“Immediately when you arrive in Sahara, for the first or the tenth time, you notice the stillness. An incredible, absolute silence prevails outside the towns; and within, even in busy places like the markets, there is a hushed quality in the air, as if the quiet were a conscious force which, resenting the intrusion of sound, minimizes and disperses sound straightaway…” –Former American composer, and expatriate in Morocco, Paul Bowles
I experienced Bowels words firsthand last weekend in Merzouga, a desert town in the Sahara. I arrived after a 12 hour voyage from Rabat around 7 a.m. and promptly watched the sunrise from the roof of our hotel. We then ate a light French-style breakfast: boiled eggs and bread with a variety of cheeses and jams, mint tea and coffee.
Shortly after, we explored Merzouga–what looked like a small almost ghost town at the time (because shops don’t open until late afternoon)–which reminded me of the old Wild West I’ve seen depicted in classic American movies. While we were waiting for the shops to open, to pass time, my friends and I filmed a staging of two sheriff’s having a showdown over a damsel in distress in the middle of the empty road. Once the first shop opened, we headed over to buy scarves to wrap around our heads for our camel trek in the evening. The scarves protect against the heat, flies and sand from getting into eyes, ears and nose.
Around 5 p.m., we hopped on our camels and trekked deep into the Sahara. We were headed to our campsite in the middle of the desert, where we would sleep for two nights. In my diary, I wrote, “Alhumdulillah (praise God), I still can’t believe I’m seeing this.” It’s so hard to capture the beauty of the Sahara on camera. We stopped at the top of a large sand dune and found an abandoned sled and sledded down the dune. I wonder how many people have ridden this sled on this very dune. We could see the Algerian border past a plateau in the distance. It was only 25 miles away. And just like that, the sun had set over the Sahara.
At our camp, we met Latvians and Australians and shared chicken tagine with them. At night, our Moroccan guides played drums and sang traditional Sahrawi (natives of the Sahara) songs and we danced around the campfire. Camping in the Sahara desert was on my bucket list coming to Morocco and it was exhilarating to finally be experiencing it.
Aziz, our guide, spoke about his life living as a nomad as the smoldering remains of the fire died down. He mentioned the sense of hospitality and community that all nomads have when they meet other nomads; they invite each other to stay at their camps and feed them until they move on to their next destination.
Aziz owns a few camels and is hired by hotels to give desert tours. He emphasized how tourism has changed his life and employed him so that he can send money back home and raise a family. He emphasized living in the moment every day–never thinking or stressing about the future, but surviving in the present–the nomadic life in which nothing is still; everything is constant; It’s a test of survival, a hard life that requires the body and mind to be in sync, testing one’s willingness to go as far as possible for food, shelter and water. Aziz said that though his life is hard, he is very content with the lifestyle and wouldn’t give it up for anything else.
I appreciate his view, but in the time and place I am now in my life, I would almost have to pull a Chris Mccandless move to live this life–it’s not for everybody. Which leads me to my next point–I am extremely grateful for the experience to be exposed to people to live vastly different lives from from me; their lives are easier and harder at times. Often I think one gets stuck in his or her own little world and forgets to pause and realize that his or her problems are miniscule compared to others’. But this humility can only be bred if one has been exposed to other cultures and lifestyles, which is why it’s imperative to travel, close or far enough to step out of one’s bubble.
“…When all daylight is gone, and the space is thick with stars, it is still of an intense and burning blue, darkest directly overhead and paling toward the earth, so that the night never really goes dark.”
At night, the Sahara is pitch black. There is no light pollution, which makes the stars appear brighter than ever. I saw four shooting stars. My friends and I took some mattresses to the top of a dune and lay on them and star gazed. We had some deep conversations about religion, our purpose in life, “finding ourselves,” “ignorance is bliss” and more.
Gazing at the stars, I had an existential moment. I didn’t want to return to society–my responsibilities as a student, an employee, a friend…I left all of that behind to savor the moment of refuge away from society.
As I lay next to my friends, I had a moment of realization–I was never going to be able to experience this ever again–with these same people in this moment of time in my life–where I am so close to entering “adulthood.” This is a transitional and crucial stage in my life where my decisions within the next year will impact my future career.
Then my friend said something very important–because this moment would never happen again, it was even more pivotal to savor it in the present…which is what Aziz said to us around the campfire. My night was coming to a full circle.
Around 4 a.m., I woke up to the sound of hyenas scratching my tent. At first, I thought they were some of the others campers laughing and joking around, but then I heard them howl and knew they were not humans for sure. I was hyperventilating and trying not to make any sudden sounds to attract the hyenas.
The next morning, we climbed to the top of the highest dune nearby and watch the sunrise.
As I was walking, I asked my guide what to do if a hyena enters my tent, and he just said “They will eat you, there is no running away.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.
We then traveled by camel to a nomad hut, where we had “berber” pizza. It was similar to a calzone, fresh baked bread but with with vegetables inside. As we ate under the makeshift tent, we heard that one of our camel’s had passed away…we gave him a toast with our mint tea glasses. The rest of the day was relaxing. We read Under the Naked Sky: Short Stories from the Arab World and took turns narrating short stories.We played hangman, napped a bit, and explored the dry river bed. I found some fascinating fossils and a lot of snake holes, but no snakes.
The desert sand is tangible, yet intangible at the same time. You hold it for a few precious seconds before it wisps out of your fingers with a gust of desert wind—the same wind that shapes the dunes and has been shaping the dunes for centuries.
I wonder if others who have been to the Sahara have seen the same as I do. The dunes slowly shift everyday…is the Sahara perpetually impermanent?
“The answer is that when a man has been there and undergone the baptism of solitude he can’t help himself. Once he has been under the spell of the vast, luminous, silent country, no other place is quite strong enough for him, no other surroundings can provide the supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of something that is absolute. He will go back, whatever the cost in comfort or money, for the absolute has no price.”
Erum Jaffrey is a senior majoring in international relations. Her column runs every other Friday.