(Ghardaïa, Algeria, at the northern edge of the Sahara, 300 miles south of Algiers.)
We arrived after what seemed an endless drive through mountainous dunes, reddish gold and impossibly huge on either side of the blacktop. As usual I wandered away, avoiding social interaction, and came upon a door, weatherbeaten and green. It hung loosely, and peering through the gap between the frame and the plywood itself I was startled. I stepped back, and without thinking about it, opened the door and stepped through.
To one side, the wall I now stood beyond angled in, defining a corner. To the other, it stretched away, marking an organic boundary. In that direction, several hundred yards away, a few palms nodded in the breeze. Turning back and craning my head I saw the top of the wall well above me, fifteen or twenty feet high. The irregularly-shaped crown of the wall looked rounded and human: regular projections and depressions bespoke fortification.
Looking again before me and around, I saw rubber tire tracks in the dust at the base of the wall, where I stood; near the palms in the distance I could make out evidence of other people. Here and there in the tire tracks dates lay, covered or squashed, some with flies on them. I can still taste the incredibly rich and complex flavor of the dates I ate while in Algeria. It’s a powerfully concentrated sweetness, very different from the bright, juice-filled flavors of oranges or pears; there’s a pastry-like quality to the depth of the flavors in the soft, oblong fruits.
We’d traveled to Ghardaïa with a pleasant and social man who had the peculiar mannerism of smacking the palm of his hand against his forehead with great force to emphasize a rhetorical point. “SMACK!” would echo in the car as he exclaimed, “My GOD!”, his dee-sounds sharpening into tees. He’d recounted the tale of his unfortunate cousin, who, on seeing a date lying in the dust as I was then, picked it up, brushed it off, and took a bite.
SMACK! He exclaimed, of course, “My GOD! It was the leavings of a donkey!” The car filled with laughter. Recalling this tale I did not pick up the dates for closer examination.
Mohammed (our companion’s name) may have been a government-sponsored guide and translator for the trip – I can’t recall. Algeria in 1982 was not the civil-war scarred country it is today, although it retained deep wounds from the early 1960’s war of independence against France. The post-colonial government in place was like that of many African and Midlle-eastern post colonial governments – modeled on socialist ideals, with close economic ties to the former colonial power, and with a very troubled economy challenged by many, many factors.
Ghardaïa, as I recall, was where Mohammed’s family was, and were to visit them for a day before driving back north to visit close family friends, Berbers, in their home in the mountains. I was fascinated by the visit, and in contrast to my time in Mexico, spoke one of the major languages of the country, French. We’d spent a day or two in Algiers with our Berber friend (and, yes, we spent an afternoon wandering the mazelike streets of the Casbah, one of the cradles of Algeria’s revolution and a neighborhood that may date back to the time of the Islamic conquest) before embarking on the drive south.
We stopped, probably for lunch, at an oil refinery. We visited with some of the people who worked there. They very proudly showed us their house, a very nice modern place. The particular, indelible image I retain from that visit was a young man excitedly showing me his bright-red electric guitar.
Somewhere between the oil refinery and Ghardaïa we’d stopped to climb the dunes and gaze upon the sea of sand. We’d laboriously made our way up the dune and looked out at the desert, dunes rippling to the horizon. My sister and I, and I think our mother, filled small bottles with the pinkish sand, long since lost but for one small canister currently in the hands of my friend Spencer. Entertainingly, he’s not sure how he came to have it.
I stood beyond the city wall, reflecting on these matters, smelling the winter wind off the desert, and turned to go back into the city.