Images of Al Qasr

Some places in the world are so imbued with a sense of history that you seem to have walked backwards to have arrived there. The old caravan town of Al Qasr in Egypt’s Western Desert is one of them. Just a short journey from the fly-blown town of Mut (which lives up to its uninspiring name) in Dakhla Oasis, is this creaky time warp of mud-brick bordered by immense sand dunes. Thought to be the oldest town in the oasis, Al Qasr first rose to prominence in the 12th Century and became one of the most important centres of the Western Desert under Ottoman rule. Most of its remaining, though crumbling, architecture of covered alleyways, decorated brickwork and intricately inscribed acacia beam lintels dates from this period.

Visit during the early afternoon when the narrow high-walled lanes here provide some relief from the scorching desert heat.

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Life on Mars, in Egypt

I have just come back from Mars. Or, at least, a place so unearthly that it is what I imagine snapshots from a holiday jaunt to Mars – or Uranus, or Jupiter – would look like. Black pitted landscapes of rippling rock. Mineral-rich conical mountains in shimmering oranges and emerald greens. Chalk pinnacles that rise out of the sand in shapes that seem to have fallen straight out of a surrealist painting. It’s a thoroughly alien environment supplanted firmly on earth. This is Egypt’s Western Desert.

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Images of Algiers

The Algiers kasbah is all white-and-blue loveliness that tumbles down the hill towards the shore. It’s a winding labyrinth of alleyways, rimmed by tall, narrow buildings, that lead you on a merry maze of a stroll. Don’t bother with a map, they said. And they were right. Just head down. You’ll get out eventually.

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Images from Algeria’s Sahara

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Just a simple strip of cloth

I could only see his eyes but I knew Muhammad was smiling. The crinkled creases at the corners of his eyes gave him away. He’d just finished telling me the legend behind the origins of the cheche – the six-metre long turban that Muhammad, like the majority of Tuareg men, wore wrapped mummy-style around his head. The story tells of an Arab raiding party who attacked a Tuareg village where the men had all left to go hunting. Believing they’d struck an easy target, crowing about an easy victory even before they advanced, the Arabs were dumbfounded when the Tuareg women fought back. Unprepared for a full scale battle the Arabs were forced to abandon their raid and flee. Afterwards, licking their wounds, they began to tell a tale about the warrior women of the Tuareg whose men covered their faces in shame at their women’s strength.

“If this story is true”, Muhammad said. “Who do you think should be ashamed? We Tuareg would have been proud to have such fierce women”.

Surrounded by a rippling sea of sand dunes, I breathed in the hot dust whipped up from the 4WD’s wheels. Faced with the harsh reality of the Tuareg’s homeland it’s easy to see the more prosaic reasons why the cheche became part of their traditional costume. My mouth felt like I’d been chewing gravel. My eyes stung from grit. Sweat dripped down my forehead from the congealed mass of my fringe. ‘Eating dust’ is not a catchphrase here. It’s the reality of day-to-day existence in Algeria’s southern Sahara. The cheche provides one of the most effective tools of escaping the worst of what this environment throws at you.

This is Tuareg territory. In the desert outpost of Djanet, where the sugar cube buildings slouched under the glaring sun, they glided down the dusty main drag with the slow, sinuous strides which only those born in hot climates ever master. They wore shiny emperor robes of emerald green, ruby red and Picasso blue, and sat under shop veranda shades drinking endless cups of tea. A proudly independent desert people, the Tuareg once controlled the caravans through the vast depths of the Sahara; trading in ivory, salt and slaves. This profitable business collapsed in the 20th century as the slave trade died out and the advent of the vehicle forged its way into modern life. Still capitalising on their reputation as gurus of the desert lands, the Tuareg trade in tourism these days.

Muhammad and I were following one of the Tuareg’s ancient trading routes, heading for the barren Hoggar Mountain Range. From Djanet we had veered off the bitumen and into the never-never of sand. In a beat-up jalopy of a 4WD, festooned with clinking jerry-cans, supply boxes and the mandatory guerba (a traditional water carrier made out of goat-hide), all swinging off the car frame like a survivalist’s fantasy Christmas tree, we sped across the Erg Admar’s endless yellow waves. In the distance where the land was supposed to meet the sky the horizon blurred into a silvery shimmer. When we stopped the soft soles of my feet were scorched by the griddle-hot ground. Except for our own chatter the only sound was that of the wind swooping over the crests of the dunes, re-sculpting them grain by grain.

Following the trail of an oed (a dried-up river bed), we drove west to a plateau speckled with sparse scrub. Among this pitiful landscape of dirt and dust the tiny Tuareg settlement of Tadent eked out a living as herders and trinket-touts. The air was thick with the smell of dung and campfire smoke. A skinny goat, tethered to a tree, bleated out a sad whine as I got out of the car. Village women approached me silently in flowing puffed-sleeved rainbow gowns of lipstick-pink and lime green flowers looking like bright, sparkly peacocks strutting through a tawny beige world. This was the last settlement stop for miles. Afterwards we veered off the oed and began the traverse higher into the Tassili du Hoggar.

A Dali-esque scene of bizarre mushroom shaped rocks and giant’s marbles lay scattered across a plain of orange sand. It was a stone forest, seeded by volcanic eruption and moulded by millennia of wind. We stopped at the age-old traveller resting places of Youfihakit and Tintaraben. Here, on the overhanging rock outcrops, ancient artists had used the stone walls as their canvases and their graffiti revealed a Sahara which seemed unimaginable now. Elephants, giraffes and ostriches were etched into the rock. A wonderfully detailed anteater glowered down from one huge wall. Muhammad pointed to one engraving showing stick figures chasing a herd of cows. “These pictures are thought to be from 4500 BC”, he said. I marvelled at the age of this art and tried to imagine this arid land as the savannah it was when these artists began to scrape their drawings into the stone.

By the end of the second day my lips were splitting from the constant sand shower and my skin prickled with heat-rash. It was definitely time to try the cheche out for myself. We set up camp surrounded by a landscape plucked from a child’s nightmare. A Grimm’s Brother’s rock formation loomed above us on the cliff while church spire pinnacles cast monstrous shadows on the sand. Muhammad decided to make taguella for dinner. This simple bread made from millet flour, water and salt is the Tuareg’s main sustenance during desert travel. He placed the dough into the campfire ashes and then covered it with sand and hot embers. After twenty minutes he scraped the sand away for the dough to be turned over. Another twenty minutes and the bread was removed, the sand shaken off. It was dense and chewy and tasted of wood-smoke. A treat for me but if Muhammad was travelling in the desert by himself he’d eat little else. After dinner he teased me about my water consumption. I was glugging down a solid three litres every day. “One tea in the morning and maybe a cup of water when we get to camp at night”, Muhammad told me was all he drank.

The 4WD groaned and choked as we wound our way upwards along the narrow ridge into the Hoggar Mountains. In the distance, jagged canine-teeth peaks pierced the sky. We spluttered to a stop near the summit of Assekrem and I climbed the rough-cut steps to the top. In 1904, on this barren summit, the French priest Charles de Foucauld abandoned the world to live in hermitic solitude spending ten years studying Tuareg culture and their language Tamershak. The church he built and made his home is more a shack than a place of worship. A bitterly cold wind howled through the gaps in the window frames and tugged on my clothes.

I sat on a boulder and watched the sun throw a dusky-pink blanket over the craggy mountain tops, holding my jacket tight around me as the wind whipped across the stones. Muhammad came and sat next to me and grinned. We both had our cheches wrapped tightly around our heads. “Now you look like a Tuareg”. He said. But I knew that the soles of my feet were too pale and softly puffy and my blue eyes too weak and watery. Unlike me, the Tuareg have long adjusted to the desert. Their thirst and hunger sated by only a few cups of water and a bit of bread as they travel. Their foot soles thickened to not feel the burning heat of the sand and their clothing cocooning them from the worst of the sun and dust.

As it dipped, the sun set the surrounding peaks aglow and spread fingers of blood-red streaks across the sky. I could see the dark beauty in this landscape; shaped by violent upheaval in the belly of the earth and then carved out by the soft murmurings of the wind. As we walked down from the summit a slither of a crescent moon rose up from behind the peaks and the stars began to stud the darkening sky. This was a primeval land, I thought, where you would never belong fully, where you were constantly challenged by nature itself. I watched Muhammad spring down the steps despite the oncoming dark.  Unless you were Tuareg of course; they had learnt the hard lessons of moulding their life around, rather than against, the desert. I rearranged my cheche closer across my face so it covered my nose against the chill. The simplicity of this strip of fabric summed up the Tuareg’s clever adaptation to the take-no-prisoners toughness of the Sahara. How they became masters of this brutal terrain.

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This story was first published in the January 2013 issue of Perceptive Travel.

Before; images of Syria

“When we cross the border can you guarantee my safety?” The American said.

I rolled my eyes. “What do you mean?”

“When we get to Syria. Am I going to be safe?”

“Why wouldn’t you be safe?”

“I’m an American. Don’t they want to kill me?”

“The only thing they’ll fucking kill you with is kindness.” I said.

I fanned myself with my passport. We were stuck in a queue on Jordan’s Ramtha border. Tendrils of sweat raced their way down my back.

At the time I just wished he’d shut up and sit down while I did my job and got the group’s passports exit-stamped. Now I just wish the clocks could be turned back. That I could have those same annoying border conversations again and show people the Syria I know.

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A week on from that conversation, that same American had performed a hip hop dance for a bunch of very amused (and bemused) kids in the back streets of Damascus, been stunned by Palmyra’s columned ruins marching across the eastern desert, walked on top of the ramparts at Krak des Chevaliers, and been convinced by me to have a traditional barber shop shave in an Aleppo old city alleyway.

He came back to the hotel, slick with oil and reeking of the barber shop’s cheap cologne.

“He didn’t kill me!” He said. “And I told him I was American and everything. All he wanted to do was make me drink too much tea.”

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