Two Nomads, Three Camels


A male voice softly chants in prayer to Allah. Wood smoke aromas tease my nose. Delicate radiant light caresses my eyelids. A firm but forgiving surface holds my weight. One sense at a time, eyes last, a hidden conductor’s baton leads me from a dream into a mystery. Where am I?

An old Moroccan proverb says a good storyteller turns ears into eyes. On that journey I thirsted for so much more. I sought words and memories that would turn my very body into a repository of feeling and emotion. I craved something that could recreate, at my will, those experiences and those moments—undiluted by either time or absence—more personally than any story or filmstrip, for my husband was slowly leaving me, his cancer continuing an inevitable progression.

We were trekking through the Moroccan Sahara—a nearly empty expanse of dunes larger than our fifty states—accompanied by three camels and two nomads. Hassan and Mohammed cared for us in those desert camps with an ease that made us feel like cosseted elders. They were not in the least subservient, treating us with grace and dignity, and catering to needs we didn’t even know we had. We developed a hunger for their stories, as they did for ours. The lack of a common language was no barrier to our perpetual curiosity about lives diverse in every possible variable. Hassan and I could communicate reasonably well in French, and we spent hours talking, translating into English and Arabic for Harold and Mohammed.

Hassan and Mohammed both walked with the camels, moving considerably faster than the pace set by Harold. He had learned, by then, the value of moments savored over goals achieved.  This left the two of us to follow tracks and find our way alone in this vast uninhabited world. It added an unexpected but delicious tension. We learned that no one ever truly knew our destination, for Saharan sands blow themselves new maps so quickly that no cartographer could keep up. We knew the intimacy of sharing a landscape unique in the universe—one that would disappear, erasing all tracks of our presence as soon as we moved on.

Our first night out, we ate sitting on cushioned blankets around the fire: crusty bread emerged from an ingenious oven of ancient nomadic design; couscous and lamb tagine was spiced with a mix put together by Hassan’s mother, perhaps handed down through generations of Berber women. He didn’t know the French words for the ingredients, but I tasted cloves and coriander, and something fruity and sweet kept us mopping with bread until it was all gone. 

When it was time to retire for the night, Hassan walked with us to our private tent, set up between two tall dunes behind the ropes of the dining canvas. We climbed back with the help of a flashlight, and he left us to complete privacy.

Before us stood a basic pup-tent. When he squeezed in, my six-foot six-inch tall husband could snake like a question mark along the diagonal, but with some risk of tearing the seams. There was no room for me, no matter how tightly we normally enjoyed snuggling.

I finally suggested Harold might join the boys in the dining pavilion.

Alone, with the flap tightly zipped, I listened to night noises: the roaming, the blowing, the slithering. Just before we had left on the trip someone had of course kindly told me all about the desert horned viper. I swore it would be my last night alone.

However, sharing a sleeping space with two young Muslims—for there was only that one large comfortable tent—wasn’t an image that settled easily in my concept of a world influenced by Sharia law. I was old enough to be their grandmother, but their nubile youth put me more in mind of sneaking away with Harold in his blond-haired virility of thirty years earlier than of our older, more sedate visages. 

The first rays of the sun finally emerged. Still, I waited. When Hassan finished his dawn prayer, I approached.

Hassan, je n’etais pas comfortable seule . . ..” I started, hesitantly.

Ah oui, Madame. Mohammed and I worried about you all night. We heard the camels snorting, the wind pushing at your tent . . ..”

Before I finished washing my face they had moved my bag near the sumptuous set of blankets that took up one corner of the dining tent. Harold used a body language that would evolve over the next days to assure them they could sleep in the far corner. The dark ensured privacy and they had no interest in either the pup tent or the vipers. Yet I wondered. What would the evenings bring? Sleeping in a room with my husband and two handsome young Moslems hadn’t ever featured on my list of desires, but it did bring an inadvertent shiver of anticipation.

Our trip proceeded in calm December weather, the sun warming rather than burning our skin; the nights cool enough for jackets. Every morning Mohammed greeted us with bedside coffee. Hassan scaled tall dunes during our treks to make sure we weren’t heading off for Algeria. We were welcomed with tea and warm smiles when we reached camp. And they both adored Harold. They treated him as a beloved grandfather and ached for knowledge of life in America, talking every night long past a reasonable bedtime.

Hassan’s family was moving to the town of Merzouga so he could improve his French and go to school for a few years. Mohammed was still living a nomadic life, and he guided when opportunities came up.

“How do you know when there is a job?” Harold asked him.

“The company has given me a cell phone!” The pride in his voice survived two translations.

“Ah! I am surprised there is cell phone reception in the remote desert . . ..”

“There isn’t . . ..”

I paused before translating Harold’s next question. “So what do you do with the cell phone?”

Of course it was an object of great prestige and almost no utility. Word of work was passed on to camel herders, who passed it to nomads at watering holes, who passed it to someone in Mohammed’s extended family. In a few days it would reach him.

They were tremendously interested in the subject of marriage.

“How many wives do you have?” Hassan finally asked Harold when he realized I would translate anything and not take offense.

“Well, only one,” he grinned, “but I was married once before.”

They told us their own fathers each had multiple wives.

“So how many wives will you have?” asked Harold. We knew a recent law dictated monogamy, but didn’t know how seriously it was being taken.

“Oh, I will have only one!” affirmed Hassan.

“Me too!” exclaimed Mohammed. “If our fathers had to deal with today’s independent women, there’s no way they could have managed more than one!” 

One afternoon I was wandering alone when I spied our group sitting on top of a giant red dune. They were unaware of my approach, concentrating on each other, lots of miming going on. The discussion centered on camels. On this trip, we were the guests, but they were the overlords. They carried large loads of goods to feed and shelter us for the journey and it was their needs that our daily schedule accommodated.  

Fortunately, making life easy for the camels worked quite well for us.  They could not walk for long in deep sand, so we all wove our way through the wadis—the dried flat mud-beds between the dunes. They would walk from early morning until around one in the afternoon, and then take a break for the rest of the day. Harold now needed that schedule, more relaxed than our Himalayan treks of earlier times. We arrived in camps that were already set up—with lunch ready for us—and also relaxed for the rest of the day, until the dunes first glowed dark red then merged into the night sky.

Now, on top of that dune, Harold was writing with his finger in the sand. Mohammed knew a loaded camel could walk twelve kilometers a day, but couldn’t translate that into how far we would walk on this trip. They simply didn’t think of distances that way. Harold finally switched from Arabic numbers to a form of Roman numerals to mark twelve kilometers in each of five rows and they got the answer. 

“We will walk more than sixty kilometers!” Hassan told me proudly in French as I walked up. But Harold’s beaming face spoke of the joy of communicating in their private language.

Those young nomads were experts on life in a place where Harold and I would have no chance of surviving. They knew how to find their families in the remote, changing desert no matter how long they had been gone. How to survive in a climate as arid and dry as any on earth. How far the camels could walk before they needed water and how to reach it in time. How to bake bread in the wilderness with no oven and no matches. In this desert, it was Harold and I who were naive, and they the wise men.

Travelers to Morocco typically spend a day or two in that desert if they go at all, on organized trips with guides who speak their language. Even the hardy who go it alone probably don’t end up abandoning their tent and joining in a communal living arrangement. Our ties deepened as we spent days and nights, but we all knew it would soon end.

Hassan planned to attend school for the first time soon after our trip. It would be a religious Madrasa, one of many set up by Muslim clerics to teach Sharia law along with mathematics. The gentle soul I knew might be left behind as he moved into that life. He would perhaps never sleep in the same room with a white woman again, and maybe not with any woman outside his family. I would never sleep in that desert again with my husband—and certainly not in the same tent as two nubile young nomads. But I would always cherish the memories of the time when I did.

Early morning sun projects moving shadows—as in an old-time movie—onto the wall of light canvas before me. A slender robed figure prostrates itself several times. A camel turns and stumbles away, its front legs hobbled together with a piece of frayed jute. Moments later, new sounds emerge. Metal on rock; a spoon clinking; something rustling.

The smell of coffee mingles in just as I feel warm skin—which I know as intimately as my own but will soon lose to his cancer—embrace my curved back, and I snuggle close. Cool air enters with a shaft of light and red dunes are briefly outlined against blue sky. I observe the vague outlines of a space, more pavilion than tent. A young man, skin dark against white robe, walks towards us. He kneels silently, sets down a tray holding two cups of coffee and some biscuits, then heads to the far corner, beyond my field of vision.

As Harold idly rubs his hand over my hip in a familiar gesture that says he has awakened, I close my eyes and direct every membrane of my body to memorize this final moment before the day starts.