Friday, March 28, 2008

Graham Greene, again

I've been thinking a lot about Graham Greene lately, and not just because of my afternoon drinking with priests. I read Monsignor Quixote on this trip, and am currently re-reading The Lawless Roads.

In Roads, Greene describes the Mexican desert and says that he cannot see beauty in landscapes that are "unemployed or unemployable." For Greene, only land that can be used - fertile, verdant land - is truly beautiful. Only "Romantics" see God in deserts and on barren mountain tops.

I know that Greene traveled in Africa, but I don't know if he ever saw the Sahara. I wonder how Greene would describe Algeria's dunes and palmeries - surely better than I do - but most of all I wonder if he would see beauty there.

In Constantine

I decided to travel north instead of back south for S'bou. I have only a few days left in Algeria so I wanted to travel to places I haven't yet been rather than return to Timimoun.

So I am in the north where the orange trees are not yet in bloom but the hills are green and the air cold.

Constantine is another one of Algeria's 'dramatic' places. Just as Taghit and Beni Abbes startle the visitor with dunes, Constantine does it with cliffs and bridges. The city is built on a massive rock cliff surrounded by a river valley. It seems an unlikely place for a city. Too high. Too unreachable. A place for gods rather than men. Fantastic bridges link the city to the 'mainland' and these bridges are what Constantine is most famous for. I waited out a morning rainstorm then made my way across and back the great spans of iron and stone, realizing that I am developing vertigo as I age.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Easter with the White Fathers

It was a scene out of a Graham Greene novel: Africans, Catholics, priests and whisky.

I'd been looking forward to meeting the White Fathers in Ghardaia for some time. The Peres Blancs have been ministering to African communities for a long time now, and maintain a library of books about the cultural, religious and natural history of the Sahara. In Algeria, the Fathers serve a very small community of Christians but focus most of their efforts on establishing dialogue between Christians and Muslims. It seems like a very contemporary goal, one that became suddenly important in the last decade, but the White Fathers have been commited to this work for over a hundred years.

I arrived in time for Easter mass and was greeted at the gate by an English priest, Father John. The opportunity to speak easy English was delicious; I've been struggling with French and have not had a real conversation with anyone for weeks. The church service, though, was mainly in French. It was ministered by a priest from Tanzania and there were prayers sung in Swahili, the readings were translated into Polish, and the Lord's Prayer was sung in Arabic.

It was a beautiful service, even for this retired Catholic. For all my abandonment of my religious belief, religious ritual still inspires me. To quote Tom Robbins, "To practise a religion can be very beautiful. But to actually believe in one can be deadly."

(My mother won't like that last quote, but she was happy to hear I made it to church on Easter.)

The Fathers invited me to join them for lunch, and almost immediately bottles of gin and scotch appeared. I drank a dram with the priests, then some watery wine from northern Algeria. We talked about my writing and their work among the Algerians, and enjoyed a wonderful meal. One priest spent a few years in Montreal and the White Sisters that were present came from places like Burkina Faso, the Congo and Rwanda. When I left hermitage Father John shook my hand and said he was happy to make me feel a little at home.

I returned to the next day to use their library and to meet the Bishop of the Sahara who was passing though Ghardaia on his way to Algiers. The Bishop represents the second largest diocese in the world (Siberia is the largest) but ministers to the smallest congregation. Unfortunately, the Bishop had very little time to spare with me, but I hope to return to Ghardaia and write a story about the Bishop and the White Fathers.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Wedding Night Jitters

Just when I thought my French was getting better...

Last night I was listening to a shopkeeper across from my hotel tell me about the traditions of the Muslims in the area. He was talking in French and I was pretty proud of myself that I was understanding most of what he was saying.

Then he told me that he was circumcised on his wedding night.

At least that's what I thought he said. Either my French is failing me again or there are some rituals around here that seem both counter-intuitive and counter-productive.

The Mozabites

There are only a few communities ofIbadi Muslims in the world. There are Ibadis in Oman, a few in Libya and Tunisia, and a large community here in the M'zab Valley around the town of Ghardaia where I have been staying for the past few days.

Ibadis are very conservative and do their best to isolate themselves from people with other beliefs. Here in the M'zab that means that the old Ibadi towns are walled and most insist that foreigners come inside only if accompanied by an Ibadi guide. This sounds rather unfriendly and xenophobic, but as long as foreigners do not smoke cigarettes in the presence or take photos of women and children, everything is fine. I wandered through one of the towns that does not require a guide the other day, and was treated with sincere welcome.

The old towns and the Ibadis traditional dress are all designed with the desert climate in mind; temperatures in the valley can reach 48 degrees in the summer. Homes are painted in light pastels to reflect much of the sun, and village streets are kept narrow and shaded. Men wear trousers with fabulous pleated crotches that hang don to their ankles - any waiter who has ever worked a patio shift in the summer can understand the logic here in this. Their white caps also work to reflect back the sunlight.

But, as is so often the case in this part of the world, the women are the most interesting. They wrap themselves in a sort of chador made of thick white cotton. Unmarried women keep their faces uncovered, but once a woman is married she pulls the cloth over her face so there is only a small hole for one eye to look out of. I still haven't gotten usd to seeing these ghostly, peeking, women. I am resisting the temptation to wink at them. I am sure that would be frowned upon.

I will stay for a few more days and attend Easter mass at the church of the White Fathers, an old Christian mission that has been around since the 19th century. They maintain a library of books about the Sahara that I would like to see before I go.

The orange trees are blossoming now, and the streets are thick with the perfume. With this fragrance, and the soft colours of the streets, this is a very beautiful place to be.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Occidental Tourist

Since my last post I finished a circuit of the Grand Erg Occidental which took me from Taghit to the oasis towns of Beni Abbés, Timimoun and, now, Ghardaia. It occured to me I've written mostly about the landscape here and not about the people. That has been an omission.

My favourite moment with the Algerians of the Erg came on the journey from Beni Abbés to Timimoun. Our bus stopped to pick up a large family who were waiting on the side of the highway. There were not enough seats for all of them, but as soon as they boarded the bus the other passengers reached out to hoist the small children onto their laps. The children didn't cry. They didn't fuss. They simply endured a few kisses and pinches then fell asleep in the arms of strangers. When the bus began to move, the father - with white robes, a loose white turban, and great yellow teeth - looked around to ensure all his children had a friendly lap to sit in. Then he settled into his own seat. It was a tender moment that speaks to the kindness of the people here.

There are other images from the past few days that will stay with me. The young men in Taghit who spontaneously began to sing and dance and drum in honour of the Propet's birthday, still days away. The women who wear cloth over their noses and mouth that look like surgical masks fringed with lace. The crumbling state-run hotels with great wooden bars, broken tiles and empty swimming pools that must have seemed grand 40 years ago. The butchers in Beni Abbés who lay freshly-severed camel heads on the sidewalks in front of their shops by way of advertisement, the blood trickling across the pavement. The way even strangers say hello to each other.

The Prophet Mohammed's birthday is tomorrow but the biggest celebration happens in Timimoun on the 27th. I will return there for the fesitval. In the meantime, I will spend the next few days, including my own birthday, here in the M'zab Valley among the Ibadi Muslims, the White Fathers and the palm groves.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Taghit Oasis and the Search for New Superlatives

There are places in the world that can defy a travel writer's art. There are scenes that are so breathtaking that they completely defeat him. I feel that dunes of Taghit have defeated me.

Taghit is an oasis village on the edge of the Grand Erg Occidental, Algeria's western sea of sand. It is a small place with one main road, a big empty hotel, a post office, a Martyr's Square (does every city in the Islamic world have a Martyr's Square?) and a few cafés that are masculine temples to idleness. That is all.

But the dunes that hover over the village make Taghit smaller still. As my bus crested the hill that overlooks Taghit to the north, the scene was remarkable. I grew up near the Rocky Mountains so I am familiar with massive landscapes, but this is different. Even when they are beautiful, mountains are hard and forbidding. They are rocky and, therefore, harsh. The dunes that tower over the Taghit oasis are the opposite of this. It seems impossible that things so huge, so overwhelming, can also seem so soft.

The dunes change colour as the daylight changes. In the early morning they are a pale yellow and remind me of enormous lions laying on the landscape. They are most beautiful, though, at dusk when they turn deep orange, like the crema on the espressos I drink in those idle cafés.

Dusk is also the time of day when the frogs sing in the palmerie. On the other side of the village is the valley where the palm trees grow. They form a strip of unlikely green where farmers grow dates and figs and fava beans. A fresh water spring feeds the gardens through channels dug in the dirt. Unfortunately, nothing is being harvested at this time of year. There are no dates in the palms, and the figs are still as small as grapes.

Monday, March 10, 2008

At the beginning and the end of things

I am in Ain Sefra now. Here is where the Atlas Mountains end and the Grand Erg Occidental, the Sahara's great western sea of sand, begins. Or it is where the mountains begin and the sand sea ends. A traveler decides his parameters based on the place he most wants to be. That is his perogative. So, for me, this is the beginning of the desert I've been waiting to see.

Algeria does not ease into desert; the desert happens all at once. As my bus curved into Ain Sefra on its way south from Tlemcen, there it was. A stretch of pinkish dunes rising over the town. The dunes lay upon the landscape with such lightness you could imagine them floating away in an instant. I wouldn't be surprised if I woke up in the morning and they were gone.

I walked through town and found it was market day. The weekly souk has a delicious African chaos about it with piles of fresh peas, baby turnips, and blue-black eggplants. Young men with mirrored sunglasses try to sell cassette tapes of American hip-hop by playing them so loud the music warbles and squeaks. As I travel south, tea will replace coffee as the drink of choice in the cafes, so I will have to drink my fill before I go too far.

On the edge of the dunes, there are pine trees among the palms. The smell reminds me of home.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

In Tlemcen

I am still in Tlemcen, in northwestern Algeria, paying for my laziness. I didn't feel like doing my desert-dirty laundry so I brought it to a cleaners. It will take two days to wash, which is actually three because I straddled the Friday holiday. And they won't be done until tomorrow in the late morning which means I won't be able to catch the early bus south. So that is another day I have to stay here. Next time I am washing my own damn clothes.

There are worse places to be stuck, though. This is a very pretty town with pastel coloured houses, Moorish architecture, and buildings decorated with plaster cherubs and flowers and other confections left over from the French. Men wear djlebas and woollen caps against the cold and crowd the cafes smoking cigarettes and drinking some of the best espresso I have ever had. Another French legacy. The countryside is verdant and green, almost otherwordly so, but this could be due to the fact that I spent so much time amid the desert's beiges and greys. I am not used to such flora.

I lost a bunch of weight in the desert. Living off of camel meat and endless cups of tea will do that to someone. Now, in the north, it seems impossible to have a meal without fries. My loose jeans will soon be snug again.

Once I get my clothes back I hope to head south to Ain Sefra, then further south. I am going to challenge the popular notion that travelers can't travel south on public transportation without a guide. I am just going to keep going until someone turns me back. There is a big religious festival in Timimoun on the birthday of the Prophet, March 20, so I will make that my aim.

I will be traveling to Morocco at the end of this month and I am nervous about it. The Algerians have been extremely kind and accomodating. Never once have I been hassled or even felt that I've been overcharged for anything. People are genuinely welcoming. They even seem to forgive my horrible French. (I actually think my French is getting worse instead of better).

Morocco is going to be the opposite. Full of hustle and hassle. I just hope that Algeria hasn't made me soft.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Last Days Among the Saharawi

On my last day in the camps I had lunch on the edge of a minefield. I was only about 300 metres from the wall that separates the Saharawi from their homeland. As we sat there eating tuna sandwiches and barbecuing strips of camel meat on the tiny fire our driver prepared, Moroccan soldiers watched us from the top of the wall. I am sure they were happy to see us. Watching us eat lunch and drink tea was probably the most interesting thing the sentinels had seen in weeks.

For me, I was happy to finally see the structure that is the source of so many of the stories I heard in the preceding days. I recorded enough of them, I hope, and enough details about life in the camps to fill a chapter of my new book. I am looking forward to writing about the elaborate tea preperations and how many Saharawi women cover themselves completely when they are out of doors. This is not an act of religious faith, but of vanity. Pale skin is considered beautiful, and these women are fighting against the sun darkening their skin. My largest focus, though, will be to tell the stories about crossing over the wall and abandoning homes, friends, family and even ones own children for the relative security of the refugee camps.

In spite of their remarkable tales of escape, seperation, and exile I was most impressed with the spirit of the Saharawis. They all have heartbreaking stories to tell. They live in terrible conditions and have been waiting for over thirty years to return to lands stolen from them. Yet they are not a miserable people. They remain confident and welcoming. I was treated with such generosity from these people, and they have such little to give.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Photos from the Camps

Here are a few of my favourite photos from my days in the Saharawi refugee camps.

This girl was part of the parade marking the Saharawi 'National Day', February 27th. They celebrated the day before, however, because all the foreigners who were in the camps for the race were leaving on the 27th.

A Saharawi woman waits for a ride in the blowing sand. The weather was like this on the day before and the day after the marathon. Fortunately, race day was clear.

These men, in traditional robes and turbans, are huddled against the wind and watching the parade.

Saharawi women in all their wonderful colour. The women cover their faces and hands to protect against the darkening of the sun. Pale skin is prized as beautiful for many women here.

A typical tea service. Tea, and the intricate preparation of tea, is a cornerstone of Saharawi culture. They drink tea all day long from those tiny glasses.