The Occidental Tourist

Since my last post I finished a circuit of the Grand Erg Occidental which took me from Taghit to the oasis towns of Beni Abbés, Timimoun and, now, Ghardaia. It occurred to me I’ve written mostly about the landscape here and not about the people. That has been an omission.

My favourite moment with the Algerians of the Erg came on the journey from Beni Abbés to Timimoun. Our bus stopped to pick up a large family who were waiting on the side of the highway. There were not enough seats for all of them, but as soon as they boarded the bus the other passengers reached out to hoist the small children onto their laps. The children didn’t cry. They didn’t fuss. They simply endured a few kisses and pinches then fell asleep in the arms of strangers. When the bus began to move, the father – with white robes, a loose white turban, and great yellow teeth – looked around to ensure all his children had a friendly lap to sit in. Then he settled into his own seat. It was a tender moment that speaks to the kindness of the people here.

There are other images from the past few days that will stay with me. The young men in Taghit who spontaneously began to sing and dance and drum in honour of the Prophet’s birthday, still days away. The women who wear cloth over their noses and mouth that look like surgical masks fringed with lace. The crumbling state-run hotels with great wooden bars, broken tiles and empty swimming pools that must have seemed grand 40 years ago. The butchers in Beni Abbés who lay freshly-severed camel heads on the sidewalks in front of their shops by way of advertisement, the blood trickling across the pavement. The way even strangers say hello to each other.

The Prophet Mohammad’s birthday is tomorrow but the biggest celebration happens in Timimoun on the 27th. I will return there for the festival. In the meantime, I will spend the next few days, including my own birthday, here in the M’zab Valley among the Ibadi Muslims, the White Fathers and the palm groves.