Mohammed picked us up in his white Land Rover at 9:00. Gen and I piled in and we began heading east, through the Chott el-Jerid, a massive salt-lake that slowly stretches down into the Sahara. The Chott reminded me of the Bonneville Salt Flats outside Salt Lake City in Utah, its gray grains and salt crystal formations stretching out past the horizon. The morning was cloudy and the air cool, and we passed tour buses and salt processing factories. We stopped at a small stand where we the owner kept a fennec, a small desert fox, and a trained eagle that landed on our heads and outstretched arms.
Around noon we stopped in the city of Douz, where we wandered about the marketplace looking at “traditional” wares. Like most, this medina was oriented towards snagging tourists, and as such there was something insincere and affected in the presentation of each shop. Three main tribes exist in and around the Sahara: the Berbers, the Bedouins and the Tuareg (the people group, not the Volkswagen automobile). Gen found a silver medallion she liked, though neither of us found the salesman enjoyable. While I don’t doubt that he had Tuareg in his lineage, his spotless costume was unconvincing, his hands soft and unworked, and I nearly gagged in disbelief when he said, dreamily, â€œYouâ€™re going to the desert. Oh how I miss the desertâ€¦â€
After Douz we began heading south along the eastern edge of the desert. It was a several hour drive through scrubland desert, and the geography here reminded me of parts of Texas: blanched, scrubby, everything brown and dirty, the winds sweeping sand across the road. At 3:30 we arrived at a giant palm oasis where we were to spend the night. We put our bags in our tents and rested for a spell, and then drove to a stand where Gen and I rented dromedaries and headed out for a couple-hour tour into the desert. Our guide, a young Berber teen named Mohammed, coaxed the animals to kneel for us to mount by hissing at them, a thick, deep-throated hoarse huffing that the animals slowly responded to. We were a caravan of five: Gen in front, a boisterous Italian couple, a lone bald Frenchman and me in the rear. My dromedary was a bit ornery and vociferous, frequently grunting, belching and crapping along the way. In time I named him Clyde. This was my first time on a dromedary, and it was not unlike being on a ship in rough seas: swaying to and fro, bumping and thrumping we rose and fell across the dunes, my ass throbbing in the hard wooden saddle
We began our tour at the edge of the oasis, and as we progressed further into the desert the scrubland began to fade and the dunes slowly began to rise. The best imagery is once again that of being asea, for in fact the desert is but a giant sand-ocean. Initially there were thick gray clouds stretched like a heavy blanket across the sky that helped keep the heat down. As we continued, the clouds passed and the sun burnt through, scorching and hot, tempered only by a wind that occasionally bursted and sent sand up my nose and into my eyes. Depending on the brightness of the sun, the sands appeared either a deep orange or a bleached white. After an hour we arrived at an old Roman ruin, where we disembarked, wandered about and took some photos, and then remounted for the return.
Back at the camping site, Gen, Mohammed and I ate dinner and then sat and talked. Since Iâ€™ve been traveling several people have sent me emails inquiring if Iâ€™d run into any anti-American sentiments, and this conversation with Mohammed was the first and strongest to date. Informed by his seemingly constant watching of Al-Jazeera television, he muttered all sorts of invectives, most of it nonsensical finger-wagging. The gist can be summed up in his statement, â€œThere were no problems in the Arab world until the Americans invaded Iraq.â€ He was prone to such simplicities, his world stark as the surrounding desert, dichromatic and safe. He contradicted himself frequently, his anger occasionally boiled over into flailing hand gestures and a raised, searing voice. I donâ€™t have a problem with hearing America criticized â€“ there are plenty of missteps one can point to, and I certainly would not be at the forefront of those defending our invasion of Iraq â€“ but Mohammedâ€™s criticisms were based in a reality that I have difficulty believing has ever existed, and at some point I simply tuned out and let my mind wander as he and Gen continued the discourse.
Afterwards, Gen, myself and a young man from the camp named Mustafa walked out into the dunes around camp. We took a lamp to watch for snakes and scorpions, then sat down on the dunes, Mustafa playing a small, cheap plastic bongo drum and singing native Tunisian folk-songs while white stars fell across the black skies above.