey was another problem.

The first few days had the nature of adventure, and except some expeditions with my father and mother over the mountains, I had never been on my own. Takama, being a slave, had not even this knowledge. She never left the oasis.

I followed the sun to the east as it rose, and the desert still stretched out before us, endless and unbroken to the horizon. Some days I wondered if we would die here, the four of us, bleached bones in the desert. There was little shade except for crouching beside Niefa when we stopped to stretch our legs and squat in the desert. Takama laughed at me, for I still carried the behaviors of a woman. I squatted down to pass water, instead of standing. I would have to remember when we came close to an encampment.

Since we expected to meet others, Takama would be my ‘wife’, and I her young husband. That would give us at least some sort of story. But our biggest problem would be explaining why we were out in the desert away from our tribe, and traveling alone. This was foolhardy at best and dangerous in any case. A young couple travelling without the cover and protection of at least a small caravan could be runaway slaves. If we were perceived to be such, we would be slaves fast enough.

We talked around our pitiful fire at night, when the stars stretched from horizon to horizon, a blanket of diamonds over us. There was only the sound of the desert wind moaning in the nighttime air. It got cool as soon as the sun dropped to the horizon and cold when the stars and moon rose into the dark bowl of heaven.

“Aicha, do you think we will soon fine an oasis?” I heard the worry in her voice.

“Do I look like one of those old, smelly fortune women? Do I look like even a Sheikha? How do I know?” I was cross with her, for I was fearful myself. I hid my fear with fierce words to my slave.

“What if the Arab raiders catch up with us here in the desert? What will we do?” Her eyes were wide with her own fear.

“Ah, Takama, you can dance for them and I will hold them off with my sword.”

Stupid girl, I thought.

“A quick slash of a takouba (sword) and all our problems will be over. But I would bet even the hated Arabs aren’t stupid enough to kill women. If they guess at my sex I will be raped along with you and sold as a slave. In fact, from what I hear, even if they didn’t know my sex for sure, they would still rape me.”

Takama’s lip started quivering, and soon her childish tears would fall.

“Takama”, I said in a softer voice, “Soon we will find an oasis and good bread and salt will be offered. You know our traditions. The desert tribes are the most generous on earth! We will find a safe haven around their fire and protection from all else.”

Suddenly, Takama screamed and jumped up. A big desert scorpion, as big as a clay bowl, was crossing towards the fire. I took my takouba from my girdle and sliced it in half. It was a lucky strike for these creatures were fast.


After a week, the indigo-blue dye had stained my face, and I had the look of a young man. Takama tried to line my veil with white cotton, for she did not want to see her mistress degraded in such a way. I fought with her over this, and threatened to pummel her with my fists like a man would, but we only ended up laughing and rolling in the sand. I was glad for company, but felt guilty I had taken her from everything she had known for my own selfish reasons. She was a slave, and bound to follow my whims, but she now was also a friend. Throwing destinies together out in the desert is a great equalizer.

We rose early with the sun, and plodded slowly to the east. After a week, we began to see a change in the dunes. Off far to the east and north were mountains, and although our steps seemed not to bring us closer, we knew that it was just a matter of time before we would reach some oasis. Our water was low, and we rationed it out carefully, making sure that the donkey first, then Niefa, had a drink. Soon we saw shrubs, and more and more grasses. We pulled up the tough grasses to bite at the tender stalks where they joined the roots, but there was little moisture in this desert grass.

Finally we saw the faint glimpse of palm trees and we knew soon we would arrive at an oasis. We were coming up to the foot of the mountains and like our own oasis back home, the runoff from the mountains would give some water and pasture. That was where tribes would gather, and not all of the tribes were nomadic. Most were sheepherders, tied to the land until it was used up by the herds of goats, sheep and camels. Then they would move on, over the mountain passes until they found more pasture. This was the life of herders back into history. This was our history.

Winter was coming on, and already the nights were colder. Takama had brought enough heavy blankets for us, and we had the heat of Niefa to warm us as we huddled together under the covers. A stop at an oasis where we could obtain food, water and shelter was becoming urgent.

I don’t remember all the events of this journey, but I do recall the strong urge to keep running away from the scene of my shame. Hasim had found me wanting in some way, or had found another more desirable. Each time I thought of this, my heart overflowed and bitterness and shame rose up like a ghost before me. I could not quell my liver. I was single purpose in my need to put as far a distance from my memories as possible. Running was the only way I knew to change what had happened back there.

As we came closer to the oasis, we saw green grass and date palms. It was a big oasis, and soon we could see the black tents of nomads. Niefa bellowed as she smelled fresh water, and even Takama’s donkey picked up his hooves.

It was early evening, the star called Venus had risen when we plodded into the encampment. They saw us off in the distance, but since we were only two, no general alarm was sounded. Children ran out, curious as children are, and shyly made a ring around our beasts. They wanted to know where we came from, but knew those questions would be rude from children, and anyway, desert tribes did not ask. Hospitality was given first, and what a man wanted to reveal was all that was expected.

We proceeded to the middle of the camp, where men were assembled, and the women behind them. Now several boys came and grabbed the bridles of both Niefa and the donkey, and I slipped off her back and stood there, my good ‘wife’ Takama coming up behind me.

“Welcome, welcome, come and eat and drink with us”. A tall man, obviously a chieftain, came up to me, and touching the tips of my outstretched fingers to his, he then clasped together his hands in the traditional desert greeting.

I remembered to keep my veil around my face. No man would remove his veil from across his mouth in the presence of authority, and this man looked like he was fully invested with the leadership of the tribe. He carried a dagger in his girdle and the takouba, at his side.

Bowing to him, placing my hands crossed over my chest I answered.

“We have come a long way over the desert, and seek water and supplies. We have need of rest and a safe place to recover our spirits, praise the Gods and Goddesses.” I remembered to pitch my voice low, and tried to make my eyes look fierce.

“My wife is in need of sleep. The desert is hard on one so young and this is the first time she crosses it.”

I caught a slight flicker of a smile in the eyes of the man before me. We nomadic people are versed in reading the eyes, for they are the gateways of the soul. The soul resides in the liver, but the eyes are the portals.

“We welcome you to our camp. Come and sit with us, and tell us how you found the desert, the mother of us all. Your wife will be refreshed by the women.”

I didn’t look at Takama, for to do so would give too much regard for her welfare. Only if she were sick or breeding would a man publicly show his concern, and then in a very small way before strangers.

I sat and ate good mutton stew, and was grateful the darkness was falling fast, for when I lowered my veil to eat, perhaps my features would appear as that of a woman. But the blue dye soaked into my face, and I thought I passed for a young man. Young I would appear to all, and there was nothing I could do about it.

There would be no questions, for this is not our way, and I offered little about our journey, except to say the desert was a wide sea indeed, and we had come from afar. What I didn’t realize was this: anything I said about the journey, these nomads would already know. If I said we had been journeying for two weeks, they could probably pinpoint our tribe’s oasis. If I said a month, they would know I was lying, for there was only this oasis and we would have passed by two weeks ago. Stuffing my mouth with mutton and washing it down with goat’s milk, I was grateful for the hospitality and the few questions.



I fell asleep sitting at the fire, my blanket wrapped around me and covering my head. It was cold at night in the desert. The wind picked up towards morning, and at some point in the night I lay down, pulling my blanket tight around me. . Someone had placed heated stones nearby and this helped ward off the chill of the night.

Towards dawn, I needed to pass water, and I walked into the desert. In case I was watched, I stood and pulled up my robes high like a man would do. Of course, I watered my leg, and the warm stream steamed in the cold morning air. Shaking my leg and trying to wipe it dry on my gown, I headed back to the tents. Women had brewed a strong mint tea with honey, and I was grateful for this and the breakfast of couscous, flat bread and goat’s milk.

“You must stay with us as long as you like,” said the tall chieftain.

“We would have news of different tribes and we hunger for knowledge as to warfare. We have heard of raiders from the north, these Arabs, who attack our settlements over the mountains and take our women and children for their slaves. May Ammon slay these nonbelievers!”

The chieftain spat in the sand.

Ah! There was a problem. Two problems, actually. One there were possibly raiders around and also my stubborn determination to keep going. Where, I had no idea. All those hours on top of Niefa, plodding eastward had led me to the belief that my fate was to be revealed. I was to be carried on the sands of the desert to some final haven, where the still-galling thoughts of Hasim would be erased and I would emerge anew, in body and spirit. Somehow, I would be reborn from the distance I traveled and the time passed.

As I relate here: I was very young. I also was not prepared for what happened that day.

I had given my name the night before as Adal Berkan Yellel, which in our Amazigh language meant Tiger – Dark – to be Free. All those hours on Niefa in the hot sun had baked my brains and I should have picked names less colorful. But Adal Berkan Yellel I was now and I had days to memorize it. I even felt I could wear these names truthfully, for I wanted my freedom from the previous shameful life. It took many years for me to come to a place of peace with my shame, which really was not of my doing.

After breakfast, when Takama and I were attending to our beasts, I was asked by the chieftain, Zeggan Yuba , to walk with him out of the encampment to the edge of the desert. I thought this reasonable, for he realized we were very young and was taking a fatherly concern for two youths alone in the desert.

We walked out from the oasis, past the chott, where dried flood lakes were depressions on the landscapes and came to a place of hamada; rock strewn plains. Zeggan Yuba pointed out the Nubian bustards, other raptors and even desert eagles. There were many migratory birds, some now traveling towards the mountains, flying with the updrafts from the heated plains, and others in long flights from the shores in the north, many weeks travel from here.

I was watching a desert eagle, it’s effortless flight on the thermals above us, when Zeggan Yuba pushed me up against a large rock and placed his two hands on my breasts. Then, before I could protest, he ripped the veil from around my face, and held it hard within his large hand. His eyes searched my face, and at the same time, his other hand slipped down my belly to my woman’s place. Obviously, to his satisfaction, I was no man. Just when I thought I would be raped, he stepped back and laughed softly.

“I thought you were a woman from the first time I laid eyes upon you. By all the Gods, tell me now the truth, and I will not betray you.”

I fumbled to rearrange the veil over my face, and he slapped my hand away.

“Do not increase your sin. Men, and only real men may wear the tagelmonst. You are clearly a woman, though I could find out for sure if you defy me.”

My eyes widened in fear, and in spite of my former swaggering, tears, a woman’s shameful tears, collected in my eyes.

“I implore you, O Father, not to betray me, nor hurt my slave, Takama. I am a woman, though I run from that knowledge, and I take my slave with me in my journey.”

The desert men are a tough breed, immured to death and violence and many horrors of life, but they can be just men, and their word is their honor. I was assuring myself my truthful words would not fall on deaf ears. For him to violate me would also defame his own reputation.

So I told him my circumstances, and how I had come to be in the desert with only a slave girl as a companion. He squatted in the sand and I sat on my haunches as a proper woman would before a man, and poured forth my sad tale.

Zeggan Yuba was silent, and only the eyes above his veil gave me encouragement to tell him my story. At that time, he had the power of life and death over both Takama and myself. I was appealing to his tasa, the liver, where we desert people, now called Berbers, say the soul dwells.

All Berbers love a good story, they are the best in the world for storytelling and poetry. We are a talkative people and enjoy jokes and humor, too. I could see he was weighing carefully all I told him.

“Tell me, my child, what your name is, and don’t think for one moment I believe it to be “A free dark tiger’.” He laughed softly, his eyes never once moving from my face. Even though I was stained by the indigo across my cheeks, I blushed as any woman would do, caught in a lie or by flattery.

I told him my birth name was Aicha, and the name of my father’s tribe. I also said how far we had traveled, and that I was determined to find my fate, whether it was as bleached bones in desert, or in a village somewhere far from there.

Zeggan Yuba nodded his head, and sucked on a tough grass he pulled from a clump nearby.

“You show courage far beyond your years, but you don’t have the wisdom to back it up.”


I dropped my eyes to the sandy soil and was quiet. He was right, I was on a course dangerous and deadly, not only for myself, but I was dragging Takama into my fate, and this was compounding my sins.

“We are a hard but just people, my Aicha. If I were you, I would return to the tribe of your father. So you have cut off your woman’s crowning glory? It will grow back. You will find another man to marry, for you are comely, inspite of the indigo dye on your face.”

He looked out towards the desert, his eyes like a hunting hawk, narrowed from the sun’s rays on the sand. Even his bent nose looked like the beak of a bird of prey.


“ When you are young, you find great problems insurmountable, but when you grow older, your wisdom grows with you and these problems will lessen, with prayer to the Gods and patience to listen.”

How could I tell Zeggan Yuba that I had rendered myself unworthy for a husband, for what man will marry a woman without a maidenhead? Yes, if I was widowed or divorced, but that was not my station. No, I had no choice but to push on, and hope that fate would clear my vision and rest my liver.

Zeggan Yuba watched me closely and shook his head. “Aicha, Aicha, I see your father has bred a stubborn child. You will not listen to me? Isn’t returning to your tribe better than a mass of bleached bones in the desert? Or think of a raider party, what chance would two young girls have against such odds?”

He meant well, but I was Zar-driven, or I must have been, because all his reason fell on deaf ears. It was as if the Goddesses had stopped up my ears along with their own. I shook my head and he put out his hand and patted my shoulder, much as a father would do to comfort his child.

“If you are determined to go, we will supply you with food and water, enough to get you both across the mountain and down into the valleys. There you will find another settlement and hopefully you will make your way in safety. I have promised to keep your secret, Aicha, but know there will always be a place for you in our tribe if you have a change of heart.”

Again he looked out towards the desert and sighed.

“Think of my words, Aicha, when the winter’s winds howl and you and your slave are alone in the mountains. Think of the warmth of our fire and the smell of our stews. Perhaps your stubborn heart with turn with the scent of our food in your nostrils and the howling of your empty stomachs.”

Later that day I exchanged a silver necklace and bracelet for the generous water and food given to us. Mounted on my Niefa, with Takama on her donkey behind, I gazed into the eyes of Zeggan Yuba, as he stood besides me, his eyes searching my face. I had returned the veil across my own, and my eyes filled with tears. Kissing our fists and touching our foreheads, we bid each other goodbye, and turning our beasts to the east, we started our journey over the mountains.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2009,2018








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