In 1999 and 2000 Birgit Biehl journeyed alone through Africa’s Sahel from Senegal to the Sudan, and then through Yemen, Oman, and a half dozen other Middle Eastern countries. During the fourteen months of her trip, the then-fifty-five-year-old author hiked more than 700 miles, rode in overloaded ferries, dilapidated automobiles, minibuses, and old pickup trucks piled high with freight and people. After the trip she published Splitter im Sand, Lektionen am Wege (Athena Verlag 2001).
All were very eager to get to Timbuktu. In the afternoon, we arrived at Koume, Timbuktu’s port. My friend Azima, a Targi of the Kel Tintelou—t, came to meet us in his car. . . .
Azima had recently married Aisha. Marriage partners never pronounce first names in one another’s presence, and their marriage was arranged when they were children. Aisha came from the Tuareg neighborhood north of the Sankoré Mosque, a beautiful, docile girl who silently followed Azima’s instructions. They seldom talked to one another, but on the second day, I saw a tiny smile in my direction from under her long lashes.
Every morning Azima took Aisha to his mother in the women’s house. In the inner courtyard of the mud brick building, the women and girls sat in a camel hide tent making leather bags and pillows. At night he took his wife back home. The mother, who had seemed to me young and beautiful three years before, now had a bitter expression on her face and extended a weary hand.
Azima’s own house, built for his wedding, was the last one in the quarter in front of the dunes, directly next to the abattoir, the cattle market where cattle were also butchered, and where the sand was brown with blood. His house and his all-terrain vehicle were his compensation for a role in a movie with French star France Gall. Azima had been chosen to play “the Little Prince,” making him uncontested chief of his clan. The rear of the new house had partially dissolved because of the heavy rains. The “salon” was furnished like a Tuareg tent with carpets on the floor and on the walls, a low sideboard with the household effects, and two low windows for constant ventilation. I pitched my tent on the roof. In case of rain, I would have to get down, because Azima worried that the roof might collapse. Then we had tea and more tea, the first cup, amer comme la mort, bitter as death, the second one, mild as life, and the third one, sweet as love. A little nephew brought me a bucket of water from an uncle’s house that had a water faucet.
I awakened to the song of tiny red birds, with the cattle market below me. All around were the tents of the Bella, the slaves of the Tuareg. The butcher, a pathetic figure, ragged and dirty, came walking up with a long knife in his left hand.
I asked about a reservation for the city of Gao, but the next ship, due in a week, was supposed to be under military command and would not take on passengers. That probably meant transport of troops and weapons north, to the area of the rebellious Tuareg of Kidal. The next opportunity to get to Gao would not come for three weeks, and I didn’t want to stay that long.
Timbuktu, once again, had suffered much damage from the rainy season; many sections were ruined, while others had been thoroughly repaired and renovated. The city’s old doors were wonderful. I was deeply moved by the houses where Heinrich Barth, René Caillé, and Gordon Laing once lived, travelers who inspired my dreams. Children allowed me to enter a stately house beside the small Sidi Yahia Mosque: ancient splendor, broadminded in its blending of cultures, with a view across all of Timbuktu from the upper terrace. Silence reigned in the severe old Djinger Ber Mosque, where I found Kankan Moussa’s sign and the door through which an unbeliever, who had surreptitiously crept in, rushed out in the shape of a lion.
During the worst heat of the day, I sat in the air-conditioned restaurant of the Hotel Bouctou writing. As always, the little notebook computer was a big attraction for the nomads dressed in boubou and shesh, who looked across my shoulder. They pretended to be cool as they demanded to have it explained to them. The fact that something could be printed out, but nevertheless remained stored, was just too much for a Targi. One of them seized his shesh, resolutely wound it around his head, and walked away without saying a word; the next shook his head and muttered, “This drives me crazy”; the third, his eyes opened wide, invoked Allah and turned away from this devilish contraption, while another remained in his seat just staring in front of him. But one man jumped up: “Why, that’s fantastic!”
The following day, accompanied by Baba and Gibou, we rode west into the desert on Azima’s camels to Tintelou—t, his family’s ancestral seat. They received me, and I learned about their customs and their problems, their history, their evaluation of the rebellions, their need for freedom, and their difference from farmers, fishermen, and herders. The old village chieftain, whom Azima would succeed, a man of balance and reason, welcomed the barely completed school building into the wilderness (which did not have a teacher yet), and the start of construction of a hospital and a well with a motorized pump, while at the same time seeking to preserve tradition. However, even he no longer knew how to write in Tifinagh, but knew only a few symbols. He said that after a few months, the Tuareg children in the public schools would be required to learn to read and write exclusively in French.
Gibou had trained the daredevil camel riders, who now performed their tricks. In the bush we met the sword carriers and the hunters with the heavy old rifles. We struggled through the tall grass to the neighboring village kilometers away. Its children were not supposed to attend the new school, because the families were enemies; Gibou was trying to mediate.
Between the few houses and tents was Madame Odile’s garden. The villagers immediately gathered on her large mat, as they had never had a foreign visitor before, and in the evening they made tea and told stories. Madame Odile, a farmer from Brittany and sixty-five years old, within the context of a work project for seniors had created a vegetable garden protected by a hedge to expand the variety of foods for the Tuareg. They, for good or ill, had been entirely dependent on their animals and had scorned field crops and fish as food for farmers and fishermen. Mossa, a young herdsman, had been her intelligent disciple, had written everything down in a thick notebook, and had entrusted two small boys with the task of building a compost pile. The villagers were surprised when, in the warm humidity, cucumber seeds sprouted from the soil in one day. Gibou explained why the Tuareg would listen to a woman, and particularly this woman. She was beloved by everyone, was allowed to give the newborn animals Breton names, and the herders were prepared to learn. Here the tents of the Bella, who were openly called “our slaves,” stood in the swampy desolation of the hollows. They were tormented by malaria and had nothing.
Around the settlement, old clay shards and grinding stones lay about in the dunes, as this, too, was one of the most ancient cultivated areas. The Niger flowed here thousands of years ago. The Tuareg did not know this and listened to me, surprised.
That night we walked back to Tintelou—t by the full moon. The women had prepared a goat for me, served with rice and rancid camel butter tasting of blue mold, along with a glass of fresh goat milk, though the families don’t have enough milk for themselves. After prayers the men showed me the leather necklaces below their boubous with the many gris-gris against sickness, misfortune, and the evil eye. We slept next to each other among the animals.
On the ride back to Timbuktu the next day, we dropped by Azima’s brother Ibnou’s, the only one in the family still living as a nomad in a tent outside of town. Night fell. Under the full moon, there were low murmurs by the fire, and the stars seemed very near. Azima’s brother Aboubacarine asked me to translate a letter from English for him. I had to restrain myself to conceal my amusement: a tourist was thanking him effusively for a passionate night in the dunes. The next day I was supposed to write an answer for Aboubacarine, who was head over heels in love.
From Splitter im Sand (Oberhausen: Athena Verlag, 2001). Copyright © 2001 by Athena Verlag. Translation copyright © 2005 by Ingrid Lansford. All rights reserved.