TUAREG

by

ALBERTO VAZQUEZ FIGUEROA

Translated from the Spanish by PILAR GARCIA and PAUL O'PREY revised by Thomas Molloy

'Praise be to Allah, the All Mighty. 'Once, many years ago now, when I was young and my legs could carry me on long journeys over the sand and stone without tiring, I heard that my young brother had fallen ill, and although three days' walk separated my jaima from his my love for him was greater than my laziness and I set off without a second thought, for as I said, in those days I was young and strong and nothing could shake my spirit. 'Night had fallen on the second day when I came across a range of particularly high dunes, half a day's walk from the grave of the Blessed Hermit Omar Ibrahim, and I climbed one of them in the hope of spotting some dwelling where I could ask for hospitality, but I saw nothing and so decided to stay where I was and spend the night sheltered from the wind. 'The moon must have been very high -it would have been my bad luck if Allah had not wanted her there that night- when I was woken by a scream, so inhuman it robbed me of all my courage and made me cringe, panic-stricken. 'That's how I was when this terrible screaming started again, followed by such moaning and groaning I thought a soul suffering in hell had managed to come back to earth with its terrible howling. 'Then suddenly I felt that someone was scratching about in the sand, and soon after, this noise stopped, only to reappear further away, and I noticed it doing this five or six times in succession, in different places, while the heartrending cries carried on, and fear kept me cowering and trembling. 'My ordeal didn't stop here because next moment I heard a heavy breathing, and handfuls of sand were thrown in my face, and may my ancestors forgive me if I confess I was so horribly afraid that I jumped up and ran off as if Satan himself, the devil who was punished by stoning, was at my heels. And my legs didn't stop till the sun shone down and there wasn't the slightest sign of the big dunes behind me. 'Well, I arrived at my brother's house and it was Allah's wish that he felt much better - well enough to listen to the story of my night of terror, and as I told it, with everyone sitting round the fire as we are now, a neighbor gave me the explanation of what had happened and he told me what his father had told him. 'He said: '"Praise be to Allah, the Almighty. 1

'Many years ago there were two powerful families, the Zayeds and the Atmans, who hated each other so much that the amount of blood that had been shed on various occasions was enough to dye red all their clothes and livestock for life. And it happened that the last to fall was a young Atman, and so his family was desperate for revenge. '"It also happened that between the dunes, where you slept, not far from the grave of the Hermit Omar Ibrahim, a Zayed jaima was camped, but all the men in it had been killed and only one mother and her son were to be found living there, and they lived in peace, for although there was deep hatred between the two families, to attack a woman would have been something contemptible. '"But it did happen that one night her enemies came, and after tying up the poor woman, who cried and groaned, they carried off the child with the intention of burying him alive in one of the dunes. '"The bonds that tied her were strong, but it's well-known that there is nothing stronger than a mother's love and the woman managed to break free, but by the time she went outside they had all gone and she could make out nothing more than an infinite number of high dunes - so she threw herself from one to the other, scratching at the sand here, moaning and wailing, knowing that as each moment passed her son was suffocating and that she was the only one who could save him. '"And dawn found her still looking. '"And so it went on for a day, then another, and another, because merciful Allah granted her the benefit of madness so that she might not suffer so much, nor realize how much evil there is in men. '"And nothing more was ever heard again of this poor woman, though they say her spirit wanders at night, not far from the grave of the Hermit Omar Ibrahim, and she still continues searching and wailing - and this must be true as you yourself, who slept there without knowing it, met her. '"Praise be to Allah the Merciful, that you got out all right and continued on your journey and now have joined us here at the fireside.' 'Praise be to Allah.' At the end of his story the old man sighed deeply and turned to the youngest members of the group, those who were hearing the ancient tale for the first time, and said: 2

'See how hatred and feuding between families leads to nothing but fear, madness and death, and there's no doubt that in the many years I've fought alongside my kin against our eternal enemies from the North, the Ibn Aziz, I have never seen anything good to justify it. The pillaging of one is repaid by the pillaging of the other, but the deaths on both sides have no price and are like a chain pulling down more and more dead, leaving the jaimas without strong arms and the sons to grow up never hearing the voice of their father.' For some minutes no one spoke, as they thought about the teachings in the story old Suilem had just told, for it would not have been correct to forget them straight away in that case it wouldn't have been worthwhile to disturb such a venerable man, who was losing his sleep and getting tired for their sakes. Finally Gazel, who had heard the old story dozens of times, made a simple gesture with his hands showing it was time for everyone to go to bed; he himself went off alone, as he did every night, to check that the livestock had been gathered in, that the slaves had obeyed his orders, that his family was sleeping peacefully and that all was in order in this tiny 'empire', which consisted of four camel-hair tents, half a dozen sheribas of woven reeds, a well, nine date palms and a handful of goats and camels. Then, also like every night, he went slowly up to the top of the high, hard dune which sheltered his camp from the east winds, and by the light of the moon looked out over the rest of his empire: an infinite expanse of desert, many days’ walk over sand, rock and mountain, over all of which he, Gazel Shayah, had absolute dominion, being the only inmouchar established there and, moreover, owner of the only known well in those parts. He liked to sit on the top of this dune and give thanks to Allah for the thousand blessings he had bestowed on him: his fine family, the health of his slaves and the good condition of his animals, the fruit of his palms and the supreme good fortune of having been born a noble among nobles of the most powerful Kel-Tagimus, the 'people of the veil', the indomitable Imohag, who were know to other mortals by the name of Tuareg. Nothing to the South, nor to the East, North or West, nothing to mark the limit of Gazel the Hunter's influence. He had been distancing himself bit by bit from the inhabited areas, to settle in the remotest part of the desert, where he could feel himself completely alone with his wild animals - the elusive addax they stalked for days in the 3

plain, the moufflon of the high mountain out off by wide seas of sand, the wild asses, boars, gazelles and the infinite flocks of migratory birds. Gazel had retreated from the advance of civilization, from the influence of the invaders and the indiscriminate extermination of the desert wildlife, and it was known throughout the whole extent of the Sahara that Gazel Sayah's hospitality had no equal between Timbuktu and the banks of the Nile, even though his fury tended to fall on passing caravans of slaves or on the 'crazy hunters' who trespassed on his territory. 'My father taught me,' he used to say, 'not to kill more than one gazelle even though the herd might run away and take three days to catch up with. I can recover from a three day's walk but nothing's going to bring a pointlessly killed gazelle back to life.' Gazel had witnessed how the 'French' had completely wiped out the antelopes in the North and the moufflon in most of the Atlas, and the beautiful addax of the hamada, the other side of the great wadi which thousands of years ago had been a big river, and for that reason he had chosen this corner of the rocky plains, infinite sands and jagged mountains, fourteen days’ walk from El-Akab, because no one but he desired the most inhospitable of lands in the most inhospitable of deserts. The glorious times when the howling Tuareg ambushed caravans or attacked the French military, were definitely over, as were the days of pillaging, fighting and death, running like the wind over the plain, proud of their nickname, 'the desert bandoleers' and 'masters' of the Sahara sands from the South of the Atlas to the banks of the Chad. The fratricidal wars were also forgotten and the strife which the old men had such fond and distant memories of. These were the years of decline for the Imohag people because some of their bravest warriors were now driving trucks for a 'French' boss or had joined the regular army or were selling cloth and sandals to tourists in gaudy shirts. The day that his cousin Suleiman left the desert to live in the city, having decided to haul bricks hour after hour, grimy with cement and whitewash, in return for money, Gazel realized that he would have to escape and turn himself into the last of the Tuareg recluses. So there he was, with his family, and giving thanks to Allah a thousand and one times, for in all those years - so many now he'd lost count - never once had he regretted that decision, up there on top of his dune alone at night. The world had lived through strange events during this time; he'd heard confused 4

rumors, brought by occasional travelers, and he was only glad not to have seen these events at first hand for the stale news he did receive spoke of war and death, hatred and hunger, of changes that accelerated faster and faster - changes which didn't seem to satisfy anyone and didn't auger well for anyone either. One night sitting there watching the stars which so often had guided him over the desert, he discovered a new one, bright and swift which cut across the sky, resolute and constant, not like the errant shooting stars which fell after a wild flight suddenly into nothing. For the first time his blood froze in terror - for there was nothing in his memory, nor in the memory of his ancestors, nothing in his tradition or legends which spoke of such a star, which came back night after night following exactly the same route and which over the years was joined by more and more until they became like a pack of greyhounds chasing over the sky, come to disturb the ancient peace of the heavens. What they meant, he could never know - neither he nor old Suilem, the father of almost all the slaves who was so old that when Gazel's grandfather had bought him in Senegal he was already a full grown man. 'The stars never run like madmen over the sky, master, 'he said.' Never, and this can only mean that the end of the world is near.' Gazel asked a traveler, but he didn't know, and another, who ventured a suggestion. Something to do with the 'French', I think.' But he was reluctant to accept it, for although he had heard so much about the inventions of the French he didn't believe they were stupid enough to waste their time cluttering up the sky with even more stars than were there already. 'It must have something to do with a divine sign, 'he said to himself. 'Allah wants to tell us something, but...what?' He tried to find an answer in the Koran, but the Koran makes no mention of mathematically precise shooting stars and in time he got used to them, though that's not to say he forgot them. In the pure desert air, in the darkness of a land without a single light for hundreds of kilometers around, you could get the impression that the stars were right on top of you, as if they were almost touching the sand, and Gazel often reached out his hand as if he could really touch the twinkling lights with the tips of the fingers. 5

He let a long time pass like this, alone with his thoughts, then came down unhurriedly to take a final glance at the livestock and the camp, and after checking that no hungry hyenas nor cunning jackals menaced his tiny world, he went to bed. At the door of this tent, the biggest and most comfortable in the whole encampment, he lingered a few moments to listen. The wind hadn't yet begun its soft moaning and the desert silence was so intense that it actually hurt his ears. Gazel loved that silence

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Every day at dawn old Suilem, or one of his grandsons, would saddle up the favorite dromedary of his master, Gazel the inmouchar, and leave it waiting at the door of his tent. Every day at dawn the Targui took up his rifle, got on his long-legged white mehari and headed off to one of the four points of the compass in search of game. Gazel loved his dromedary as much as a man of the desert is capable of loving an animal on which he often depends for his survival, and secretly, when nobody could hear, he used to talk to him out loud, as if he understood, calling him R'Orab the raven, making fun of his snow white coat which was easily confused with the sand and which made him invisible when they had a high dune at their backs. There was no mehari faster or more resilient this side of Tamanrasset and once a rich trader who owned a caravan of more than three hundred animals had offered him five camels of his own choice in exchange for it, but he refused. He knew that if one day something happened to him for some reason on one of his solitary adventures, R'Orab would be the only camel in the world able to bring him back to camp even on darkest night. He was frequently in the habit of falling asleep, rocked to and fro by balancing in the saddle and overcome with tiredness, and more than once his family had taken him in thus from the entrance to the jaima and put him to bed. The 'French' swore that camels were stupid, cruel and vindictive animals who would only obey oaths and blows, but a true Imohag knew that a good desert dromedary and specially a pure-blooded mehari, well trained and cared for, could be as intelligent and faithful as a dog and of course a thousand times more useful in the land of sand and wind. The French treated all the dromedaries the same at all times of the year, without understanding that during the rutting season the beast become irritable and dangerous, especially if the heat had risen with the East wind, and for this the French were never good riders in the desert and could never dominate the Tuareg, who in those times of fighting and strife would always beat them, despite the superior numbers and the better weapons of the French. Later all the wells and oases were controlled by the French, who made strongholds of the few water points in the plain with their canons and machine guns, and 7

the free, indomitable riders, the 'sons of the wind', had to surrender to what had been their enemy since the beginning of time: thirst. But the French didn't feel proud of having beaten the 'people of the veil' because, really, they hadn't defeated them in open warfare, and neither their Senegalese blacks, nor their trucks and not even their tanks were of any use in a desert dominated from one end to the other by the Tuareg and their meharis. The Tuareg were few and scattered about, whereas the soldiers arrived from their country or from the colonies like locust clouds, until one day dawned when neither camel, man, woman nor child could drink in the Sahara without the permission of France. That day, the Imohag, tired of seeing their families die, laid down their arms. From that moment they were a people condemned to oblivion: a 'nation' whose reasons to exist, war and freedom, had disappeared. There still remained a few scattered families, like Gazel's, lost in remote corners of the desert, but they were not the proud, arrogant warriors of before but men who continued rebelling in their hearts only, knowing for a fact that they would never again be the feared 'people of the veil', 'of the sword' or 'of the spear'. However, the Imohag did continue to be lords of the desert, from the hamada to the erg or to the wind-torn mountains, for the true desert was not the wells scattered about within it, but the thousands of square kilometers surrounding them, and far away from the water there were no French, no Senegalese Askaris, not even Bedouins - for the latter, who were also masters of the sands and rocks, moved only along the trails from well to well or village to village, and were afraid of the vast unknown regions. Only the Tuareg, and especially the solitary Tuareg, faced the 'empty land' fearlessly. On the maps this was nothing more than a white stain, but 'inside' there the temperature made the blood boil under the fierce midday sun and not even the hardiest shrub could grow, and even the migrating birds avoided it on their flights thousands of meters above. Gazel had crossed one of these stains of 'empty land' twice in his life. The first time was a challenge when he wanted to prove himself a worthy descendant of the legendary Turki, and the second time was when, then a man, he wanted to prove himself worthy of that same Gazel who in his youth was capable of risking his life. The inferno of sun and heat, the desolate, maddening oven, cast a strange 8

fascination over Gazel -a fascination born one night, many years ago, when for the first time he heard talk of the 'great caravan' and its seven hundred men and two thousand camels - all swallowed up by one of these 'white stains' without trace and without one single survivor. It was headed from Gao to Tripoli and was thought to be the most splendid of all the caravans ever organized by the rich haussa merchants, led by the most expert of desert guides, transporting on the backs of picked meharis a veritable fortune in marble, ebony, gold and precious stones. A distant uncle of Gazel's - who was also his namesake - had guarded it with his men, and he too was lost for ever, all of them as if they had never existed, as if it had all been but a dream. There were many who in the following years plunged headlong into the crazy adventure of tracing their tracks in the vain hope of carrying off riches which, according to the unwritten law, would belong to whoever was able to snatch them from the clutches of the sand - but the sand guarded its secret well. It was able by itself to cover with its mantle whole towns, fortresses, oases, men and camels, and it must have come, violently and unexpected, carried in the arms of its ally the wind, to swoop down on the travelers, trapping them and turning them into yet another dune among the millions in the erg. How many died following the dream of that mythical lost caravan nobody could say, and the elders pleaded tirelessly with the young men not to persist in the mad venture: 'What the desert wants, it takes, 'they would say. ' and Allah save those who would try to snatch it from its grasp.' Gazel sought only to unveil its mystery, the reason why so many men and beasts had disappeared without trace - and when for the first time he found himself in the heart of one of these 'empty lands', he understood, for it was easy to imagine seven million let alone seven hundred human beings dissolving in that horizontal abyss, out of which it was amazing that anyone could come, no matter who. Gazel got out. Twice. But Imohags like him were few and far between and for this the 'veil people' respected Gazel the Hunter, the lone inmouchar who controlled territory that no one else would ever dare pretend to control.

9

They appeared one morning in front of his jaima. The old man was at death's door and the young one, who for the last two days had been carrying the other on his back, could scarcely gasp a few words before falling down senseless. Gazel ordered that the best tent be prepared for them, and his sons and slaves watched over them night and day in a desperate battle to keep them, against all logic, in the land of the living. Without camels, water or a guide, and not belonging to one of the desert races, it seemed a miracle that they had managed to survive the heavy, dense sirocco of the past few days. From what he could understand, they had been more than a week wandering lost among the dunes and rocks, but they were unable to say from where they had come, who they were or where they were headed. It was as if they had fallen suddenly from one of those shooting stars, and Gazel visited them morning and evening, intrigued by their city appearance and their clothes, so totally inadequate for a desert crossing. The incomprehensible phrases they muttered between dreams was in an Arabic so pure and educated that the Targui could hardly understand it. Finally, at dusk on the third day, he found the young man awake and wanting to know immediately if they were still far from the frontier. Gazel looked at him in surprise: 'Frontier?' he repeated. 'What frontier? The desert has no frontiers...at least, none that I know of...' 'But there has to be a frontier,' the other insisted. 'It's around here somewhere...' 'The French don't need frontiers,' he observed. 'They control the Sahara from end to end.' The stranger pulled himself up onto his elbows and looked at him in amazement. 'The French?' he said. 'The French left years ago...We're independent now...' Then he added, 'The desert's made up of free and independent states. Didn't you know that?' Gazel thought for a few moments. Someone had once talked about how they were waging a war, far in the north, in which the Arabs were trying to shake off the yoke of the Rumis, but he'd paid no attention to the fact because that war had been going on for as long as his grandfather could remember. For him, to be independent meant to wander through his territory by himself, and no one had bothered to come and inform him that he now belonged to a new country. 10

He shook his head: 'No. I didn't know, 'he admitted, confused. 'Nor did I know there was a frontier. Who can draw a frontier in the desert? Who can stop the wind carrying sand from one side to the other? Who will prevent men from crossing it..?' 'The soldiers.' He looked at him, astonished. 'Soldiers? There aren't enough soldiers in the whole world to guard a frontier in the desert...And besides, the soldiers are scared of it. ' He smiled under the veil hiding his face and which he never uncovered in front of strangers. 'Only we, the Imohag, aren't scared of the desert. Here the soldiers are like spilt water - the sand just sucks them up.' The young man wanted to say something but the Targui saw he was tired and made him lie down again on the pillows. 'Please don't strain yourself,' he begged. 'You're still weak. Tomorrow we'll talk and maybe by then your friend will feel better. ' He turned round to look at the old man and for the first time he realized he wasn't as old as he'd imagined at the beginning, even though his hair was thin and white and his face appeared lined with deep wrinkles. 'Who is he? ' he asked. The other hesitated a few moments, then closed his eyes and mumbled softly, 'A scholar. He's studying the history of our most distant ancestors. We were headed to Dajbadel when our truck broke down.' ' Dajbadel's a long way from here,' Gazel remarked, but the other had sunk back into a deep sleep. ' Far to the south - I've never been that far.' He left noiselessly and in the open air he felt an uneasy emptiness in his stomach, of a sort that had never struck him before. Something about these apparently harmless men worried him. They weren't armed nor was their appearance apt to make you fear danger, but there was an air of fear floating about them and it was this fear he had detected. 'He's studying the history of our most distant ancestors, ' he had said, but the old man's face was marked by lines of suffering deeper than any made by a week of hunger and thirst in the desert. He watched the night falling and tried to find an answer to his questions in it. His Targui spirit, and thousand of years of desert tradition, called out to him that he was right 11

to have offered the travelers shelter, for the sense of hospitality was one of the foremost commands of the Imohag's unwritten law, but his instinct, that of a man accustomed to following his presentiments and a sixth sense which had saved him from death countless times, whispered to him that he was running a great risk and the newcomers would jeopardize the peace that had cost so much to establish. Laila appeared at his side and his eyes brightened at her sweet presence and the portentous adolescent beauty of the dark-skinned woman-girl who he had turned into his wife, against the opinion of the elders who thought it unfit for an inmouchar of such a noble family to unite himself legally with a member of the worthless Akli slave caste. She sat down at his side and looked him full in the face with her large black eyes, always full of life and hidden glints, and she asked gently, 'These men worry you, don't they?' 'Not them, 'he replied thoughtfully, 'but something they brought with them, something like a shadow or a smell...' 'They've come from far away, and everything that comes from far away disturbs you, because my grandmother predicted that you wouldn't die in the desert.' She put out her hand timidly until it touched his. ' My grandmother was often wrong, ' she added. ' When I was born she predicted a dismal future for me and look, here I am married to a nobleman, almost a prince.' He smiled tenderly: ' I remember the day you were born, ' he said. ' It can't have been much more than fifteen years ago...Your future hasn't even begun yet.' It grieved him to make her sad because he loved her, and even though an Imohag must be careful not to show himself too tender in front of a woman, she was the mother of his latest son and for that he in turn opened his hand to take hers. ' Maybe you're right and old Khaltoum was wrong, 'he said, ' Nobody can force me to leave the desert and die far away.' They stayed there a long time, contemplating the night in silence and he realized that a feeling of peace had come over him again. It was true that old black Khaltoum had predicted his father's illness a year before it took him off to his grave, and she had also predicted the great drought which had exhausted the wells, left the desert without a blade of grass and killed with thirst 12

hundreds of animals who had always been accustomed to thirst and drought. But it was also true that the old slave often liked to talk for the sake of talking and her visions often seemed more the fruit of her senile mind than authentic premonitions. 'What is on the other side of the desert?' Laila asked at the end of this long silence. ' I have never been further than the Huaila mountains. 'People, 'was the reply. ' Many people.' Gazel Ruminated on his experience at ElAkab and the oases of the north, and he shook his head. 'They like to pile on top of one another in tiny spaces or in narrow stinking houses, shouting and making a row for no reason, stealing and lying like animals who only know to live in the herd.' 'Why...?' He wanted to reply, because he was proud of the admiration Laila felt for him, but he didn't know the answer. He was an Imohag born and bred in the wide empty spaces and however much he might try he couldn't accept the idea of overcrowding, or the willful gregariousness which men and women of other tribes seemed so keen on. Gazel eagerly welcomed visitors and loved to join them round the fire swapping old stories and commenting on the small incidents of daily life, but then, when the embers died and the black camel with sleep on its back stole silently and invisibly through the encampment, everyone went off to their separate tents to live life alone, to breathe deeply and enjoy the silence. In the Sahara every man has the time, the peace of mind and the right atmosphere in which to discover himself or look into the distance, to study nature around him and meditate on all that he doesn't know other than through the holy books. But out there, in the towns, the villages and even in the tiny one-horse dumps of the Berbers, there was no peace, no time nor space and everything was a bedlam of noise and other people's problems, of shouting and pointless arguing and there it sometimes seemed that what happened to other people was of more importance than what happened to oneself. At last he said, reluctantly, ' I don't know... I could never work out why they like to live like that, one on top of the other... I don't know, ' he repeated, 'nor have I ever met anyone who really knew.' The girl looked at him for a long time, surprised that the man who for her was life itself, and from whom she had learnt all there was that was worth knowing, couldn't 13

answer one of her questions. Since she had reached the age of reasoning, Gazel had been everything to her: first the master whom the little girl of the Akli slave race had watched as if he were an almost divine being - absolute master of her life and belongings, of the lives of her parents, brothers and animals too, and of all that existed on the face of her universe. Later he was the man who one day, when she had reached puberty and had her first period, had turned her into a woman. He had called her to his tent and possessed her, making her moan with pleasure just as she had heard his other slave women moan on nights when the wind was blowing from the west. And finally he was her lover, who transported her as if on wings, to paradise; her true owner, even more her owner than when he had been 'master', for now he also possessed her soul, her thoughts and desires, everything, even her innermost and forgotten instincts. She kept silent for a long time and just as she wanted to say something she saw they were about to be interrupted by her husband's eldest son, who came running from the farthest sheriba. 'Father, the camel is going to give birth,' he said, 'and the jackals are prowling round.'

He realized that the phantoms of his fear were rapidly becoming flesh when he perceived the column of dust that was being thrown up on the horizon - hanging suspended and motionless in the sky as not a puff of wind crept over the midday plain. The vehicles - motorized vehicles they must have been judging from the speed at which they were advancing - left behind them a dirty trail of smoke and earth in the limpid desert air. Later came the low drone of their motors which after a while turned into a loud roar - scaring the snakes, the torcacs and the fennics - ending in a screech of brakes, harsh voices and violent orders, as they pulled to a halt no more than fifteen meters from the camp, dragging with them the dust and the dirt. All sign of life and activity had stopped on seeing them. The eyes of the Targui as well as of his wife, sons, slaves and even his animals, were captivated by the sight of 14

that column of dust, and by the faint dark outline of the mechanical monsters. The children and the animals ran back in fear while the slaves hurried to hide themselves in the depths of the tents, far from the view of strangers. Gazel went forward slowly, his face masked by the veil distinctive of his status as a noble Imohag respectful of his tradition, and stopped on the path half-way between the newcomers and the biggest of his jaimas, as if he wanted to show, without words, that they shouldn't come any nearer until he gave permission and could receive them as guests. He noticed first the dirty gray of the uniforms covered in sweat and dust, the metallic aggression of the coarse smell of boots and belts. Then his eyes fell in astonishment on the tall figure in the blue jaique and the untidy turban. He recognized him as Mubarrakben-Sad, an Imohag of the 'spear people', one of the most able and painstaking of desert trackers, almost as famous in the region as Gazel Sayah, the Hunter, himself. 'Metulem, metulem, 'he hailed him. 'Aselam, aleikum, ' Mubarrak replied. ' We are looking fir two men... Two strangers...' ' They are my guests,' he answered calmly, 'and they are ill.' The officer who seemed to be in command of the troops came forward a few steps. The stars on his cuff glinted as he made to push the Targui aside, but Gazel moved, blocking his path to the camp. 'They are my guests, ' he repeated. The officer looked at him in amazement, as if he didn't know what he was talking about, and Gazel noticed immediately that he wasn't a man of the desert - his gestures and his way of looking spoke of distant worlds. Gazel turned to Mubarrak who understood and turned his eyes to the officer. 'Hospitality is sacred among us, 'he explained. 'A law more ancient than the Koran.' The soldier with the stars on his cuff hesitated a few moments, almost incredulous of the absurdity of the explanation, and began to walk forward again. 'I represent the law here, ' he said abruptly, 'and there is no other. He had already passed when Gazel grabbed his forearm and pulled him round, making him look him in the eyes. 15

'The tradition is a thousand years old and you are not yet even fifty, 'he said, spitting out his words. 'Leave my guests in peace.' At a sign from the officer the bolts of ten rifles clicked. The Targui saw the mouths of the weapons pointing at his chest and realized that all resistance was useless. The officer roughly threw off the hand that still held him and, unholstering the pistol hanging at his waist, walked on towards the biggest of the tents. He disappeared inside and a minute later a dry, bitter report was heard. He reappeared and beckoned to two soldiers, who went running. When they too reappeared from the tent they were dragging between them the old man who shook his head and cried feebly as if he had been woken from a long sweet dream to face harsh reality. They went past Gazel and climbed onto the trucks. The officer, sitting in the cab, stared at him, hesitating a few moments. Gazel was scared that old Khaltoum's prophecy wouldn't come true after all and they would kill him right there in the heart of the plain, but the officer signaled to his driver and the trucks moved off - back to wherever they had come from. Mubarrak, Imohag of the 'spear people', jumped onto the last truck and fixed his eyes on those of the Targui until the column of dust obscured them. But those few moments were enough for him to realize what was going through Gazel's mind and it scared him. It wasn't good to humiliate an inmouchar of the 'veil people' and he knew it. It wasn't good to humiliate him and leave him alive. But neither would it have been good to kill him and unleash a war between brother tribes. Gazel Sayah had friends and relatives who would have had to plunge into the fight - to revenge with blood the blood of one who had only tried to make the old laws of the desert be respected. For his part, Gazel stood motionless, watching the retreating convoy until the dust and noise were lost completely in the distance. Then, slowly, he made his way to the big jaima, in front of which his wife, his sons and his slaves were already crowding. He didn't have to enter to know beforehand what he would find. The young man appeared to be in the same position as when he had left him after their last chat, with his eyes closed, trapped in sleep by death. Just a small red circle on his front made him look different. Gazel stood watching him, in sadness and anger, for a long time, then he called for Suilem. 16

'Bury him' 'he said. 'And prepare my camel.' For the first time in his life Suilem didn't obey one of his masters orders, and an hour later he came into the tent, threw himself at Gazel's feet and tried to kiss his sandals. 'Don't do it!' he pleaded. 'You will get nothing out of it.' Gazel pulled his foot away with distaste. 'Do you think I can tolerate such an offense?' he inquired with a hoarse voice. 'Do you think I could go on living at peace with myself after having let them kill one of my guests and carry off another?' 'What else could you have done? ' he protested. 'They would have killed you.' 'I know. But now at least I can avenge the insult.' 'And what will you achieve by that?' asked the Negro. ? Will you bring the dead back to life?' 'No. But I can make them remember that they can't insult an Imohag and go unpunished. That's the difference between your people and mine, Suilem. The Akli tolerate insults and oppression and are satisfied being slaves.' He paused and thoughtfully stroked the long saber he had taken from the chest where he kept his most valuable belongings. 'But we, the Tuareg are free, warlike people and we remain like that by never allowing a humiliation or an insult.' He shook his head. ' And now is not the time to change.' 'But there are many of them, ' he protested. 'And they are powerful.' 'That is true,' admitted the Targui, 'and that is how it should be. Only the coward fights with whom he knows to be weaker than himself, and for that reason victory will never ennoble him. And only the fool fights with his equal because then just one stroke of luck can decide the battle. The Imohag, the true warrior of my race, always fights with who he knows to be stronger than himself because if then victory smiles on him his effort will be seen to be a thousand times compensated and he can go on his way proud of himself.' 'And if they kill you, what will become of us?' 'If they kill me, my camel will gallop straight to the paradise Allah promises us, for it is written that he who dies in a just battle is sure of Eternity.' 'But you haven't answered my question,' insisted the Negro. 'What will become of us? Of your wife and sons, your servants and your livestock?' 17

Gazel's gesture was fatalistic. ' Maybe you think I've shown myself able to protect them?' he asked. 'If I let them kill one of my guests, then won't I have to let them rape and kill my family? 'He bent down and firmly made Suilem get to his feet. 'Go and prepare my camel and my weapons, ' he asked. 'I shall leave at sunrise. Then you will busy yourself by striking camp and taking my family far away, to the guelza of Huaila, where my first wife died.

Daybreak, preceded by the wind. In the plain the dawn was always announced by the wind as its night-time howling seemed to change into a bitter moan an hour before the first rays of light appeared in the sky, far away on the rocky slopes of the Huaila. Gazel lay listening, his eyes wide open, contemplating the stripes on the ceiling of his jaima which he knew so well, and he imagined he saw the bushes of the desert running loose over sand and rock, in an eternal hurry yet with an eternal desire to remain fixed, to have a definite home that would welcome and free them from their eternal wandering without destination from one end of Africa to the other. In the milky light of the dawn filtered by millions of tiny dust particles, the bushes appeared out of nowhere like ghosts intent on hurling themselves at men and beasts, to disappear again as they had arrived - into the infinite void of the desert - a desert without frontiers. ' There must be a frontier somewhere, I'm sure...' he had said, in a tone of desperate anxiety. And now he was dead. Nobody had ever spoken to Gazel before about frontiers - because they had never existed in the bounds of the whole Sahara. 'What frontier could ever hold back the sand or the wind?' He turned his face to the night and tried to understand, but couldn't. Those men weren't criminals, but they'd buried one and the other had been hauled away, no one knew where to. You couldn't kill anyone so cold-bloodedly, whatever their offense. 18

And even less when he was sleeping under the roof and protection of an inmouchar. There was something strange about the whole affair, but he couldn't quite figure out what; only one thing remained clear: the oldest law of the desert had been broken, and that was something an Imohag could not tolerate. He remembered old Khaltoum, and a cold hand - the hand of fear - touched him on the nape of his neck. Then he looked down at Laila's eyes, wide open and bright with sleeplessness in the half-light, reflecting the last embers of the fire, and he felt sorry for her, for her meager, hapless fifteen years and for emptiness of her nights after he had gone. He also felt sorry for himself - for the emptiness of his own nights when he would no longer find her at his side. He stroked her hair and noticed how she liked it, opening her large, frightenedgazelle's eyes even more, like an animal. 'When will you come back?' she murmured, more as a plea than as a question. He shook his head: 'I don't know, 'he confessed. 'When I have seen justice done.' 'What do these men mean to you...?' 'Nothing, 'he admitted. 'Nothing until yesterday. But this isn't to do with them, it's to do with me. You don't understand.' Laila did understand, but said no more, she just nuzzled even closer to him as if seeking strength or warmth from him, and reached out her hands in a last attempt to keep him as he stood up and went to the door. Outside, the wind continued to moan softly. It was cold and he wrapped himself in his jaique when he felt an inevitable shudder run down his back -he never knew whether it was from the cold or from the awful emptiness of the night which opened before him. It was like submerging in a sea of black ink; just then Suilem appeared out of the shadows and handed him R'Orab's reins. 'Good luck, master, 'he said and disappeared, as if he had never existed. He made the beast get down on its knees, climbed on its back and dug his heels lightly into its neck. 'Shiaaaaa...!!!' he shouted. 'Let's go!' The animal let out a bad-tempered bellow, straightened up sluggishly and stood 19

quite still, his face into the wind, waiting. The Targui pointed the animal towards the northwest and spurred it on again, stronger this time, to start the long trek. At the entrance of the jaima a shadow, thicker than the others, and darker, could just be discerned. Laila's eyes shone again in the night as rider and mount disappeared as if pushed by the wind and the bushes. The wind sobbed, stronger and stronger, knowing that soon the sunlight would come to calm it. There was still no more than that milky half-light in which he could only just see the head of his camel, but he didn't need more. Gazel knew there was no obstacle in front of him for hundreds of kilometers around, and his desert instinct and his ability to orientate himself even with his eyes closed, enabled him to find his route even in the darkest night. This was a power that only he and others like him, born and bred on the sands, possessed. Like carrier pigeons, migratory birds or like whales in the deepest ocean, the Targui always knew exactly where he was and in which direction he was going - as if some primeval gland, long atrophied in the rest of mankind, had remained functional and efficient only in them. North, south, east and west: wells, oases, tracks, mountains, 'empty lands', rivers of dunes, rocky planes...The whole universe of Saharan immensity seemed to come back to him like an echo at the back of his mind, without him knowing it or being fully conscious of it. The sun soon struck the back of his mehari, and it rose, beating down on his head, getting stronger every moment. It calmed the wind, flattened the earth as it stilled the sand and the bushes which no longer were swept from one side to the other, and brought the lizards out of their holes and grounded the birds - by the time the sun reached its zenith they wouldn't even dare attempt to fly. The Targui halted his mount and made it kneel down. He thrust his long sword and old rifle into the ground - they would serve as supports, next to the saddle cross, for a small rough shelter of thick cloth. He sheltered there in the shade, his head resting on the white back of the mehari, and fell asleep. He was woken - his nostrils quivering - by the most longed-for smell of the 20

desert. He opened his eyes but remained motionless, breathing the air, not daring to look at the sky, dreading it was only a dream. But when finally he turned his head to the west there it was, blanketing the horizon, enormous, dark, promising and full of life, unlike those occasional white clouds drifting high and mendicant-like down from the north without even the vainest hint of rain. That gray cloud, low and splendorous, seemed to hide in its bosom the treasure of all the water in the world and it was probably the most beautiful cloud Gazel had seen for the last fifteen years, maybe since the great storm that had preceded the birth of Laila - the storm which had made her grandmother predict an inauspicious future for the girl because on that occasion the longed-for water had become a flood, carrying off jaimas and animals, destroying crops and drowning a camel. R'Orab shook himself nervously and turned his long neck and quivering nose towards the advancing curtain of water which decomposed the light and transformed the countryside. He bellowed softly and from his throat came a deep purring as if from some enormous, satisfied oat. Gazel got up slowly, unsaddled the camel and stripped himself of his clothes - which he spread carefully over the bushes so that they could receive as much water as possible. Then, barefoot and naked, he stood waiting as the first drops spattered the sand and earth, covering the face of the desert with scars, as if it had smallpox; then the water began to come in waves and the sound of the sweet drumming intoxicated his senses as it turned into thunder, as he felt the rain's warm caress on his skin, savored its clear clean freshness in his mouth and breathed in the longed-for perfume of saturated earth, from which came a thick, alarming steam. Afterwards, with the sun of that same afternoon, there was a marvelous, fertile union as suddenly the sleeping seed of the acheb began to awake violently soon to cover the whole plain with green, turning the arid countryside into one of the most beautiful of places, flowering for just a few days before sinking again into a new, prolonged sleep until the next storm - which might be another fifteen years in coming. The free, wild acheb was beautiful. Unable to grow in cultivated fields or next to the well, even under the attentive hand of the peasant who watered it day after day, it was like the spirit of the Tuareg people, the only ones able to stick, century after century, to the sand and stone that the rest of the world had always renounced. The water saturated his hair and washed off months - years - of dirt from his 21

body. He scratched himself with his nails and then looked for a flat porous stone with which to scrub himself, because there still remained marks as the crust of earth, sweat and dust washed off and the water ran blue, almost indigo, down his legs - for the crude dye of his clothes had with time impregnated every inch of his body. He stayed two long hours happy and trembling under the rain, battling with himself not to turn tail and go back home, profit the water to plant some barley and wait for the harvest and enjoy with his people the marvelous gift which Allah had sent perhaps as a warning to him to stay where he was, in what was his world, and forget the insult that not even all the water of that enormous cloud could wash away. But Gazel was a Targui: perhaps, unfortunately, the last true Targui of the plain and he was well aware that he could never forget that a defenseless man had been killed under his roof and another, also his guest, had been carried off by force. So when the cloud went off to the south and the afternoon sun had dried his body and his clothes, he got dressed, saddled his mount and started on his way again, turning his back for the first time on the water and the rain, on life and hope, to something which only a week ago - only two days ago - would have filled his and people's hearts with joy.

22

At dusk he looked for a small dune and, putting aside the sand that was still wet, dug a hole in which to sleep, almost covered by dry sand, for he knew that with the dawn would come the wind and the cold from the plain, turning the water that still lay on the rocks and bushes into a heavy hoarfrost. In the desert there could be more than fifty degrees centigrade difference between the day's maximum temperature at noon and the minimum, the hour before dawn. Gazel knew from experience that this treacherous cold could get right into the bones of the unwitting traveler, making him ill and for days after making the joints of his body stiff, painful and unable to react swiftly to the commands of the brain. Once three hunters had been frozen in the rocky terrain in the foothills of the Huaila and Gazel still remembered their corpses, pressed hard up against one another, fused together in death, in that same cold winter in which his little Birsha had been carried off by tuberculosis. The men seemed to be laughing - the sun had dried out their bodies and dehydrated them, giving a macabre aspect to their parchment like skins and shining teeth. It was a hard land in which a man could die of heat or cold within the space of a few hours and in which a camel could spend days looking in vain for water, only to be drowned suddenly one morning. It was a hard land but Gazel did not conceive of living in any other, nor would he have exchanged his heat or his cold in the boundless plain for the commodities of any other limited, horizon-less world. Every day when he prayed - facing east towards Mecca - he gave thanks to Allah for letting him live where he lived and for letting him belong to the blessed race of men of the veil, the spear or the sword. He fell asleep, needing Laila, and on waking found that the firm body of the woman he had clasped in his dreams had turned into soft sand, which he let trickle through his fingers. The wind cried, at the hunter's hour. Gazel contemplated the stars, which told him how long it would be before light erased them from the firmament; he called out to the darkness and in reply his mehari, which was nibbling on the camp bushes, bellowed softly. He saddled him and set off again, and by mid afternoon he could distinguish in the distance five dark stains outlined on the rocky plain: the encampment of Mubarrak-ben-Sad, Imohag of the 'spear people' 23

who had shown the soldiers the way to his jaima. He said his prayers and then sat down on a flat stone to watch the sunset, immersed in black thoughts as he realized that this would be the last night in this life in which he could sleep peacefully. At daybreak he would finally open the lid of the elgibira, letting out its wars, revenge and hatred, and nobody could ever know how deep or how full of death and violence it would prove to be. He also tried to understand what motives had impelled Mubarrak to break the most sacred Targui tradition, but could find none. He was a desert guide - a good one without a doubt - but a Targui guide was obliged to work only in leading caravans, tracking game or accompanying the French on their strange expeditions looking for ancestral souvenirs. Never, under any pretext, did a Targui have the right to enter another Imohag's territory without his permission, and even less to lead foreigners incapable of respecting the old traditions there... When Mubarrak-ben-Sad woke that morning he felt a shiver run down his spine; the terror that for days had come over him in his dreams now came when he was awake, and instinctively he looked towards the entrance of his sheriba, scared he might find there what he truly feared. And there, standing thirty meters away, his hand grasping the hilt of his long takuba, whose point was thrust into the ground, was Gazel Sayah, the noble inmouchar of the Kel-Talgimus, waiting, intent on calling him to account for his deeds. Mubarrak took his sword and slowly, erect and proud, went out to meet Gazel, stopping four paces away. 'Metulem, Metulem,' he said, using the Targui's favorite salutation. He didn't receive an answer, nor really did he expect one, thought he did expect the question: 'Why did you do it?' 'The captain of the military outpost at Adoras made me.' 'Nobody can make a Targui do something he doesn't want to do...' 'I've been working for them for three years, I couldn't say no. I'm an official government guide.' 'You swore, the same as me, never to work for the French...' 'The French have gone...We’re a free country now...' That was the second time in just a few days Gazel had been told this and it 24

suddenly struck him that neither the officer nor the soldiers had been wearing the hated colonial uniform. None of them had been European, nor had they spoken with the strong accent they always used to. Nor had the eternal tricolor been flying on their vehicles. 'The French always respected our tradition,' he murmured finally, as if to himself. 'Why don't they respect them now, especially if we are a free country?' Mubarrak shrugged his shoulders 'Times are changing...' he said 'Not for me, ' was the reply. 'When the desert turns into oasis, when the water runs freely down the wadis and the rain empties down on us as much as we need, then the customs of the Tuareg will change. But not before.' Mubarrak kept calm enough to ask: 'Does this mean that you have come to kill me? 'That's right.' Mubarrak nodded, understanding, and threw a long glance all around him - at the still damp land and the tiny acheb buds struggling to appear among the rocks and boulders. 'The rain was beautiful, ' he said. 'Very beautiful.' 'The plain will soon be covered in flowers, and one of us won't be here to see it.' 'You should have thought of that before you brought strangers to my camp.' Mubarrak lips moved in a faint smile under his veil: 'It still hadn't rained then,' he replied and then, very slowly, he drew out his takuba, freeing the burnished steel from its embossed leather sheath. 'I pray that your death doesn't unleash a war between our tribes, ' he added. 'No one but ourselves deserves to pay for our mistakes. 'So be it, ' Gazel concurred solemnly, then crouched ready to receive the first charge. But it was a long time in coming, for neither Mubarrak nor Gazel were accustomed to fighting with swords or spears; they were gunmen, and with the passing of the years their long takubas had been reduced to mere objects of decoration and ceremony, used on festival days for bloodless exhibition fighting when what was appreciated most was the effect of the blow on the leather shield or the feint cleverly 25

dodged, rather than any intention of wounding. But now there were no shields present, nor any spectators disposed to admire leaps and capers or the bright flash of steel, seeking to avoid causing injury rather than attacking with intent to wound one's opponent - now that opponent was brandishing his sword resolved to kill before he himself was killed. How to block a blow without a shield? How to recover from a slip or back jump if one's opponent wasn't disposed to allow time for such a recovery? They looked at each other, each trying to divine what the other intended to do, and circled slowly round. Men, women and children began to surge out of the jaimas and watch them in silent consternation, unwilling to accept that what they were seeing was in fact a real, not a sham, fight. At last Mubarrak feinted the first blow, which was not much more than a timid question: he wanted to confirm whether or not he was dealing with a fight to the death. He got his answer - which made him leap back, avoiding by a few centimeters the furious blade of his enemy - and it froze his blood. Gazel Sayah, inmouchar of the redoubtable Kel-Talgimus people, meant to kill him, of that there was no doubt. There was such hatred and thirst for revenge behind the two-handed blow he had just dealt him it seemed as if the strangers he had one day offered asylum to were really his favorite sons and he, Mubarrak-ben-Sad, had killed them with his own hands. But Gazel didn't feel true hatred. He was only trying to see justice done and it didn't seem noble to him to hate the Targui for only having done his job, however wrong and shameful he considered that job to be. He knew, moreover, that hatred, like love, anxiety or fear, or any other deep emotion, is not a good companion for a man of the desert. To survive in that land in which he happened to have been born a great serenity was necessary: resolution and self-control were more important than any emotion which might lead a man to make mistakes which were rarely rectifiable. Gazel knew he was acting as judge - and just possibly as executioner - and neither of these had any reason to hate his victim. The force of that two-handed blow and the anger which swelled inside him were really just a warning to Mubarrak: the clear question his opponent had made. He attacked again and suddenly realized the inappropriateness of his long robes, his heavy turban and wide veil. The jaiques got tangled in his arms and legs, his thick26

soled nails with their antelope skin straps, slipped on the sharp stones and the litham prevented him from seeing clearly and made it difficult for the oxygen to reach his lungs, at a time when he needed all he could get. But Mubarrak was dressed in the same way and his movements were equally unsteady. The blades fanned the air, swishing furiously in the morning stillness, and a toothless old lady screamed out in terror and begged someone to shoot the dirty jackal who was trying to kill her son. But Mubarrak raised his hand authoritatively and no one made a move. The 'sons of the wind' had a code of honor different to that of the world, with its treachery and baseness, different even to that of the Bedouins, the 'sons of the clouds', and it demanded that a confrontation between two warriors should be clean and noble even when it was a case of life or death. Gazel had been challenged openly and he would kill openly. He sought firm ground under his feet, breathed deeply, gave a cry and hurled himself at the chest of his enemy, who swept the point of his blade away with a hard, clean stroke. They stood still again and looked at each other closely. Then Gazel brandished his takuba as if it were a mace and threw Mubarrak another two-hander, swinging his arms like a windmill. Any apprentice of swordsmanship would have taken advantage of such a mistake to impale him with a swift thrust, but Mubarrak was content to stand aside and wait, putting his confidence more in his strength than in his dexterity. He grabbed the weapon with both hands and swung it with enough force to slice right through the waist of a fatter man than Gazel - but Gazel was no longer there to be cut. The sun started to beat down oppressively and sweat ran down their bodies, saturating the palms of their hands and making the metal handles of their swords slippery. They raised the weapons again, studied each other carefully and threw themselves forward at the same time except that at the last moment Gazel leapt back. This meant that the tip of Mubarrak's sword tore his jaique and grazed his chest, but he stuck his own sword into his enemy's guts, running him right through. Mubarrak stayed on his feet for a few moments more, held by Gazel's arms and sword rather than by his own legs, and when Gazel drew back his sword, tearing his intestines, he collapsed onto the sand, doubled up but resolved to endure the long agony 27

fate had prepared for him in silence, without a single moan. Seconds later, as his executioner walked away - neither proud nor happy towards his waiting camel, the toothless old lady went into the biggest of the tents, took a gun, loaded it, came back to where her son writhed in silent agony and put it to his head. Mubarrak opened his eyes and she could read in them the infinite gratitude of one whom she was about to release from hours of hopeless suffering. Gazel heard the shot at the same moment as his camel moved off, starting their journey once again, but he didn't look back.

28

He had a premonition of, rather than actually saw, a herd of antelope in the distance, and this made him realize the enormity of his hunger. He had passed the last two days on a few handfuls of millet and some dates, preoccupied with his coming confrontation with Mubarrak, but now just the idea of a good piece of meat slowly roasting over the embers made his stomach rumble. He made his way slowly to the edge of grara, leading his camel by its halter, careful that the wind didn't carry his scent to any animals which might be grazing on the short, sparse vegetation in a hollow which a very long time ago must have been a pool or the widening of a stream and which still maintained something of its moisture at the center. A few diffident tamarisks and half a dozen dwarf acacias sprouted here and there, and he was gratified that his hunter's instinct had proved itself true once again when he found, at the bottom, a family of long-horned, reddish animals grazing or basking in the midafternoon sun, almost inviting him to shoot. He loaded his rifle, but put only one bullet in the chamber so as to avoid the temptation to shoot again, if at first he missed, at the animals as they ran off with great leaps and bounds. Gazel knew from experience that this second shot, fired almost at random, rarely hit the target and was just a waste of a bullet when ammunition in the desert was almost as scarce and necessary as water itself. He turned the mehari loose and it immediately started to graze, oblivious of anything but its food which was fresh and appetizing after the rains. Gazel went forward without a noise, half crawling, from rock to the tangled trunk of a bush, from small dune to shrub until finally he reached an ideal spot, from which he could look down on the graceful silhouette of the big stag of the herd, less than three hundred meters away. 'When you kill a stag, another younger one soon comes along to take his place and mate with the females, ' his father had told him. 'But when you kill a female you're also killing her children and her children’s children - which should be food for your children and your children’s children.' He got his gun ready and took careful aim at the front shoulder - blade, level with the heart. From that distance a shot in the head would doubtlessly have been more effective but Gazel, like a good Moslem, would only eat meat which had had its throat cut while facing Mecca and with the correct prayers, as laid down by the prophet, being 29

said. To kill the antelope there and then would have meant wasting it, so he preferred to run the risk of letting it escape wounded - especially as he knew that with a bullet in its lungs it wasn't going to get very far. A gust of wind suddenly blew and the animal lifted its head anxiously. Then, after what seemed an eternity but which was probably no more than a couple of minutes, he ran his gaze over the herd assuring himself they were in no danger, and resumed his task of chewing a tamarisk. When Gazel was completely sure he couldn't miss and that his quarry wouldn't suddenly jump or make an odd movement, he slowly pulled the trigger and the bullet shot out, piercing the air with a shrill cry, and the antelope fell to its knees as if its legs had suddenly been slashed away or the ground had been suddenly raised up by magic. His females looked at him, with neither interest nor fear, for although the report of the gun had been deafening it wasn't linked in their minds with any idea of danger or death, and it was only when they saw a man running towards them with his robes flapping and wielding a knife that they started to run - soon to be lost from sight in the plain. Gazel went up to his wounded quarry, which made a final effort to stand up and follow its family, but something had broken inside and nothing would obey the orders of the brain. Only its eyes, enormous and innocent, reflected the magnitude of its anguish when the Targui took it by the antlers, turned its face to Mecca and slit its throat with a firm cut of the sharp dagger. Blood gushed out, splashing his sandals and the hem of his jaique but he didn't even notice, being so satisfied in having proved once again that his aim was excellent and that he had hit the animal in the exact spot. Twilight found him still eating but by the time the first stars appeared he was already asleep, sheltered from the wind by a bush and warmed by the glowing embers of the fire. He was woken by the laughing of the hyenas, answering the silent call of the dead antelope. The jackals were also circling, so he built the fire up again and this sent them off to the edge of the shadows; he lay flat on the ground, staring at the sky, listening to the wind and meditating on the fact that he had just killed a man: the first human being he had killed in his life, and this meant that from then on his life could never be the same. 30

He didn't feel guilty, because he thought his cause was just, but he was worried by the possibility of unleashing one of those tribal wars he had heard so much about from his elders, wars in which there comes a point when no one can remember the initial cause of all the deaths nor the name of the man who had begun it all. Moreover, the Tuareg, the few Imohag who still wandered within the confines of the desert true to their traditions and laws, were in no position to start annihilating each other, for they already had enough trouble defending themselves as best they could from the advance of civilization . He evoked in his mind the strange sensation that had run through his body when his sword had sunk softly, almost without any effort, into Mubarrak's belly, and it seemed to him he was still listening to the hoarse death-rattle that had escaped from his throat at that moment. When he pulled back his arm it was as if he had the life of his enemy stuck on the point of his takuba and he was afraid of the possibility of having to use the sword again against someone. But later he remembered the dry crack of the shot that had killed his guest and he was consoled by the thought that there could be no pardon for those guilty of such a crime. He discovered finally that if injustice is bitter, it was equally bitter to try to remedy it, for killing Mubarrak had not given him the least pleasure, just a deep, disheartening sensation of emptiness. As old Suilem had told him, revenge wouldn't bring the dead back to life. Later he asked himself exactly why the unwritten law of hospitality had always been so important for the Tuareg. It was a law put before all others, even those of the Koran, and he tried to imagine how the desert would be if travelers didn't have that absolute assurance: that they would be received well, respected and helped. One of their legends told that on a certain occasion there were two men who hated each other in such a way that one of them, the weaker, presented himself suddenly at his enemy's jaima, asking for hospitality. The Targui, jealous of the tradition, took in his 'guest', offered him protection and at the end of several months was so tired of putting up with him and feeding him that he assured him he could leave in peace for he would never make any attempt on his life. Since then, and this was apparently a great many years ago, this had become a habitual practice of the Tuareg who could thus solve their difference and put an end to arguments. How would he himself have reacted if Mubarrak had presented himself at his 31

camp to ask for hospitality, endeavoring to make him pardon his error? He couldn't know, but probably he would have reacted like the Targui in the legend, for it would have been illogical to commit an offense in order to punish someone for having committed exactly the same offense. When the jet planes streaked across the highest skies of the deserts and the trucks rolled along the main tracks, pushing his race back into the deepest corners of the desert plain, it wasn't easy to predict how much longer they could survive there, but to Gazel it was obvious that if just one was surviving on the sands, on the infinite, lifeless plains or on the horizonless rocky ranges, the law of hospitality had to continue being sacred, for otherwise no traveler would ever again risk his life in crossing the desert. There was no pardon for Mubarrak's crime and he, Gazel Sayah, had taken it upon himself to make the others - who weren't Targuis - understand that in the Sahara the laws and customs of his race had to continue to be respected, for they were laws and customs adapted to that environment and without them survival there would be impossible. The wind began to blow and with it came the day. The hyenas and jackals realized they had lost any slight chance they might have had for a piece of antelope and they went away growling and moaning to their dark dens, where all the night dwellers went also: the long eared fennic, the desert rat, the snake, the hare and the fox. By the time the sun began to strike hot they would be already asleep, saving their strength for when the shadows of night made life tolerable again in that most desolate region of the planet - where, contrary to the rest of the world, all activity took place at night and all rest during the day. Only man, despite centuries, had not been able to adapt totally to the night, and for this reason Gazel got up at first light and looked for his camel, which was grazing over a kilometer away; he took its halter and they started off again, though in no hurry, on their long march.

32

The military outpost at Adoras was situated in a triangular oasis which was little more than a hundred palm trees and four wells situated right in the heart of an interminable river of dunes, and for this reason its survival could be considered as something of a miracle, constantly menaced as it was by surrounding sands - which protected the camp from the winds but which also turned it into a sort of oven which at noon often reached sixty degrees centigrade. The three dozen soldiers who made up the garrison spent half their lives cursing their luck in the shade of the palm trees, and the other half shoveling sand in a desperate attempt to keep it at bay and maintain open the narrow track which was their only communication with the outside world and which enabled provisions and mail to get through once every two months. Since the absurd idea had occurred to a crazy colonel, thirty years ago, that the army had to control those four wells which were, on the other hand, the only wells for almost a hundred kilometers around, Adoras had become “that accursed place” as much for the colonial troops at the beginning as for the natives now, and of the graves which stood at the far end of the palm grove nine were due to 'natural death' and six to suicide those who hadn't been able to come to terms with the idea of surviving in such a hell. When a tribunal hesitated between sending a convicted criminal to the firing squad, condemning him to life imprisonment or commuting his sentence to fifteen years compulsory service in Adoras, they were fully aware of what they were doing, especially when the criminal thought at first that they had wanted to be lenient with him in commuting his sentence. For Captain Kaleb-el-Fasi, commander-in-chief of the garrison and supreme authority in an area that was half the size of Italy but which had no more than eight hundred inhabitants, his seven years there constituted the punishment for having killed a young lieutenant who had threatened to reveal certain irregularities in the regimental accounts at his last posting. Condemned to death, his uncle - the famous General Obeidel-Fasi, the independence hero - had, thanks to Kaleb having been one of his adjutants and trusted aides during the War of Liberation, obtained permission for him to rehabilitate himself in charge of a detachment to which they couldn't send any other professional soldier who didn't find himself in similar circumstances. Three years earlier Captain Kaleb had come to the conclusion - based only on the 33

files which he had at this disposal - that the composition of his regiment was the sum of a score of murders, fifteen rapes, sixty armed robberies and an uncountable number of thefts, swindles, desertions and petty crimes, so that to control such a 'troop' he needed to use all the experience, cleverness and violence he had in him. The respect that he instilled was only exceeded by that imposed by his trusted aide, Sergeant Major Malikel-Haideri who was a thin, small and apparently frail and sickly man, but so cruel, astute and brave that he had managed to gain control of that pack of animals - surviving five assassination attempts and two knife duels. Malik was the most usual form of 'natural death' at Adoras, and two of the suicides had blown out their brains so as not have to suffer him any more. Now, sitting on the top of the highest dune, looked down over the oasis to the east and which was an old gourds over a hundred meters high, gilded by time and so hardened in its center that the sand had almost turned into stone, Sergeant Malik was watching without interest how his men shoveled sand from the young dunes which threatened to engulf the furthest of the wells when he focused his binoculars on the lone rider who had appeared, mounted on a white mehari, and who was picking his way towards the outpost in no particular hurry. He asked himself what a Targui would be after in this godforsaken place, when it was six years since they had stopped coming to the Adoras wells and had avoided all contact with the soldiers there. The Bedouin caravans still came, but each time less regularly, to collect water and rest a couple of days in the furthest extremity of the oasis - taking care to hide their women and in no way rub up against the soldiers, before resuming their journey with a sign of relief if there had been no incidents. But not the Tuareg. When they used to frequent the wells they came full of nerve, arrogance and defiance, letting their women walk about with their faces uncovered and their arms and legs bare, indifferent to the fact that these men hadn't enjoyed a woman for years, and reaching for their guns and sharp daggers the moment anyone looked like overstepping the mark. That's why, when two warriors and three soldiers died in a brawl, the 'sons of the wind' had preferred to steer clear of the military post, but now this solitary Tuareg was coming purposefully towards them, nearing the last crest, silhouetted against the evening sky, his robes flapping in the wind, and at last he entered the palm grove and stopped at the north well, a hundred meters from the first huts. 34

Malik slid unhurriedly down the dune, crossed the camp and went up to the Targui, who was giving drink to his camel - an animal capable of drinking a hundred liters at one go. 'Aselam, aleikum!' 'Metulem, metulem,' replied Gazel. 'That's a fine animal you've got there. And very thirsty.' ‘We’ve come a long way.’ 'Where from?' 'From the north.' Sergeant Malik-el-Haideri hated the Targui veil because he prided himself in understanding men and in knowing by the look on their faces whether they were lying or telling the truth. But with the Tuareg this was impossible because they left hardly anything open to view, just a slit for their eyes, which they deliberately screwed up when talking. Their voices also sounded distorted and for all that he could see Malik was obliged to accept Gazel's reply as true - he had also seen him approaching from the north side and had no reason to suspect Gazel of having circled round to let himself be seen coming from that direction, the opposite to the one from which he had really come. 'Where are you headed?' 'To the south.' Gazel left his camel, sprawled out and its belly almost bursting with water, satisfied and bloated, and set about gathering sticks and preparing a small fire. 'You can eat with the soldiers,' he declared. Gazel lifted a corner of his blanket, revealing half an antelope still juicy and caked with dry blood. 'You can eat with me if you like. In return for your water.' Sergeant Major Malik felt his stomach leap. It was more than fifteen days since the hunters had caught anything - over the years they had pushed all the game out of the area and there wasn't a single true Bedouin desert master among the soldiers or other inhabitants of the oasis. 'The water belongs to everyone,' he replied, 'but I'll gladly accept your invitation anyway. Where did you catch it? Gazel smiled inwardly at the clumsiness of his deception. 35

'In the north,’ he said. He had gathered all the wood he needed and sat down on his saddle blanket, taking out his flint and wick, but Malik offered him a box of matches. 'Use these,' he said. 'They're easier.' After the fire was lit he refused to take them back. 'Keep them. We've got plenty in the store.' He had sat down opposite him and now watched him as he hooked the antelope's legs onto the ramrod of his old rifle, preparing to roast them slowly on the low fire. 'You looking for work in the south?' 'I'm looking for a caravan.' 'This is the wrong time of year for caravans. The last one passed a month ago.' 'Mine's waiting for me,' was his enigmatic reply, and as he realized that the sergeant was staring at him in bewilderment, he added in the same tone, 'it's been waiting for me for over fifty years.' The other seemed to catch on and looked at him very carefully: 'The 'Great Caravan!'" he cried al last. 'You're looking for the legendary 'Great Caravan'? You're crazy!' 'It's no legend... My uncle was with it... And I'm not crazy. My cousin Suleiman who spends all day carrying bricks around for a miserable pittance, he's crazy.' 'None of those who went in search of the caravan ever came back.' Gazel jerked his head towards the tombstones he discerned between the palms at the end of the oasis. 'They wouldn't be any more dead than those...And if they'd found it they would have been rich for ever...' 'But the 'empty land' is merciless - there's no water, no vegetation for your camel to graze on, no shade or any reference point by which to guide yourself. It's hell!' 'I know,' said the Targui. I've been there twice.' 'You've been in the 'empty lands'? 'he repeated incredulously. 'Twice.' Sergeant Malik didn't need to see his face to know he was speaking the truth and a new interest stirred in him. He had been in the Sahara long enough to know the value of a man who had been in the 'empty lands' and who had returned. You could count on the fingers of one hand those who had done it, from Morocco to Egypt, and even 36

Mubarrak-ben-Sad, the post's official guide and in Malik's opinion one of the great masters of the desert, had admitted that he had never dared go there. 'But I know one,' he had confessed during a long expedition to explore the massif of the Huaila. 'I know an inmouchar of the Kel-Talgimus, who went and came back...' 'What did you feel in there?' Gazel looked at him for a long moment, then shrugged his shoulders. 'Nothing. You've got to leave all feelings outside. You've got to leave everything outside, even your thoughts, and live like a stone, careful not to make any movement that takes up water. Even at night you have to move as slowly as a chameleon - that's how, if you can become immune to the heat and thirst and above all if you can conquer your panic and remain calm, you might have a remote chance of surviving.' 'Why did you do it? Were you looking for the 'Great Caravan'" 'No, I was looking inside myself - for remains of my ancestors. They conquered the empty lands.' The other shook his head emphatically. 'No one conquers the 'empty lands', 'he replied, sure of what he said. 'And the proof is that all your ancestors are dead and the lands are still as inexplicable as when Allah first created them.' He paused, shook his head and, as if asking himself, said, 'Why did he do it? Why did he, capable of creating such wonderful things, also create this desert?' Gazel's reply wasn't arrogant, though at first it might seem so: 'So that He could then create the Imohag.' Malik smiled, amused. 'Actually, he said, pointing to the antelope leg, 'I don't like my meat too well done. It's fine like that.' Gazel took off the ramrod, extracted the two pieces of meat, offered Malik one and with the aid of his dagger began to slice off thick chunks of the other. 'If you're ever in any difficulty, 'he declared, 'don't cook the meat at all. Eat it raw. Eat any animal you can find and drink its blood. But don't move. Above all, never move.' 'Thanks, I'll bear it in mind,' said the sergeant, 'but I pray to Allah he never puts me into such a tight corner.' They finished eating supper in silence, drinking cool water from the well, and 37

then Malik stood up and stretched in satisfaction. 'I've got to go,' he said. ' I must report to the captain and see everything's in order. How long are you staying?' Gazel shrugged his shoulders to show he didn't know. ' I understand. Stay as long as you like, but don't go near the huts. The sentries have orders to shoot to kill.' 'Why?' Sergeant Malik-el-Haideri smiled enigmatically and pointed with his head towards the furthest of the wooden huts. 'The captain doesn't have many friends, ' he explained. 'Neither of us have, but I know how to take care of myself.' He went off as darkness came sneaking through the oasis, clinging to the edge of the palm grove. Voices rang out as the soldiers came back, their spades on their shoulders, tired and sweating, eager for their feed and the straw beds that would take them to the land of dreams, far away from the hell of Adoras. It was just twilight and the sky changed, almost unnoticeably, from red to black and soon the carbide lamps would shine out from the cabins. Only the captain's quarters had shutters on the windows preventing anyone from seeing what was going on inside, and before night closed in completely, a sentry turned up to stand guard, alert and with gun at the ready, less than twenty meters from the door. Half an hour later, this door opened and silhouetted in it was a tall, powerful figure. Gazel didn't have to see the stars on his uniform to recognize the man who had killed his guest. He watched him stand there for a few moments breathing the night air deeply before lighting a cigarette. The light of the match brought back to Gazel all the man's features, and the steely contemptuousness of his eyes when he had declared that he was the law. He was tempted to raise his gun and finish him off with a single shot. At such a short distance, and with him clearly outlined by the light from inside, he felt easily able to put a bullet in his head - putting the cigarette in his mouth out at the same time but he didn't do it. He contented himself with just watching, amusing himself by wondering what the captain would think if he knew that the Targui he had offended and scorned was sitting right there in front of him, less than a hundred meters away, leaning against a palm tree next to the embers of a fire, contemplating the convenience of killing 38

him there and then or whether to leave it for later. For those townsmen transplanted into the desert - which they truly hated, longing to escape from it at any price, and which they would never learn to love -the Tuareg were nothing more than a part of the landscape, and they were as incapable of telling one from the other as they were, say, of differentiating between two long saber crest sif dunes, even if they were separated by over half-a day's march. They had no notion of time, space, nor of the smells and colors of the desert, and in the same way they had no notion of what distinguished a warrior of the 'veil people' from an Imohag of the 'sword people', or an inmouchar from a servant, or a true Targui woman, strong and free, from a poor Bedouin harem slave. Gazel could have gone up to the captain and talked for half an hour about the night and the stars, the wind and the gazelles, and the officer wouldn't have recognized 'that damn stinking ragbag' he had confronted five days ago. For years the French had tried in vain to get the Tuareg to uncover their faces. Finally, convinced that they would never abandon the veil, the French had come to the conclusion that they couldn't tell them apart by their voices or gestures either and so gave up all hope of ever differentiating between them. Neither Malik nor the captain, nor any of the soldiers who had been shoveling sand, were French, but they resembled them in their ignorance and their contempt for the desert and its inhabitants. The captain finished his cigarette, threw the butt into the sand, saluted the sentry reluctantly and went in, closing the door behind him. The sliding of a heavy bolt was heard. The lights went out one by one and afterwards the camp and the oasis fell silent a silence broken only by the rustle of palm leaves in the soft breeze and distant howling of a hungry jackal. Gazel wrapped himself in the blanket and rested his head on the saddle, threw a last glance at the huts and the line of vehicles parked under the rough garage, and fell asleep. Dawn found him at the top of the most laden of the palm trees, throwing down heavy bunches of ripe dates. He filled a sack with them and also filled his gerbas with water and saddled his mehari, which protested loudly at not being allowed to stay longer in the shade, next to the well. 39

The soldiers had started to appear, urinating against the dunes or washing their faces in the trough next to the biggest well, and Sergeant Malik-el-Haideri also emerged from his quarters and went over to Gazel with a quick, confident stride. 'You're off?' he said, although the question was obviously pointless. 'I thought you would stay and rest for a couple of days.' 'I'm not tired.' 'So I can see. And I'm sorry - it's nice to have a stranger to talk to sometimes. This scum here don't think of anything else except thieving and woman.' Gazel didn't answer, he was busy fastening the saddle bags so that the camels swaying didn't throw them on the ground after five hundred meters, and Malik gave him a hand from the other side of the animal, and at the same time asked: 'If the captain gave me permission, would you take me with you to look for the 'Great Caravan'?' The Targui shook his head. 'The 'empty land' is no place for you. Only the Imohag can go there.' 'I could contribute three camels to the expedition, that way we could carry more water and provisions. In that caravan there's money to spare for all. I'd give the captain a share, buy my transfer and still have enough to last me the rest of my life. Take me with you.' 'No.' Sergeant Major Malik didn't insist. But he looked about him, at the palms, the huts, and the sand dunes which closed in on all four sides turning the outpost into a prison, with the bars substituted by tall dunes which threatened one day to engulf it all. 'Eleven more years here!' he murmured, as if to himself. 'If I manage to survive it I'll be an old man and they've even taken away my right to a pension. Where will I go?' He turned again to the Targui. 'Wouldn't it be better to die with dignity in the desert, with the hope that with a stroke of luck you could change it all?' 'Maybe.' 'That's what you're doing - right? You prefer to risk your life rather than rot carrying bricks.' 'I'm a Targui. You're not...' 'Oh, go to hell with your damned racial pride!' he declared bad-temperedly. 'You 40

think you're superior because hey accustomed you since you were a kid to put up with heat and thirst. Well I've had to put up with these sons of bitches and I'm telling you I don't know which is worse. Get out! When I want to look for the 'Great Caravan' I'll do it myself. I don't need you.' Gazel smiled under his veil without the other noticing, made his camel stand up and went off slowly, leading him by the halter. Sergeant Malik followed him with his gaze until he disappeared into the maze of passageways the dunes had left between themselves, to the south of the truck road. Then he turned back thoughtfully towards the biggest of the huts. Captain Kaleb-el-Fasi always slept till about nine, when the sun started to scorch the tin roof of his hut, which he'd had built in the shadiest part of the grove; he slept till nine, that is, if he hadn't already been woken with a start by the dates falling with a clatter onto the metal sheets above his head. After saying his prayers, two meters from the door, he would plunge into the trough at the big well, where Sergeant Malik would come to give his report, thought really nothing much ever happened. That morning, however, the sergeant seemed inclined to talk and was unusually excited. 'That Targui's going off in search of the 'Great Caravan', ' he said. The captain looked at him expectantly, but when he didn't say anything else asked: 'And...?' 'I asked him to take me along too, but he wouldn't.' 'He's not as stupid as you might think then. Since when have you been interested in the Great Caravan?' 'Ever since I heard of it. They say its cargo was worth more than ten million francs. Today all that ivory and those jewels would be worth three times as much.' 'A lot of people have died chasing that dream.' 'Adventurers, every one of them. You have to plan the expedition scientifically, with modern methods and logistic support.' The captain gave him a long look that was supposed to be severe and 41

reprimanding. 'Are you suggesting by any chance that I use men and material belonging to the army to look for this caravan...? ' he said, with mock amazement. 'Why not?' he answered seriously. 'They're always sending us off on one pointless expedition or another, looking for wells, worthless stones, surveying the tribes... What about the time the engineers had us going round in circles for six months looking for oil?' 'And they found it...' 'OK But... what did we get out of it? Nothing but trouble and exhaustion and all the men grumbling. Not to mention the three soldiers blown to bits in a jeep loaded up with dynamite.' 'They were orders from above.' 'I know. But you've got enough authority to send me off on some sort of mission survival exercises in the 'empty land' for example. Just think if we came back with a fortune! Half for the army and the other half for you, me and the men. Don't you think we couldn't soften up a few generals with it?' His superior didn't answer immediately. He ducked his head under the water and kept it there, thinking about it. When he came up again he remarked, without looking at him: 'You could be locked up for what you're saying.' 'Where would that get you? In the end, what's the difference between being in the glasshouse and being out here? A bit hotter, that's all. Not so hot as in the 'empty land' of course.' 'Are you that desperate?' 'Just like you. If we don't do something we'll never get out of here and you know it. Any moment another of these sons of bitches might get an attack of the kafard and start squirting lead at us.' 'We've know how to manage them up till now.' 'With a lot of luck,' said Malik. 'But how long will our luck last? We're getting old and as soon as we start to slacken they'll have us for breakfast.' Captain Kaleb, commander-in-chief of the devil's asshole, as Adoras was called in the army, threw back his head and looked at the palms: there was not a puff of wind to move them and the sky was so blue it was almost white, and hurt the eyes to look at 42

it. He thought about his family, of his wife who had obtained a divorce because of his sentence, of his sons who had never written to him, of his friends and comrades who had wiped his name from their memories even though the time was when they'd sung his praises; then he thought of that band of thieves, murderers and drug addicts who hated his guts and who at the least carelessness on his part would stick a bayonet in his back or put a grenade under his bed. 'What would you need?' he asked, still looking up and trying not to let his voice betray any interest. 'One truck, a jeep and five men, as well as Mubarrak-ben-Sad the Targui guide. And camels.' 'For how long?' 'For months. But we'll be in radio contact once a week.' He turned to look at him. 'I can't force anyone to go with you. If you don't come back and this leaks out, they'll have my head.' 'I know the ones who'll come willingly and without saying a word. The rest don't have to know anything about it.' The captain crawled out of the water, put on a pair of short trousers and a pair of sandals and let the sun dry his body. 'I think you're as crazy as that Targui,' he shook his head incredulously. 'But maybe you're right and it's better than staying here waiting to die.' He paused. 'We'd have to find a plausible excuse for such a long trip,' He smiled. 'In case you don't come back.' Malik grinned triumphantly, though he'd known from the beginning that he would get his way. From the moment early that morning when he’d watched the Targui disappear between the dunes, he'd been working out how to put forward his plan, and the more he'd gone over it the surer he'd been of getting permission from the captain. They started to walk to the orderly room together and Malik remarked with a short laugh: 'I've already thought of that.' The captain stopped and looked at him. 'Slaves.? 'Slaves...?' 'The Targui who left this morning could easily have brought news about slave 43

traders passing through our territory. The slave traffic is growing to alarming proportions again.' 'I know. But they're headed to the Red Sea and countries where slavery still isn't against the law.' 'Right,' admitted the sergeant. 'But what's to stop us trying to verify a report, and later saying it was a false alarm? 'He smiled ironically. 'They'll probably commend us for our keenness and sense of sacrifice.' They went into the orderly hut which was no more than a wide room with two tables, already stifling at that time of the morning. Kaleb stood before the large-scale map of the area which took up the whole of the back wall. 'Sometimes I ask myself how the hell you let them stick you in this hole, since you're so smart. Where do you think of looking?' Malik pointed confidently to a large yellow patch in the middle of which was an area marked in white, without any sign of a road, camel track, well or habitation. 'Here, in the center of Tikdabra. Logically, the caravan would have avoided Tikdabra, going to the north. But if they went off course, into the dunes, they would have ended up in the zone of 'empty land' and it would have been too late to turn back. Their only chance then would have been to press on and try to reach the Muley-el-Akbar wells. But they didn't...' 'That's just a theory. They might be there as well as in other place.' 'Maybe, but they're not in any other place. They've spent years searching for them in the south of Tikdabra. And in the east and west. But no one's ever gone into Tikdabra itself - or at least those who dared go there never came back.' The captain calculated the distance by eye: 'That's over one thousand five hundred square kilometers of sand dunes and plains. You've got more chance of finding a white flea in a herd of camels.' Malik reply was concise: 'I've got eleven years to look for it.' The captain sat in his rickety old armchair covered with gazelle skin, lit a cigarette and stared at the map he knew like the back of his hand, for it had already been hanging there the day he arrived at Adoras. He knew the desert and didn't have to be told what it meant to enter an erg like the one at Tikdabra: an interminable succession of 44

towering dunes, which stretched on like a sea of gigantic waves, seemingly protecting like a trap of quicksand in which men and camels could sink up to their chests- an endless, flat plain in which the sun reverberated mercilessly, distorting one's vision, cutting one's breath and making the blood of men and camels boil. 'Not even a lizard could survive there,' he murmured at last. 'If anyone agrees to go with you it means he's already got the kafard and you're doing me a favor by getting him off my hands. He opened the small strongbox built into the floor, hidden under floorboards next to the table, and counted the money that in it. 'You'll have to requisition camels from the Bedouins, 'he said, shaking his head. 'You can't take ours and I've got no money to buy more.' 'Mubarrak will help me to get them.' He went towards the door. 'I'll go and talk to my men, with your permission,' He waved his hand in answer to Malik's salute, closed the strongbox and then sat contemplating the map, with his feet on the table. He smiled, glad of having accepted the proposition. If things went badly then he'd lose six men, a Targui guide and the vehicles. But no one was going to make a fuss about that. After all, it was something quite normal in those parts. Plenty of patrols had disappeared for ever: a mistake by the guide, a broken axle or a breakdown were enough to turn a routine trip into a mysterious tragedy. They even counted on such things happening when they sent the scum of the nation’s barracks and prisons to Adoras. Logically, none of those men were ever supposed to return to civilization. Society had washed its hands of them for ever, so it didn't matter if they cut each others' throats, died of fever or were lost on patrol. Or disappeared in search of a mythical treasure. The 'Great Caravan' was there, somewhere to the south, of that everyone was agreed. It couldn't have vanished into thin air and its merchandise would last for centuries without deteriorating. With just a tiny part of that cargo Kaleb could leave Adoras for ever and set himself up again in France, in Cannes, where he'd spent some of the best days of his life with the pretty assistant from a boutique in the Rue de Antibes who had been waiting years for him to keep his promise of coming back for her. In the afternoon they would open the big shutters of their room in the Hotel Majestic, which looked out over La Croisette, the swimming pool and the beach, and make love facing the sea until it was dark, when they would go to dine at Le Moulin de 45

Mougens, L'Oasis or Chez Féliz, before finishing the evening at the casino, putting everything on number eight. It was a hard price he was paying for those days, too high by his way of thinking. And the worst of it was, perhaps, not the desert itself, or the heat or the monotony, but his memories and the certainty that if he ever managed to get out of Adoras alive, he'd be too old to enjoy the hotels, the restaurants, or the girls at Cannes. He sat immersed in his thoughts, letting the sweat run down his body as an ovenlike heat took hold of the camp, until his batman arrived with lunch: a greasy, disgusting cous-cous, the same as they ate every day, washed down by short sips of tepid, cloudy and slightly brackish water which despite all the years he'd been drinking it still gave him diarrhea. Later, when the sun fell so heavily and oppressively that not even the flies stirred, he slowly crossed the deserted palm grove and took refuge again in his hut, this time leaving all the doors and windows open to try and catch any breeze that was about. It was the time of the gaila, the siesta, that was almost sacred in the desert because during those four hours when the heat was at its worst, men, and animals, had to stay still in the shade if they didn't want to run the risk of dehydrating or getting sunstroke. The soldiers were already asleep in their hut and the only person still on his feet was a single sentry fighting in vain, under a lean-to shelter, to keep his eyes screwed up enough to stop himself being blinded by the sun on the dunes, but not too much in case he fell asleep. An hour later Adoras seemed completely dead. The temperature in the shade (in the sun the thermometer would probably have exploded) got dangerously close to fifty degrees centigrade and the air was so calm and the palm leaves so still that they seemed unreal, just painted against the sky. The soldiers snored, lying enervated and lifeless like broken dolls, their faces covered in sweat and their mouths wide open, overcome by the stifling atmosphere and unable even to chase off the flies that settled on their tongues in search of moisture. Someone cried out in a dream, and moaned softly. A corporal jumped up suddenly, waking from a nightmare in which he had been suffocating. In one corner a skeletal, insomnolent Negro watched the corporal until he calmed 46

down, then he too closed his eyes; but he couldn't sleep. His mind had been buzzing ever since the sergeant had told him in secret that in four days they would set off on a crazy adventure after a lost caravan in the most desolate region. They'd probably never get back alive but even so it couldn't be worse than shoveling sand day after day, waiting for the time when they would shovel sand over your corpse. Captain Kaleb also snored gently, dreaming of lost treasure. His sleep was so deep he didn't even notice a tall figure appear in the doorway and slide over to his bed, in total silence. He left an old, heavy rifle - a souvenir of the Senusi revolt against the French and Italians - propped beside him against the wall and took out a long, sharp dagger whose point he pressed slowly under the captain's chin. Gazel Sayah sat down on the edge of the straw mattress, clapped his hand firmly over the sleeping man's mouth, and pushed the dagger ever so slightly harder against the skin. The captain's right hand shot out automatically to the pistol he always left on the floor at the head of the bed, but the Targui pushed it smoothly away with his foot and leaned closer. He whispered hoarsely: 'One sound and I'll kill you. Understand?' He nodded and Gazel eased his hand off the mouth, though didn't lessen the pressure of the dagger. A thread of blood trickled down the terrified man's neck and mixed with the sweat that saturated his chest. 'Do you know who I am?' He nodded. 'Why did you kill my guest?' He swallowed, then strained to whisper in a faint voice: 'I was ordered to. Very strict orders. The young one had to die but the other one no.' 'Why?' 'I don't know.' He pressed the knife. 'Why?' he insisted. 'I don't know, I swear,' he almost sobbed. 'They give me an order and I have to 47

obey it. I'm not in a position to refuse.' 'Who gave you the order?' 'The Provincial Governor.' 'What's his name?' 'Hassan-ben-Koufra.' 'Where does he live?' 'In El-Akab.' 'And the other one...the old man. Where's he now?' 'How would I know? They took him away, that's all.' 'Why?' Captain Kaleb didn't answer. Maybe he realized he'd already said too much; maybe he was tired of the game; maybe he didn't actually know the answer. He desperately tried to think of a way of freeing himself from the intruder, in whose eyes he saw a profound strength, and he asked himself what the devil his men were doing not to come to his help. The Targui got impatient. He pushed the dagger point in harder and with his left hand gripped the captain's throat, stifling a cry of pain. 'Who is the old man? And why did they take him away?' 'He's Abdul-el-Kebir.' He said it in a tone of voice as if the name itself explained everything, but then realized it meant nothing to the Targui who was waiting for him to say something else. 'Don't you know who Abdul-el-Kebir is?' 'I've never heard of him.' 'He's a murderer. A filthy murderer, and you're risking your life for him.' 'He was my guest.' 'That doesn't stop him being a murderer 'Nor does being a murderer stop him being my guest. And only I have the right to judge that.' He jerked back his wrist and with a single stroke cut the captain's jugular. He watched his final agony before wiping his hands on the dirty sheet. Then he picked up the captain's revolver, his own rifle and went to the door, from which he looked out. 48

The sentry was still asleep, just as when he'd arrived, and still not even the slightest breeze disturbed the desolate palm grove. He slipped from tree to tree, until he reached the dune, which he scrambled up with great agility. Five minutes later he was gone, as if swallowed by the sand.

49

The captain's batman discovered the corpse in the early evening. His almost hysterical shouts shattered the quiet of the oasis and made the men drop their shovels and run to the hut. They crowded in but Malik jostled them firmly out again. When he was finally alone with the corpse and the fly-infested pool of blood, he sat down on a stool and cursed his luck. The son of a bitch who had done it could at least have waited another four days. He wasn't in the least upset. He hadn't any compassion whatsoever for the damned son of a bitch lying in front of him - the biggest son of a bitch of them all despite having shared the same hell with him for so many years and despite him having been the only person he'd had a remotely coherent conversation with in all that time. He didn't doubt that the captain had deserved to die, no matter where or how, but he only wished it hadn't been right there and at that particular moment in time. Now they would send a new commandant: neither better nor worse, just different, but it would be years, probably, before he would get to know him properly, get to find out his weak points and be able to manage him as he'd learned to mange Kaleb. On top of that he was worried about the complicated proceedings of the Investigation Commission, because not even he, who knew them better than anyone, could point out the murderer babbling excitedly five meters away from the door. They all seemed guilty, and he realized with sudden alarm that he could also be suspected, having the same motives as all the other people for killing the man who had made life unbearable for so many years. If he wanted to avoid problems, then he would have to find the killer himself and present the case as already solved. He shut his eyes and ran through the faces of every one of his men. In dismay he realized there weren't even a dozen who he could confidently declare innocent. And any one of the others would have experienced a profound satisfaction as they cut the bastard's throat. 'Mulay! ' he yelled. A giant of a man with criminal features appeared and stood at the door, perfectly rigid except for a slight nervous trembling. He looked pale and terrified. 'At you orders, sergeant! ' he stuttered, with great effort. 50

'You were on guard, am I right?' 'Yes sir.' 'And you didn't see anyone?' 'I, er, think I might have fallen asleep at one point sir,' he almost sobbed. 'Who would have imagined that anyone would have dared, in broad daylight...' 'Not you, obviously. I suppose you realize this probably means the firing squad for you? If the killer isn't found, then you're responsible.' Mulay swallowed his saliva, spread his hands in supplication and gasped: 'But it wasn't me sergeant! What would I do it for? In four days we would have been out of here on the trail of that caravan.' 'If you mention that caravan again I shall make it my own personal business to blow your brains out. And I'll deny I ever spoke to you about it in the first place. It'll be your word against mine' 'Of course, sir. I won't mention it again. I just want you to understand that I was one of the few who didn't want to see him dead.' Malik stood up, took one of the captain's cigarettes from the table and lit it with a solid silver lighter, which he then coolly pocketed. 'I understand,' he said. 'But I also understand that you were on guard and knew it was your duty to fire at anyone who came near this building. Damn it! I swear that as soon as I find out who did it I'll flay him alive.' He gave a last glance to the corpse and went out onto the porch, where everyone was waiting. He looked closely from one to the other, with deliberate slowness. 'Listen to me!' he declared. 'We've got to solve this little problem between ourselves if we don't want a load of officers down on top of us making life even worse than it is. Malay was on guard, but I'm pretty sure he didn't do it. Everyone else, it is supposed, was asleep in the hut. Who wasn't there and why not?' The soldiers looked suspiciously at each other, realizing the seriousness of the problem and scared of having to go before an Investigating Commission. Finally a lance corporal spoke up hesitantly: 'I don't remember anyone being missing, sir. The heat was unbearable. It would have been very odd if someone had stayed outside on a day like this.' There was a general murmur of agreement. 51

The sergeant pondered for a few moments: 'Who went out to the latrine?' Three men raised their arms, and one of them protested: 'I wasn't gone for even two minutes. He saw me and I saw him.' Malik turned to the third. 'And what about you? Anyone see you?' The thin Negro pushed his way to the front. 'I did. He went to the dunes and then came straight back. I saw those two as well... I didn't sleep and can verify that nobody left the hut for more than three minutes sir. The only one who wasn't there was Mulay.' He paused before adding somewhat casually: 'As well as yourself of course.' For a few brief seconds the sergeant lost his composure and felt a cold sweat run down his back. He turned to Mulay behind him and looked daggers at him. 'Well if it was none of them, and it wasn't me, and there's no one else for a hundred kilometers around it seems to me you’re gonna have to..' he stopped suddenly, as if a light went on in his brain, then let out an oath that was at the same time a cry of joy. 'The Targui! Hell's bells...the Targui! Corporal!' 'Yes sir? 'What was that you told me about a Targui who didn't want to let you in his camp? Do you remember the guy? The corporal shrugged his shoulders doubtfully. 'All the Targui look the same when they wear that veil, sir.' 'But it could have been the one who camped here yesterday?' The skeletal Negro answered for him: 'It could have been, sir. I was there too. He was tall, thin, wearing a blue sleeveless gandurah over a white one and he had a small red leather bag or amulet hanging round his neck.' The sergeant held up his hand to stop him, and let out a sigh of profound relief. 'Then it's him, without a doubt.' He said. 'The damned son of a bitch had the balls to come in here and kill the captain right in front of our noses. Corporal! Lock Mulay up. If he escapes I'll have you shot. Then get me the capital on the radio. Ali!' 'Yes sir?' answered the Negro. 52

'Get all the vehicles ready... As well as maximum supplies of water, fuel and provisions. We'll find this bastard even if he hides in hell itself.' Half an hour later Adoras bustled with an activity it hadn't seen since the time it was built, or since the great caravans coming from the south had stopped there.

53

He led the camel by the halter, not stopping all night. A diffident moon and a thousand stars gave just enough light for him to make out the outline of the dunes and the sinewy paths that meandered through them: the gassi, unpredictable tracks opened by the wind but which would suddenly come to an abrupt end, forcing him to make the laborious climb up the soft sand, half falling, gasping, tugging the mehari who protested loudly at such effort at a time when he had every reason to expect a quiet rest and a peaceful graze. What little rest he did have, however, was for a few minutes when they came to the immense erg which spread before them: an infinite plain, with thousands of millions of black rocks cracked by the sun and a thick, gravelly sand untouched by wind except when it was lashed furiously in the great storms. Gazel knew that now there was no bush, no grara, not even one of the old dry river beds one always found in the hamada, in front of him; and that probably the only break in the monotony of the landscape in which a camel and rider would stand out like a red flag on a pole, would be the subsidence and steep banks of the salt pans. But he also knew that there was no mehari to compete with his on that terrain, whose multitude of jagged rooks, up to half a meter high, posed an almost impassable obstacle to motorized vehicles. And, unless he was very much mistaken, if the soldiers came after him they would come in jeeps and trucks, for they weren't men of the desert and weren't used to long hikes or days on and spent swaying on a camel's back. Dawn found him far from the dunes which now were just a pale wavy line on the horizon. He guessed that the soldiers would be just setting off and would be two hours on the road they'd made through the sand, till they came out onto the plain, far to the west of where he now was. Even supposing that some of them went straight to the erg, they wouldn't reach it until late morning, when the sun would be high. This gave him a wide safety margin, so he stopped and lit a fire, on which he cooked the remains of the antelope, that was already beginning to smell bad. Then he said his morning prayers facing Mecca - the same direction from which his enemies would come - scattered sand over what was left of the fire and ate hungrily. Then he took the camel's rein once again and set off with the sun just beginning to warm his back. He headed due west, putting Adoras and the lands he knew behind him. His destination was El-Akab, which lay to the north, but Gazel, being a man of the desert, was not 54

bothered by time, by days, weeks or even months, and knew that El-Akab had been there for centuries and would still be here when he and his people were long forgotten. So he would have plenty of time to retrace his step when the ever impatient soldiers had got tired of looking for him. 'Right now they're furious,' he said to himself. 'But in a month they'll have forgotten all about me.' Around noon he stopped and made the mehari lie down in a slight hollow, which he surrounded with stones; then he dug his sword and rifle into the ground, spread between them the essential blanket and curled up in its shade. A minute later he was asleep, invisible to anyone more than two hundred meters away. The sun woke him, shining obliquely into his face. It was almost at the horizon. He peered between the rocks and saw the thin column of dust thrown up behind a vehicles moving slowly along the edge of the plain, as if reluctant to give up the protection of the dunes and plunge into the immense, hostile erg. Sergeant Malik stopped the jeep, turned off the motor and gazed slowly out into the interminable plain. It was as if some giant had amused himself by planting black jagged rocks everywhere. Rocks that threatened to make shreds of his tires and break a crankshaft at the slightest carelessness. 'I'd stake my life that the son of a bitch is in there,' he began, while thoughtfully lighting a cigarette. Then he reached out his hand without looking and Ali, the Negro, gave him the microphone. 'Corporal!' he screamed into it. 'Can you hear me?' A distant voice answered. 'I hear you sergeant. Have you found anything?' 'Nothing. How about you?' 'Not a trace of him.' 'Have you managed to make contact yet with Almarik?' 'A while ago sir. He hasn't seen anything either. I sent him off to look for Mubarrak. With luck he'll reach his camp before this evening. He'll call me at seven.' 'OK' he answered. 'Call me when you've heard from him. Over and out.' He put the microphone back, stood on the seat and looked at the plain again through his binoculars. Then he got down angrily onto the ground and urinated with his 55

back to his men, who took the opportunity to imitate him. 'If I was him I'd have gone into that hell too,' he muttered. 'He can move faster than us there, and can even move at night while we lose every damn nut and bolt on the way.' He buttoned his flies, picked up the cigarette he'd left on the bonnet and took a deep drag. 'If we only had some idea of which way he was heading.' 'Maybe he'll go back home,' suggested Ali. 'But that's in the other direction, in the southeast.' 'Home!' he declared ironically. 'When have you ever seen one of these damned 'sons of the wind' have a home? At the least sign of danger the first thing they do is strike camp and send there family off to some remote place, a thousand kilometers away. No, 'he said confidently.' For this Targui his home's where his camel is now, from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea. And that's his big advantage over us: he doesn't need anything, or anyone.' 'What are we going to do then?' He looked at the sun which was turning the sky red and on the point of disappearing completely, and shook his head pessimistically. 'We won't do anything right now,' he said. 'Set up camp and get the supper ready. One man on guard at all times, and if he falls asleep I'll shoot him there and then. Is that perfectly clear?' He didn't wait for a reply. He took a map from the glove-rack and spread it on the bonnet. He studied it carefully, but knew it wasn't a hundred per cent dependable. The dunes were constantly moving, roads disappearing under the sand and wells blocking up. He also knew, from his own experience, that whoever had made the map hadn't gone into the erg itself to measure it exactly, but had just drawn an approximate outline of it without worrying if it was out a hundred kilometers here or there. And in the moment of truth, those hundred kilometers could mean the difference between life and death, especially if the jeep broke down and you had to continue on foot. He was suddenly tempted to send everything to the devil and return to base. After all, the captain had deserved it a thousand times over. If he hadn't known the Targui who had done it, he would just have sent in his report and left it at that. But he felt personally insulted and mocked -used by that a dirty 'son of the wind' who had well and truly known 56

how to fool him and who had been laughing at him the whole time behind his filthy litham, telling him all that cock and bull about the 'Great Caravan' and its treasure. 'I even helped him load the camel, tying on the water and getting everything ready for a long journey when all the time he planned to hide behind one of the first dunes and come back that very day.' He peered into the plain that had become a gray, shapeless smudge and cursed. 'If I catch you,' he muttered, 'I'll skin you alive.' He said his evening prayers and slung a bag of dates over his shoulder and set off again, eating them one by one as he went. Keeping due west the whole time, he went to meet the shadows now creeping over the earth and knew that a steady night's march would put an insurmountable distance between him and his pursuers. The camel had drunk all the water it could the day before, and it was in excellent condition, fit and strong, not having been overworked; its hump was bloated and shining, which meant the animal had supply for a week going at the present rate. Such a camel could also lose over a hundred kilos without suffering. He himself was used to long hikes, tracking wounded quarry or a beautiful, fugitive herd, and this flight was not much more than another hunting trip. He left fine there, alone in the desert, the world he truly loved, though at times he missed his family and Laila in particular; nevertheless, he knew he could do without them for as long as he needed to complete the task he'd committed himself to. Revenge. Later he welcomed the appearance of the moon to light his path and around midnight he caught sight of the silvery reflection of a sebhka, an immense salt pan, which opened before him like a petrified sea and the other bank of which was out of sight. He veered north, skirting it at a safe distance from the soft, mushy bank and the thousands of millions of mosquitoes which at dawn and dusk formed genuine clouds there, blocking out the sun and making life unbearable for man or beast. Gazel had seen camels maddened with pain as mosquitoes rushed at their eyes and mouths, making them throw off their loads or their riders and bolt from sight, never to be seen again. For that reason the edge of the sebhka had to be approached during the daytime, for when the sun was high it scorched the wings of any insect that tried to fly; so at the 57

hottest part of the day the mosquitoes were so well-hidden it was hard to believe that they existed and weren't the greatest punishment Allah could inflict on the already thousand times punished desert dwellers. Gazel had never seen this particular salt pan before, but had heard about it from travelers and was sure it was no different from any other he'd encountered, except perhaps in terms of size. A great many years ago the Sahara had been a great sea, and when this sea receded a lot of water was trapped in a multitude of hollows such as these, which then dried up leaving a deposit of salt which at the center could sometimes be several meters deep. Sometimes, after a rain, an underground stream of saltpetrous water would flow into the sebhka, making its banks soft and wet, and which would then dry out in the sun and become as hard and crusty and a loaf of bread straight from the oven. This crust was treacherous because at any moment it could crack and throw a man into a quagmire the consistency of half-melted butter, which would swallow him up in a matter of minutes; it was even more dangerous that the perilous fesh-fesh, the bottomless sands into which man and camel could sink as suddenly as if they'd never existed. The fesh-fesh was totally unforeseeable, and for this reason Gazel feared it; it took its victim without warming, but at least, Gazel reflected, it disposed of him quickly, unlike the quicksand at the edge of the salt lakes that played with its victim, who was like as fly trapped in honey, sinking slowly with no possible means of escape. It was one of the worst deaths imaginable. Therefore Gazel moved slowly, heading north, trying to go round the seemingly limitless expanse of white, though at the same time he realized that the salt was a further barrier Nature was putting between him and his pursuers: it would swallow whatever vehicle that tried to enter it. 'Mubarrak's dead. The bastard stabbed him with his sword. Almarik says it was a clean duel and that the tribe, the Sal, won't take any revenge. As far as they're concerned the matter's over.' 'Unfortunately we can't say the same. Keep your eyes peeled until further orders.' 'Yes sergeant. Over and out.' Malik turned to Ali, the Negro. 58

'Get me Lieutenant Razman at Tidiken. Call me when you've got through...' He walked off into the darkness to stand, alone, looking at the stars and moon which reflected a golden light from the dunes behind him. He realized that despite the inevitable hardness of the days ahead, he was happy to find himself there at the edge of the erg, with the extremely arduous task of hunting down a man who knew the desert far better than he'd ever know it and who would play with him, like a hare being chased by a camel. But it was a hunt and that made him feel alive again, alive and on the move. It was enough to make him feel young again, as in the days when he'd waited on the corners of the Kasbah for the French officers to pass, to stab them in the guts and disappear in the shadows of a thousand dark alleyways. Or the day when they had finally declared open warfare, certain that victory was close, when he'd thrown a bomb into a cafe in the European quarter. That had been a good life, exciting and with some point to it, not like the monotony of barrack life which came after Independence, or the horror of his exile to Adoras with the eternal, useless battle against the invasion of the sand. 'I want to get that dirty Targui,' he said to himself. 'And I want him alive, to take his veil off and make him look me in the eyes, and make him realize he's not going to be the first man to laugh at me and get away with it.' He'd spent a whole night lying awake on his rickety old bed dreaming of going with him in search of the 'Great Caravan', imagining all the adventure they'd have together and all that a man like him could teach him. That night the Targui had become his friend, bringing hope of a new future, and then suddenly in the space of a few hours he'd broken his dreams not just once but twice - by not letting him go with him and then by killing the captain, after he'd got the permission from him to go by himself. No. The 'son of the wind' who could do that to him and get away with his life hadn't been born yet. He hadn't been born. 'Sergeant! The lieutenant...!' He ran over. 'Lieutenant Razman...?' he said into the radio. 'Yes sergeant. Have you managed to catch that Targui yet?' 'No, not yet sir. I have a feeling he's trying to cross the big erg to the south of Tidikem...If you sent your men, we could cut him off before he reaches the Sidi-al-Madia 59

mountains...' There was a long silence. Finally the lieutenant said hesitantly. 'But that's almost two hundred kilometers from here sergeant...' 'I know sir. But once he gets into the mountains not all the armies in the world together could find him. It's a labyrinth.' Razman considered carefully before replying. He despised sergeant Malik, just as he had despised Captain Kaleb-el-Fasi, whose death he'd celebrated. He despised everyone at Adoras, the scum of an army he wanted honorable and efficient, and vermin like Malik had no place in such an army, not even in that godforsaken spot. If a Targui had been brave enough to go in there, kill the captain and then disappear into thin air, then deep down he was on his side, whatever his motive for doing it had been. But he also realized that the prestige of the army was at stake and if he refused Malik's call for assistance, and the Targui escaped, then the sergeant wouldn't hesitate to put all the blame on him when he made his report. In another two years he'd be made a captain and then he'd be the highest authority in the region. If he also caught the man who'd murdered Kaleb - even if the captain had been a complete bastard - those two years would be cut short. He sighed and nodded his head, as if Malik could see him. 'OK sergeant. We'll set off a dawn. Over and out.' He switched off, put the microphone on the table and stood gaping at the transmitter, as if expecting to find an answer to his questions in it. Souad's voice called him back to reality. 'You don't like this mission do you?' she asked, putting her head round the door of the kitchen. 'No I don't,' he admitted. 'I wasn't born to be a policeman or to chase a man through the desert just because he's done something which under his law was the right thing to do.' 'But his law isn't the law any more, and you know it,' she said, coming in to sit down opposite him at the other end of the long table. 'Now we're living in a modern, independent country, and everyone must be equal because if everyone carried on according to local customs we'd be totally ungovernable. How could you reconcile the man from the coast or the mountains with the Bedouins or Tuareg of the desert? We have 60

to make a clean break and start again with the same legislation for everyone or we'll fall into the abyss. Don't you see that?' 'Of course, it's easy to see when you've studied at the military academy, like me, or at a French university like you.' He stopped to take down a curved pipe from among the half dozen hanging on a rack on the wall, and lit it thoughtfully. 'But I doubt if someone who has spent his whole life in the desert would see it, especially as we never bothered to go and tell him that things had changed. Do we have the right to make someone accept that from this or that moment on their life, and the lives of his parents and ancestors, no longer have any meaning? Why? What do we offer him in exchange?' 'Freedom.' 'Is it freedom to force your way into his house, kill his guest and carry off another?' he said in amazement. You're talking about political freedom, as a student on the campus or in a bar might see it, but it's not the same for a man who's always considered himself to be truly free, whether governed by fascists, communists or the French, ... Colonel Dupery, even though he was a 'colonialist', would have known how to respect that Targui's traditions more than that pig Kaleb, despite all he did in the fight for independence...' 'You can't give Kaleb as an example. He's just vermin.' 'But he's just the sort of vermin they send to deal with our purest people, the ones we should be protecting because they're the living remnants of what's best in our culture and our history. It's the likes of Malik, Kaleb and Governor Ben-Koufra they send to the desert - whereas the French sent their best officers.' 'They weren't all like Colonel Duperey and you know it. Or have you forgotten about the murderers in the Foreign Legion? They too caused havoc among our tribes, decimating them, taking away their wells and pastures and pushing them out onto the sands.' Lieutenant Razman lit his pipe and glanced towards the kitchen, and said: 'The meat's burning... No, I haven't forgotten the Legion and its butchery. But I know they behaved like that because they were at war with the rebel tribes and they didn't stop until they dominated them. That was their job and they did it, just as tomorrow I'll do my job of catching that Targui, because he's rebelled against the established authority.' He paused as he watched her take the meat form the fire and put it on the 61

plates, which she brought to the table. 'What's the difference then? In war we act in the same way as the colonialists, but in peacetime we're not able to imitate them.' 'You imitate them,' she remarked, with undisguised love in her voice. 'You go out of your way to help and understand the Bedouins, you worry about their problems and even help them with your own money...' She shook her head incredulously. 'How much do they owe you, and when will they pay you? It's months since I've seen a penny of your wages, despite the fact that here we were supposed to save. No,' she said as he tried to interrupt her, 'I'm not complaining. I've enough with what we've got. I just want you to understand that it's not up to you to solve all the problems. You're no more than a simple lieutenant of a garrison that doesn't even appear on the maps. Take it easy... When you're Governor of the region, like Colonel Duperey was, and an intimate friend of the President, then maybe you can do something.' 'I doubt if there'll be anything left to protect by then,' he replied, starting to chew the tough leathery meat of an old camel they'd killed just before he would have died of old age anyway. 'And in just one generation of independence we'll have managed to wipe out everything that's survived for centuries. What will History have to say about us? What will our grandchildren say when they see what use we've made of our liberty?' He went to add something, but was interrupted by a discreet knock on the door. He turned and shouted, 'Come in!' In the doorway stood the mountainous figure of sergeant Ajamuk, who stood to attention and put his hand to his turban in salute. 'At your orders, lieutenant!' he said stiffly and then added respectfully, 'Good evening ma'am. Nothing to report sir. Are there any orders?' 'Yes, but come in please. At dawn we're going south. Nine men and three jeeps. I shall lead the expedition myself and you'll stay here in charge. Get everything prepared please.' 'For how many days sir?' 'Five... A week at the most. Sergeant Malik thinks this Targui is crossing the erg, towards Sidi-el Madia.' He noticed the scowl on Ajamuk's face. 'I don't like it either but I suppose it's our duty.' Sergeant Ajamuk knew his place, but he also knew the lieutenant would let him 62

give his opinion.' 'With all due respect sir,' he said, 'you shouldn't let that rabble at Adoras get you mixed up in their business. ‘ They’re part of the army too Ajamuk, whether we like it or not. Why don’t you sit down and have a sweet?' Thank you sir, but I don't want to intrude.' Souad was already on her way to the kitchen with the half-finished plates - that meat had been almost inedible. She returned immediately with a tray of home-made sweets which made Ajamuk's eyes light up. 'Come on, sergeant!' she laughed. 'We know you too well. I took them out of the oven only a couple of hours ago.' A hand reached out automatically, independent of its owner’s will. 'You spoil me, ma'am. My wife makes them but they never come out the same...' He sank his enormous white teeth into the crunchy almond paste and relished it with delight. Still with his mouth full he went on: 'With your permission, lieutenant, I think you should let me come with you. Nobody knows that area as well as I do.' 'Someone has to stay here in charge.' 'You can rely on Corporal Mohammed, and your wife knows how to operate the radio.' He paused to swallow. 'Nothing ever happens here anyway.' Razman thought carefully as his wife poured out the hot, sweet appetizing tea. He liked the sergeant and enjoyed his company. And he was the only one of his men actually capable of finding the Targui. Unconsciously it was probably for this reason that he had wanted to leave him behind, as at the bottom of his heart he was on the Targui's side. They looked at each other over the glasses of tea and it was as if they both divined what the other was thinking. 'If someone has to catch him,' continued the sergeant, 'then it would be better if it was us instead of Malik. As soon as he gets him in his sights he'll shoot him down just to get the business finished without any outside interference.' 'So you think that too, eh?' 'I'm positive.' 'And do you think he'll fare any better if we take him in front of the governor?' The other didn't reply and Razman continued confidently in the same vein. 'Kaleb 63

wouldn't have dared kill that man if he hadn't known the governor would support him. And what seems strange to me is that he didn't tell him to kill Abdul-el-Kebir too.' He noticed the severe, worried look Souad was giving him from the kitchen and he gave a sight of fatigue. 'Well,' he mumbled. 'It's none of our business. OK' he finally gave in, 'You can come with me. Wake me at four!' Sergeant Ajamuk sprang to his feet, stood to attention without being able to hide his satisfaction, and went towards the door. 'Thank you sir. Goodnight ma'am, and thank you for the sweets.' He went out, closing the door behind him. A few moment later the lieutenant followed him and sat on the porch looking at the night and the desert which stretched out before him into the darkness. Souad joined him and they sat there silently enjoying the fresh clean air after a day of stifling heat. At last she said: 'I don't think you have to worry. The desert's a big place and most probably I'll never find him.' 'If I do find him, they might promote me,' he answered without looking at her. 'Did you think of that?' 'Yes,' she replied naturally. 'I thought of that.' 'And...?' 'They'll promote you sooner or later anyway and I'd rather it was for something you could feel proud of and not for having been a good police dog. And I', in no hurry, are you...?' 'I want to give you a better life.' 'What's the use of another star if you never wear your uniform? Or of a bigger salary if you just keep giving it away? They'll owe you more money, that's all it will mean.' 'Maybe they'll send us away from here, to the city. Our own world again...' She laughed. 'On come on, Razman!' she exclaimed. 'Who are you trying to kid? This is your world and you know it. You'd stay here no matter how high they promoted you. 'And I'll stay with you.' 64

He turned to look at her and smiled. 'You know something...?' he whispered. 'I want to make love like we did the other night, in the dunes...' She got up, disappeared into the house and came back with a blanket under her arm.

65

By the time he reached the edge of the salt pan the sun was very high, baking the earth and forcing the mosquitoes back under the stones and bushes. He stopped and looked at the white expanse which shone like a mirror twenty meters below him; the salt reflected the sun so violently it hurt his eyes and he was forced to squint to protect them, even though he had been used to the extreme brilliance of the desert sands since boyhood. Then he looked round for a fat stone and flung it down, watching it fall; as expected it broke through the crust and disappeared immediately. The hole it left soon filled up with a bubbling, chestnut colored mush. He hurled more stones, each time further and further into the salt pan until finally they began to bounce off the surface without piercing it. Then he leaned over the edge of the bank, stuck his head out slowly and looked for any damp patches. He studied the edge of the salt pan for over an hour like this, deciding which would be the best place to climb down, with the least risk. When he was convinced that he had chosen the right place, he made the mehari kneel down, put three handfuls of barley in front of him, set up his small tent and promptly fell asleep. Four hours later, just as the sun was about to go down, he woke up as if an alarm clock had gone off beside him. A few minutes later he was standing on the camel's back gazing into the desert behind him. There was no thin dust cloud rising into the air, but then he knew the heavy gravel of the erg wouldn't be disturbed by the jeeps, which would have to go so slowly anyway because of the rocks. After a long time his patience was rewarded: in the far distance a metallic object glinted momentarily in the sun. He guessed the distance and decided they would need at least six hours to reach the point where he now stood. He jumped to the ground and despite the animal's protest led it by the halter to the bank and began the descent, with infinite slowness and care -careful not only of the danger of slipping and breaking their necks, but of every stone and slab of rock, because he knew that there next to the salt pan thousands of scorpions would be nesting. When they reached the bottom he sighed with relief. They took a short rest while Gazel studied the salt crust, now just four meters away. He went towards it and tested it with the weight of his foot. It seemed hard and resistant. Then he let the halter out to its 66

full length, tying the loose end tightly round his wrist so that if he sank into the salt the mehari could pull him out. He felt the first mosquito bite his ankle. The sun was losing its fierceness and soon the area would become a living hell. As he started to walk he could hear the salt crust groan under his tread; it moved once or twice but didn't break. The camel followed obediently but after four meters its instinct warned it of the danger, it stopped uncertainly and bellowed bad-temperedly, though it could also have been interpreted as a protest at the sight of the infinitive expanse of white with no sign of any bush to graze on. 'Come on stupid...!' he muttered. 'Don't stop now.' The animal bellowed again but a hard tug and a few loud curses later he started to move. They went ten meters and became more confident as the salt crust seemed to get harder until it was like safe, solid ground they were walking on. They pressed slowly on towards the sunset. When darkness came he mounted the camel knowing that the animal would not go off course as he dropped off to sleep, huddled up on the high saddle reeling about as if on the high seas but as safe and comfortable as if he were at home with Laila at his side. There was not the slightest noise all night. There was no groaning of the wind and there in the middle of the vast sebhka there were no hyenas or jackals howling after their prey. Not even the velvety hooves of the mehari made a sound on the salt. The moon rose, full and clear and a thousand million mirrors flashed on the featureless plain on which the silhouette of the camel and its rider seemed to pass like a surreal, fantasmagorical apparition coming out of the nothingness of the darkness and disappearing into the nothingness of night. It was a vision of pure solitude, for there had probably never been a human being so alone as that Targui on the salt pan. 'There he is!' He handed the binoculars to sergeant Ajamuk who looked through them to where Razman painted, and focused on the rider who was moving slowly under the fierce morning sun. 'Yes,' he admitted. 'There he is but I have the feeling he's seen us too. He's stopped and is looking over here.' 67

Lieutenant Razman took the binoculars again and peered through the haze reverberating off the white surface at Gazel Sayah, who was looking back at them on the edge of the sebhka. And he knew for sure that the Targui's hawk-like vision, accustomed to long distance, was equivalent to a normal man's vision through binoculars. They looked at each other, though the distance between them was so great that Razman could only just dimly make out the figure shimmering in the haze, and he would dearly liked to have know what the Targui was thinking now that they'd caught up with him at a moment when he found himself ensnared in a salt trap from which there was no escape. 'It's been easier than we expected...' he commented. 'We haven't got him yet...' said Ajamuk. He turned to look at him. 'What do you mean?' 'What I said,' the sergeant answered coolly. 'Our jeeps can't go down onto the salt. As soon as we hit any sort of slope we'll sink into the salt. And we'll never catch him on foot.' Razman realized he was right and took the microphone of the radiotelephone. 'Sergeant!' he called. 'Sergeant Malik! Can you hear me, over?' The radio whistled, crackled and snarled, but finally the voice of Sergeant Malik came through loud and clear. 'I can hear you lieutenant sir.' 'We're on the western boundary of the sebhka and have located the fugitive. He's headed towards us but unfortunately I think he's seen us.' He could almost hear the silent curse the sergeant made. Finally Malik said: 'Well, I can't go any further. I've found a path down but the salt won't take the weight of the jeep.' 'I can't see any other solution except to surround the salt pan and wait for his thirst to force him to give himself up.' 'Give himself up...?' the voice was a mixture of astonishment and incredulity. 'A Targui who's just killed two men will never give himself up.' Ajamuk nodded in agreement, at Razman's side. 'He might let himself die but he'll never give himself up.' 'Maybe...' he admitted. 'But it's obvious we can't go in there after him. We'll just 68

have to wait.' 'You're giving the orders, lieutenant sir...' 'We'll remain in radio contact. Over and out!' He switched off and turned to Ajamuk. 'What's wrong with you?' he muttered. 'Do you suggest we go out there after him, just to let him run circles round us and take potshots at us?' He turned to one of the soldiers who stood nearby. Make me up a white flag.' 'You're going to try to talk to him?' said Ajamuk in surprise. 'Where will that get you?' He shrugged his shoulders. 'I don't know. But I intend to do everything possible to try to avoid any further bloodshed.' 'Let me go,' pleaded the sergeant. 'I'm no Targui but I was at least born in these parts and I know them pretty well.' He shook his head decisively. 'I'm now the highest authority south of Sidi-el-Madia,' he said. 'Maybe he'll listen to me.' He took the spade handle which served as a flagpole for a dirty white handkerchief, took off his revolver and started the precarious descent of the bank. 'If anything happens to me, you're in charge,' he said. 'On no account must Malik assume control, is that understood?' 'Don't worry sir.' With great difficulty, continually slipping -once so much he nearly fell headlong into the abyss- the lieutenant reached the bottom; he looked doubtfully at the thin salt cap but knowing that his men were watching, he plucked up courage and started towards the distant outline of the rider, praying to Heaven that the ground wouldn't suddenly disappear from under him. When he felt sure enough he began waving the pitiful flag as he walked, under a sun that began to beat down mercilessly. With alarm Razman noticed how the temperature out there on the sunbaked, windless salt suddenly soared another five degrees centigrade, and felt the hot air burn its way into his lungs. He watched he Targui make his camel kneel and stand waiting for him at the 69

animal's side, his gun held ready: he started to regret the rashness of his act as the sweat streamed down his body, saturating his uniform, and his legs grew unsteady. The last kilometer was, without any shadow of doubt, the longest in his life. He stopped ten meters away from Gazel and needed some time to calm down, regain his strength and murmur: 'Have you got any water...?' The other shook his head while still keeping his rifle pointed firmly at Razman's chest. 'I need all I've got. You can drink when you get back.' He needed, understanding his point completely, and licked his lips but got no more than salty taste of sweat on his tongue. 'You're right...' he said. 'It was stupid of me not to bring a canteen. How can you bear this heat?' 'I'm used to it... Have you come to talk to me about the weather?' 'No. I've come to ask you to give yourself up. You can't possibly escape!' 'That only Allah can say. The desert is a big place.' 'But this saltpan isn't. And my men have it surrounded.' He glanced towards the obviously nearly empty gerba of water hanging from the camel's pack. 'You haven't got much water. You won’t put up much of a resistance...' he paused. 'If you come with me now I'll promise you a fair trial.' 'Nobody has any reason to put me on trial,' Gazel retorted. 'I killed Mubarrak in a duel, according to the customs of my people, and I executed the officer because he was a murderer who had violated the sacred law of hospitality... According to Targui law I've committed no crime.' 'What are you running away for then?' 'Because I know that you, just like the Rumi infidels whose stupid laws you copied, won't respect my laws, even though we are in the desert. For you I'm just a dirty 'son of the wind' who has killed one of your man, not an inmouchar of the Kel-Talgimus who has performed justice according to an ancient right that goes back thousands of years -a great many years before any of you people even dreamed of setting foot on this land.' Razman lowered himself carefully to sit on the salt and shook his head firmly. 70

'For me you're not a dirty 'son of the wind'. You're a brave and noble Imohag and I understand your feelings.' He paused. 'And I share them. If I had been you I would probably have done the same and not tolerated such an offense.' He sighed loudly. 'But my duty now is to take you in to the authorities without any further bloodshed. Please!' he begged him, 'don't make things any more difficult than they already are.' He could have sworn the other was smiling mockingly behind his veil as he replied sarcastically: 'Difficult for who?' He shook his head. 'For a Targui things begin to get really difficult the moment he loses his freedom. Our way of life is very hard but it's compensated by the fact that we are free. If we lose that freedom, we lose our reason for living.' He paused. 'What would they do to me? Condemn me to twenty years in jail?' 'It wouldn't have to be that many...' 'No? How many then? Five...? Eight...?' he shook his head and said with conviction, 'Not one day, do you hear me? I've seen your prisons, and I've heard what life is like in them and I know I couldn't take it, not even for one single day,' He dismissed him with a wave of his hand. 'If you want me, you'll have to come and get me...' Razman got heavily to his feet, horrified at the thought of the walk back under a sun that became every minute more merciless and scorching. 'I won't come to get you, you can be sure of that...' was all he said before turning his back on him. Gazel watched him walk sluggishly away, leaning on the pole that had held the flag, and doubted if he was capable of getting back off the sebhka without falling down with sunstroke. He himself thrust his takuba and rifle into the salt, put up his tiny shelter and sat under it, prepared to wait patiently for the worst hours of the day to pass. He didn't fall asleep but kept his eyes fixed on the spot where the vehicles flashed metallically in the sun, and he noticed how minute by minute the haze got thicker and the heat intensified until his blood almost boiled. The heat was so dense, heavy and oppressive, that even the mehari, who by nature was accustomed to the highest temperatures, complained. Gazel couldn't survive long there, in the heart of the salt pan, and he knew it. There was only a day's water left. Then he would start to hallucinate, then die, the most 71

awful death there was. The sort of death the Targui lived in fear of since the day of his birth: death by thirst.

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Ajamuk carefully studied the edges of the salt lake and the altitude of the sun with a critical eye and said: 'Within half an hour the mosquitoes will be eating us alive. We must pull back.' 'We'll light fires.' The sergeant shook his head firmly. 'There's no fire or any other protection against a plague like that,' he insisted. 'As soon as they start to attack the soldiers will run like hell and I can't promise to hold them back...' he smiled, 'because I'll be running too.' Razman went to say something but was interrupted by one of the soldiers, who pointed at the saltpan. 'Look!' he shouted. 'He's moving.' The lieutenant took the binoculars and focused them. The Targui had taken down his ridiculous tent and was moving slowly, leading his camel by the halter. He turned slowly to his aide. Ajamuk shrugged his shoulders. 'Who can know what a Targui's thinking?' 'I don't like the look of it.' 'Me neither.' The lieutenant considered the problem for several minutes, visibly preoccupied. 'I suppose he's trying to slip away under cover of darkness,' he said. 'You go to the north with three men. Saud can go south... I'll cover this area and Malik's already there in the east with his people...' he shook his head. 'If we keep our eyes open he shouldn't get away.' The sergeant didn't answer, but it was obviously he didn't' share his superior's optimism. He was a Bedouin and knew the Tuareg well; he also knew his men -mountain people, mostly, forced to do their national service in a desert they didn't understand and didn't want to understand. He admired lieutenant Razman and his efforts to adapt, to become a real desert expert, but he was also convinced that he still had a great deal to learn. The Sahara and its people were not to be assimilated in a year, nor even in ten, and something which could never be fully assimilated was the mentality of the cunning sons of the wind -people who were so simple, to judge by their way of life, but who in 73

reality were profoundly complicated. He picked up the binoculars from the seat and focused them on the man who every moment was becoming a smaller and smaller dot, followed by his swaying beast of burden. Why he was headed back into that furnace no one could know, but he had a very strong feeling that he had a trick up his sleeve. If a Targui with very little water moved, and moved his camel too, then there had to be a very good reason for it. There was a sudden whistling in his ear and he jumped back in alarm. 'Mosquitoes!' he shouted. 'Come on!' They jumped into the jeeps and with everyone slapping their faces drove off as fast as the rocky terrain allowed, getting as far away as they could from the swampy area. Then the jeeps separated and set off in different directions. Razman ordered the men who had remained with him to make a camp and prepare dinner. Then he contacted sergeant Malik-el-Haideri to inform him of his movements and those of the fugitive. 'I don't know what he's up to either, lieutenant,' he admitted. 'But I know this guy is damn smart.' he paused. 'Maybe the best thing after all is to go in there and get him...' 'That's probably exactly what he's trying to make us do,' he replied. 'But remember he's famous for his marksmanship-. With a camel and a rifle in there he'd have us at his mercy. We'll wait...' And they waited all night, glad of the bright moonlight, with their guns at the ready and alert to the slightest suspicious movement. But nothing happened and when the sun appeared on the horizon they returned to the edge of the saltpan, to see the kneeling mehari and the man sleeping calmly in its shade, right in the center. Equidistant, and from the four points of the compass, four pairs of binoculars stayed focused on him all day long, without either the man or the camel making the slightest movement discernible at that distance. When evening began to fall again, but before the mosquitoes emerged from their daytime refuges, lieutenant Razman established radio contact with all four groups together. 'Well, he hasn't moved,' he remarked. 'What do you all think about it?' Sergeant Malik remembered his words: 'You have to live like a stone, careful not 74

to make any movement that uses up water... Even at night you have to move as slowly as a chameleon -that's how, if you can become immune to the heat and thirst and above all if you can conquer your panic and remain calm, you might have a remote chance of surviving.' 'He's saving his strength,' he remarked. 'He'll move tonight... What we need to know is where to...' 'He'll need at least four hours to reach the edge of the salt,' put in Ajamuk. 'And another one to climb up out of it in the darkness.' He made some swift calculations in his mind. 'We must be alert from midnight on. If he waited until later he wouldn't have time to get away even if he did manage to get through us.' 'His camel will bolt, said Saud from the extreme south. 'The mosquitoes here form a cloud and there's one place here where water enters an if he goes near it he'll sink hopelessly.' Razman was convinced that the Targui would rather be swallowed up in the salt than let himself be caught, but said nothing. He just gave the order: 'Four hours rest... But from then on everyone on watch.' The night was long and tense under a bright moon, and in the morning they were overcome with sleep and exhaustion, their eyes reddened from peering into the darkness and their nerves shattered under the pressure. And when they went back to the edge of the saltpan, there he was. On the same spot, in the same position, not having made, or so it seemed, any movement whatsoever. The lieutenant’s voice crackled nervously over the radio. 'Well, what do you all think...?' 'He's crazy,' said Malik bad-temperedly. 'He can't have any water left... How will he survive another day in that furnace?' Nobody had an answer. Even for them, not on the salt and with plenty of water in the drums, the idea of another day under that burning sun was unbearable, but the Targui, on the other hand, seemed disposed to let another day go by without moving. 'He's committing suicide,' the lieutenant muttered to himself. 'And I never thought a Targui would be capable of suicide. He's asking for eternal damnation.' Never was a day so long. 75

Or so hot. The sun threw the glare of the salt back at him, intensifying its force, making the tiny shelter useless and overwhelming both him and the mehari, whose feet he had tied together after it had kneeled down. It pained him to cause the animal such suffering, after all the years he had carried him loyally over the rocks and sands. He said his prayers as if in a dream, and in dreams let the time pass, motionless, not even flicking away a fly, for no flies could even survive there, in such hell. He tried to turn himself into a stone, to forget his body and its needs, for he knew there wasn't a drop of water left and he already felt his skin drying up. He had the strange feeling that his blood had thickened and was flowing through his veins more and more slowly. In the afternoon he lost consciousness, propped up against the animal's body, his mouth wide open; the air was so dense it seemed impossible to breath. He became delirious, but his throat and purple tongue were incapable of making any noise. Later he was returned to life by the mehari shuddering and giving out a cry that seemed to come from the depths of the poor creature's being. He opened his eyes, but had to close them again immediately, blinded as he was by the white brilliance of the salt. No day, not even the day his first-born, devoured by tuberculosis, had spent in agony, spitting blood and bits of lung onto the sand, had seemed so long. Nor so hot. Then night fell. The earth began to cool down very slowly, the air became easier to breath and he could open his eyes without feeling a sharp pain at the back. The mehari also emerged from its stupor, shook itself nervously and bellowed weakly. He loved that animal and lamented its inevitable death. He had watched him be born and from that first moment had known that it would be a spirited animal, noble and resilient. He had treated it with loving care, taught it to obey his voice and the touch of his heel on the neck -a private language that only they understood. Never, in all these years, had he had to beat him. Nor had the animal ever tried to bite or kick him, not even on the worst days of rutting, in springtime, when the other males became hysterical, rebelling uncontrollably against their masters and throwing them or their loads onto the ground time and again. That animal had been a true blessing form Allah, but now his time had come and 76

Gazel knew it. He waited for the moon to appear over the horizon, turning, its rays reflected on the salt, night into day again. Then he took his sharp dagger and with one swift, brutal action made a deep cut into the white throat. He said the ritual prayers and collected the blood that gushed out in one of the gerbas. When that was full he slowly drank the still warm and almost palpitating blood, and felt his strength returning. He waited a few moments to recover his spirits, then carefully felt the animal's stomach, which tied up as he was hadn't moved- death having bowed his head and nothing more. When he was sure of the right point he cleaned his dagger on the threadbare saddle blanket, then struck it in hard and deep, running it this way and that in order to make the wound as large as possible. When he pulled the knife out, the wound bled a little but then a stream of greenish, stinking water poured out with which he filled the other gerba right to the top. Finally he pegged his nose with one hand, closed his eyes, put his lips to the wound and drank the repugnant liquid on which his life depended directly from the animal. He drank it all, even though by then his thirst was satisfied and his stomach threatened to burst. He started to retch but controlled himself, forcing himself to think of other things and forget the smell and taste of the water that had been in his camel's stomach for over five days. It took all his Targui's will to survive to manage it. Finally, he fell asleep.

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'He's dead,' muttered Lieutenant Razman. 'He has to be dead. It's four days since he's moved. It's as if he's turned into a statue of salt.' 'Do you want me to go and check...?' offered one of the soldiers, aware that his offer might get him a corporal's stripe. 'The heat's beginning to let off...' He shook his head repeatedly as he lit a cigarette with a sailor's lighter', one with a long, fat wick, the most practical sort out there in the sand and wind. 'I don't trust that Targui...' he said. 'I don't want him to kill you out there in the dark.' 'But we can't spend the rest of our lives here...' the soldier replied. 'There's only four days’ water left.' ' I know...' he admitted. 'Tomorrow, if everything's the same, I'll send out a man from all four sides. I'm not going to take any stupid risks.' But when he was alone he asked himself if the greatest risk wasn't to stay there waiting, playing the Targui's game without being able to divine his plans -because he still refused to believe that Gazel had decided to let himself die of heat and thirst without putting up a fight. From what he knew of Gazel Sayah he was one of the last truly free Tuareg, a noble inmouchar, almost a prince among his own people, a man capable of going to the 'empty land' and coming back, and capable of taking on a whole army to revenge an insult. It wasn't logical that a man like that would just sit it out and die when he felt himself trapped. Suicide wasn't in the Tuareg consciousness, as it wasn't in that of most Muslims, who believed that if they made any attempt against their own lives it barred them from eternal paradise. Maybe the fugitive, like many more of his people, wasn't a true believer and for a large part kept to his old traditions. But even so he couldn't imagine him shooting himself, slitting his wrists or letting the sun and lack of water finish him off. He had some plan, of that Razman was sure. A plan that was both Machiavellian and simple and one in which for sure all the elements around played a key role -for a Targui learned from birth, and maybe even earlier, to use them to his advantage. But rack his brains as much as he could, Razman still couldn't puzzle it out. It seemed he was gambling on his and his men's exhaustion, and with the sure belief that no human being could survive in such a furnace for so long without water. His game was to make then believe, almost subconsciously, that they were watching over a corpse and thus make 78

them relax their vigilance without them even realizing it. Then at that moment he would slip through their fingers and disappear, swallowed up by the immensity of the desert. It was logical thinking and he was fully aware of it, but just as he became convinced of it he remembered the insufferable heat he'd encountered out there on the salt, and calculated the amount of water a human being -Targui or no- would need to stay alive in such a place, and his theory fell apart and he became sure the fugitive must be dead. 'He's dead,' he repeated yet again, furious with himself and his impotence. 'The damned son of a bitch has to be dead!' But Gazel Sayah wasn't dead. Motionless, as motionless as he had been for four days and almost four nights, he watched the sun go down behind the horizon, announcing the imminent arrival of the darkness which would come with hardly any transition. And he realized that finally tonight he would have to move. It was as if his mind was emerging from a strange stupor into which he had forced it in his attempt to become something inanimate: on of the milky plants, a rock in the erg or a grain of salt -one among the millions of the sebhka- and in that way overcome the need to drink, perspire or even urinate. It was as if the pores of his skin had closed up and his bladder had cut itself off from the rest of his body, and his blood had become so thick it circulated in slow motion, pumped by a heart that had reduced its beat to the minimum possible. To achieve that had meant to cease thinking, remembering or even imaging, for he knew that the body and the mind were inexorably dependent on each other and that the simple act of thinking of Laila, or a well of clear water, or of dreaming that he had escaped, would set his heart beating faster, putting an end to any chance of becoming a 'human stone'. But he had managed it and now he woke from his long trance, and set his mind to pulling itself out of its dreamy state, for this in turn would activate his body, making the blood flow and his muscles regain the strength and flexibility they were going to need. When it was quite dark and he was sure of not being seen he moved. 79

First an arm, then the other, then his legs and head and finally he stood up, leaning on the camel's corpse which, he noticed, had already begun to give off a strong, acrid stench. He picked up the gerba and again needed all his incredible will-power to swallow the greenish, repugnant liquid which was now congealing and more like egg-white mixed with bile than water. He unfastened the saddle pack and stripped the skin off the camel's hump, from which he drew a white fatty substance, which would soon go rotten but which he now chewed, knowing it was the only thing that could give him back his strength. Even after his death his loyal camel was still giving faithful service: blood from his veins, water from his stomach and his precious fat reserve, restoring him to life. And hour later he collected his weapons and the gerba, gave a last grateful look to the camel and set off slowly to the west. He had taken off his blue gandurah, leaving to view only what he had on underneath, so he looked like a white mark gliding silently over the white plain and not even when the moon came out and threw a hint of shadow round his outline could he have been seen from more than twenty meters away. He caught sight of the bank as the first mosquitoes appeared, and he wrapped his head completely in his turban, covered even his eyes with the litham and let the hem of his robe drag on the floor to stop the insects getting in and biting his ankles. Millions of them buzzed around him menacingly, fewer however than there were at dawn or dusk, though still impressive for the quantity and fierceness, and he had to beat his arms and neck because there were so many and they were so big they even managed to bite him through his clothes. He felt the salt cap get thinner and more dangerous once again, but he realized that in the darkness he could do nothing but commend himself to Allah and hope he guided his steps; when he felt the hard contact underfoot of the first slab of rock that had fallen from the top of the bank, he sighed with relief and looked for a place to climb. He had too many other worries now to think about the danger of treading on a scorpion's nest. He found a good way up about three hundred meters to the left, and when finally he could stretch his head over the bank and see the enormous erg and feel the wind in his face, he sighed and threw himself onto the sand at the top, totally exhausted and thanking his creator profusely for having let him escape from the salt trap, despite there having 80

been one moment when his nerve had almost broken, so convinced he was that he would never manage it. Then, with the patience of a lizard stalking an insect, and trying to ignore the whining of the mosquitoes, he dragged himself centimeter by centimeter until he'd put almost half a kilometer between him and the edge of the saltpan. Not once did he raise his head higher than a palm's length above the rocks and not even when a small snake slid by right in front of him did he make any motion. He turned his face to the sky and calculated by the stars how long it would be before the dawn. Then he looked around him and found the right place: three square meters of thick gravel almost surrounded by small black rocks. He took out his dagger and began to dig in silence, carefully laying the sand aside until he'd made a ditch as long as his body and two palms deep. As he climbed into it the sky was beginning to clear and by the time the first rays of sunlight crept over the plain he had finished covering himself with gravel and sand, leaving only his eyes, nose and mouth uncovered, and these would be protected from the sun during the worst hours of the morning and afternoon by the shadow of two rocks. Someone could have been urinating three meters away without realizing that there, almost right under his feet, was a man hidden. Every morning as the jeep went back to the edge of the saltpan it was as if two separate feelings were having a fierce fight inside him: fear that he would see the figure still there in the same place, and fear that he wouldn't see him. First thing every morning Lieutenant Razman experienced a feeling of fury and impotence which made him curse that filthy 'son of the wind' who was trying to make a fool of him; but at the same time he felt a profound satisfaction at having proved he hadn't been mistaken in his estimation of that Targui. 'You've got to have a lot of courage to let yourself die of thirst rather than let yourself end up in a jail,' he said to himself. 'A lot of courage... But now he has to be dead.' Over the radio come the impatient voice of sergeant Malik-el-Haideri: 'He's gone, lieutenant,' he said in a fury. 'Everything still looks the same from here but I'm convinced he's managed to escape.' 81

'Where the hell to...?' he answered bad-temperedly. 'Where could a man go without an y water or without a camel...? Or isn't that a camel I'm looking at?' 'Yes, it is...' admitted Malik. 'And that next to it looks like a man, but it could also be a dummy.' He paused. 'With all due respect lieutenant sir I'd like permission to go out there and get him.' 'OK...' he agreed reluctantly. 'Tonight.' 'Now!' 'Listen to me, sergeant!' he shouted as authoritatively as possible. 'I'm in charge here. You'll go out tonight and I want you back at dawn. Is that clear...?' 'Perfectly clear, sir.' 'For you too, Ajamuk?' 'I heard you lieutenant.' 'Saud?' 'I'll send out a man at sundown.' 'Agreed then... I want to return to Tidikem tomorrow. I've had enough of this heat, this Targui and the whole preposterous situation. If he's not dead and won't give himself up, then we'll finish him off with a few shots.' He regretted these words almost immediately but realized he couldn't take them back even though Malik would go out of his way to take him literally and finish off the Targui once an for all as soon as he could. Deep down, though, he also realized this was probably the best solution, now that the Targui had shown beyond a doubt he preferred death to imprisonment. He tried to imagine that tall man with the aristocratic gestures and measured speech, who in his own mind had done no more than his duty according to his ancient traditions, living with the rabble they packed into the jails... And he realized he could not possibly stand it. His compatriots were, on the whole, wild, primitive people, and Razman knew it. For a hundred years they had been submitted to colonial rule by the French, who had made sure that the people remained ignorant, but even now that they were free, independence wasn't bearing fruit in terms of a better or more cultured people. On the contrary, too often freedom had been wrongly interpreted and many people had seen it 82

as a chance to do as they liked and seize forcibly whatever the French had left behind. The result had been anarchy, crisis and constant political unrest, in which power often seemed a longed-for prize for those who were trying to get rich quick, rather than a means of leading the nation to its destiny. So the prisons had found themselves full to the brim with malefactors and politicians of the opposition, and in non of the prisons was there room for someone like that Targui, who had been born to live in the wide open spaces. When the rocks no longer sheltered him, the sun struck him full in the face and large beads of sweat ran down his brow; he opened his eyes and without moving looked all around him. He had slept without making a single movement and without disturbing the layer of sand that covered him. He had slept insensible to the heat, the flies and even to green and white lizard that had ran over his face at one point and which now was perched on a rock one meter from his nose, its head held high, watching nervously with its little round, bulging eyes, the strange animal that was just a mouth a nose and a pair of eyes, and that had invaded its territory. He listened. The wind brought no sound of human voices and he could tell from the position of the sun that it was siesta time, when few men could resist the absolute need to fall asleep. He raised his head, though still without hardly moving his body, and looked around him, beyond the rocks, and saw, just over a kilometer away to the south, a vehicle parked at the edge of the saltpan: attached to it was a large canvas awning, stretching down on one side and tied to two large rocks, making a shelter with ample room for half a dozen men. . He could see only one sentry. He had his back to him and was looking out over the saltpan. But he had no way of knowing how many other men were asleep under the awning. He did know, however, that he needn't worry about the two other jeeps and their men because he had seen them driving away. There was his prey, then, and he could be sure it wouldn't move until evening, when the mosquitoes came to drive the men back away from the salt, into the erg. He smiled, trying to imagine their faces if they had suspected he might have them 83

in his rifle sights, or at his mercy when the time was exactly right to steal in like a reptile, from rock to rock, slit the sentry's throat from behind and then finish them all off one by on e as they slept. But that wasn't this plan. Instead he just adjusted the position of one of the rocks to cut out the sun. It got hotter, but the covering of sand gave him some protection and there was at least a slight breeze, making the air breathable again after the oppressiveness of the saltpan. The erg was part of his world and the number of days he'd spent like that, buried waiting for a herd of gazelle to come, was uncountable. He would let them come gradually closer and closer, grazing on the graras, until they were so near he could spit on them and at that moment he would lift his gun and shoot one right in the heart. That's how he'd also bagged that enormous guepard -a fierce, bloodthirsty, cunning animal who had devoured the goats and seemingly had presentiments of danger, as if protected by some evil spirit; it would attack while an unarmed shepherd was looking after the flock and disappear again, as if swallowed up by the ground, as soon as Gazel arrived with his rifle. In the end he had buried himself in the sand for three days before his oldest son arrived by arrangement with the goats and he had waited there patiently for the wild animal to appear. He had seen it approach, stalking from bush to bush, so close to the ground that neither the boy nor the goats noticed it, and only as it was about to make its fatal pounce did Gazel shoot him in the head, knocking him over, before his feet had even left the ground, with a single shot. The skin of that guepard was one of Gazel's reason to feel proud of himself. It aroused the admiration of all who visited his tent and the cunning way in which he had caught the animal had helped to spread his nickname, 'the Hunter', through the land.

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The four men set off at exactly same moment, one from each of the four points of the compass; their orders were clear: coincide on the Targui on the stroke of midnight and if there was no alternative, finish him off there and then. And be back by dawn. Sergeant Malik wouldn't agree to let anyone go in his place, and before the mosquitoes had started to appear he was following the fugitive’s tracks down onto the saltpan and over the saltpan, his rifle slung over his shoulder and convinced that somehow or other that dirty 'son of the wind' had vanished. When he had gone and where he now was, he had no idea. Nor could he understand how a man without water and on foot could possibly get out of the enormous erg if the nearest well was over a hundred kilometers away, at the foot of the Sidi-elMadia mountains. 'Some day his corpse will turn up, bleached by the sun' he said to himself. 'That is if the hyenas and jackals don't get to him first.' But deep down he wasn't so sure, after what Gazel had said about going twice into the empty lands. A hundred kilometers of erg was not necessarily an impassable barrier to the Targui, even if he didn't count on the fact that, if Malik didn't find him there on the salt, he'd be waiting for him at the well. That manhunt had become a personal affair for the sergeant, and not just because he wanted to resolve the affair without the intervention of the authorities. That Targui had made a fool of him at the oasis, had cut the captain's throat right under his nose, had made him run round the desert from one end to another like a madman and now on top of it all had kept him waiting for five days, without knowing exactly what he was waiting for. His men had begun muttering among themselves, and he knew it. Back at Adoras they would talk about how the big tough sergeant had been taken for a ride by an illiterate Targui, and it wasn't easy to control those men. If he could no longer maintain the fear of himself he'd instilled in them, more than one would try to get away across the desert, confident that it must be just as easy to kill a sergeant and do the same. Like that, his life wouldn't be worth any more than a handful of dates. At dusk lieutenant Razman gave the order to retreat from the salt and the plague of mosquitoes and return to their nighttime camp. As his men were dismantling the 85

canvas awning he looked again at the corporal heading determinedly out over the salt, and focused his binoculars on the small point in the middle that had come to obsess him. The soldiers that were with him didn't say a word, knowing it was less than useless to ask yet again if the Targui had moved. It was obvious that the dead didn't move, and on that issue none of them had any doubts whatsoever. The Targui had been brave enough to let the sun burn him up: soon the salt would cover him and the camel, mummifying them, and maybe one day, in hundreds of years’ time, they would be discovered, completely preserved, and people would ask themselves why on earth a man had gone with his camel to die in such a lonely, remote spot. Razman mused quietly that he could well become a symbol of the Tuareg spirit, and be famous long after the race had disappeared. A proud inmouchar, impassively waiting for death in the shadow of his loyal mehari, surrounded by his enemies, convinced that death was much nobler than surrender and imprisonment. 'He'll become a legend,' he said to himself. 'A legend like Omar Muktar or Hamodu... A legend that will fill his people with pride and make them remember that once all the Imohag were like that,' The voice of one of his men brought him back to reality. 'When you're ready, sir...' He gave a final glance at the saltpan before starting the motor and turning back from the mosquito zone to where they made camp every night. While one of his men prepared their frugal supper over a paraffin stove, he turned on the radio and called his base. Souad answered his almost immediately. 'Have you caught him?' she asked anxiously. 'No, not yet.' There was a long silence and then at last she said, sincerely: 'I'd be lying if I said I was sorry... Are you coming back tomorrow?' 'There's no choice. We're running out of water.' 'Be careful!' 'Any news in camp...?' 'Last night the camel gave birth. A female...' 'That's wonderful news. I'll see you tomorrow.' 86

He switched off and stood for several moments with the microphone in his hand, looking thoughtfully out into the plain that was beginning to be covered by a gray mantle. It was evidently a week of exceptional activity in the Tidikem Military Post, where normally months went by with absolutely nothing happening. He asked himself yet again if this was what he had expected when he entered the military academy, or what he had dreamed of after reading Colonel Duperey's biography -the man whose achievements he had aspired to emulate, becoming the new savior of the nomadic tribes. However, there were no longer any nomads near Tikilem, for they had avoided the outpost and any contact with the military ever since their disagreeable experience at Adoras. It was hard to admit, but the military had never been any good at winning over the natives, who saw them just as shameless foreigners who took over their wells, requisitioned their camels and bothered their womenfolk. Night closed in on the rocky plain and the first hyena laughed far away: a few diffident stars appeared, soon to be followed by thousands more to make a portentous spectacle he never tired of admiring. To some extent it was these stars that kept him going after a long day of heat, tedium and hopelessness. 'The Tuareg prick the stars with their spears, to light their way...' That was a lovely desert saying. Just a saying, nothing more, but whoever had invented it had really known those nights, those stars, and what it meant to contemplate them for hours on end. Three things had fascinated him ever since he was a child: the sea breaking against a rocky cliff, fire, and the stars in a cloudless sky. Looking at the fire made him forget even to think; looking at the sea made him lose himself in memories of his boyhood and contemplating the stars made him feel at peace with himself, with the past, the present and even almost at peace with his future. Then suddenly the dead came back to life. There, in the darkness. The first thing Razman saw was the shiny metal of the dead man's gun. They stared at him incredulously. He wasn't dead. Nor had he become a statue of salt out there in the sebhka. He was there standing right in front of them, with his rifle held tight and a regulation revolver hanging at his waist. And his eyes, which were the only part of his face visible, made it quite clear that at the first sign of danger he would squeeze the trigger. 'Water!' he demanded. 87

Razman nodded, and one of the soldiers held out the canteen to him with a shaky hand. The Targui stepped back a couple of paces, lifted his veil slightly and, without taking his eyes off them and supporting the gun with one hand, he drank thirstily. The lieutenant started to make a slow, cautious movement towards his holster which lay on the driver's seat, but the gun swiveled round towards him, and he saw the Targui’s finger tense. He stopped, regretting his foolhardiness, knowing full well it wasn't worth risking his life to revenge Captain Kaleb-el-Fasi. 'I thought you were dead,' he said. 'I know,' replied the Targui when he'd finished drinking. 'I thought so too at one point...' He reached out and took a plate of food from one of the soldiers and began to eat, lifting his veil ever so slightly with his fingers. 'But I'm an Imohag,' he said, 'and the desert respects me.' 'So I see. Anyone else would have died. What do you plan to do now...?' Gazel nodded towards the jeep. 'You're going to take me the Sidi-el-Madia mountains. No one will find me there.' And if I refuse?' 'Then I'll have to kill you and get one of these to take me.' 'They won't, not if I order them not to.' Gazel looked at him, as if wondering at the stupidity of what the other had just said. 'They won't hear you if you're dead,' he replied. 'I've got nothing against them, or against you...' he paused, then carried on calmly: 'It's good to know when you've won, and to admit when you've lost. You've lost.' Razman nodded. 'You're right,' he said. 'I've lost. As soon as it starts to get light I'll take you to Sidi-el-Madia.' 'When it gets light no. You'll take me now!' 'Now...?' he repeated in amazement. 'At night?' 'The moon will soon be out.' 'You're crazy...!' 'It's hard enough to cross the erg even in daylight. The stones will slash the tires and break the axle. In the dark we won't any further than a kilometer.' The Targui didn't answer immediately. Instead he snatched another plate from a 88

soldier and sitting cross-legged with his rifle on his knees, ate greedily, almost choking and not tasting a thing. 'Listened to me,' he declared at last. 'If I get to the well at Sidi-el-Madia, then I'll let you live. If we don't, then I'll kill you even if it's not your fault.' He let the lieutenant think this over a while before adding: 'And remember I'm an inmouchar and always keep my promises...' One of the soldiers, who was hardly more than a boy, blurted out suddenly: 'Be careful, sir!' He's crazy and I know he's capable of doing what he says.' Gazel stared silently at the soldier, then raised his gun and said: 'Get undressed!' 'What...?' said the boy, hardly able to believe what he'd heard. 'Your heard me. Get undressed... Then he pointed to the other soldier. 'You too.' They hesitated, and thought of saying something, but there was such authority in the Targui's voice they realized they had no option and started to get out of their uniforms. 'Take the boots off as well.' They placed their clothes in front of Gazel, who chucked them all in the back of the jeep with his free hand. Then he too got into the jeep and looked at Razman. 'Now the moon's out... Come on!' Razman looked at his men and a deep feeling of rebellion overcame him. For one moment he was on the point of refusing to move and even exchanged a look of understanding with the naked men. But they shook their hands and the younger one sighed: 'Don't worry about us, sir... Ajamuk will come and get us.' 'But by dawn they'll be dead of exposure,' he pleaded with Gazel. 'At least give them a blanket...' The Targui wavered, but then shook his head and said sarcastically: 'Let them bury themselves in the sand. It'll protect them from the cold and anyway it's good for the figure.' Razman saluted them reluctantly, then got into the jeep, started it up and turned the lights on. 'No lights!' He felt the rifle dig into his side. 89

He turned them off again but shook his head pessimistically. 'You're really crazy,' he muttered bitterly. 'Completely crazy.' He waited for his eyes to readjust to the darkness then moved off slowly, leaning out as far as possible so as to see the obstacles. The first three hours were slow and painful, until Gazel agreed to turn on the lights so they could go faster. The increased speed, however, brought a burst tire almost immediately. Razman sweated and cursed as he changed the wheel, continually supervised by the barrel of the gun, and he had to restrain himself from hurling the spanner and forcing a hand to hand fight that would put an end once and for all to the preposterous situation. But he realized the Targui was not only taller and stronger but that even if he did manage the improbable feat of knocking his rifle away, he was still armed with a revolver, a sword and a dagger. The only thing for it was to say good-bye to any rapid promotion and pray things didn't get any worse than they already were. To get yourself killed at the age of twentyeight by someone whose ideas you agreed with, would have been pretty stupid. And he knew it. On the dot of midnight the four men closed in on the camel. Not one of them was really surprised to find the bird had flown and Sergeant Malik took advantage of the occasion to explode, with the most obscene barrack-room language, into a diatribe against the Targui and even more against that bloody fool of a lieutenant who'd let himself be tricked like a raw beginner. 'What are we going to do now?' asked one of the soldiers uneasily. 'I don't know about the lieutenant, but I know what I'm going to do -whether he agrees or not,' said Malik. 'I'm going to the Sidi-el-Madia well because Targui or not that son of a bitch has to have a drink sooner or later.' A veteran, who had been examining the camel corpse with his torch, pointed to the stomach wound. 'He's already drank water...' he said. 'A filthy, disgusting water that would kill some people, but a Targui could live on it. He’s also drunk the animal's blood.' He paused and then declared: 'We'll never find him.' Malik didn't answer. He looked at the camel, then turned round and started back 90

to his jeep. Judging by the decomposition of the corpse, the camel had been dead for over forty-eight hours, which meant the Targui had killed it two nights ago. If he'd left immediately after, then by now he'd be well away. But Malik doubted it -it was more likely that he'd let another day go by so that the soldiers would get over confident and relax their vigilance- in which case he still wouldn't have got very far and there was a chance of cutting him off. However, he didn't think much of his chances of catching him in the erg, because without his camel he could bury himself in the sand as soon as he saw a jeep coming. But on the other hand, the half-digested water he had with him from the camel's stomach wouldn't last another day without going bad and then he would be in desperate need of an urgent supply. In the valleys and gullies of the massif, you could sometimes find a few sips of brackish, earthy water by digging around: not enough to survive on, but it was a help to whatever traveler strayed into the labyrinth of its infinite rocky slopes. Therefore, to control the well would mean to force the Targui either to give up or perish. Unconsciously, Malik quickened his step until he found himself almost running in his desire to reach the jeep as soon as possible. The moon went down behind the horizon but his sense of direction was almost as good as a nomad's after so many years of living in the desert and by the time he started to clamber up the bank, cursing the mosquitoes who attacked him ferociously, there was still an hour left before down. His men surrounded him in alarm. 'What's happened...?' asked Ali, the Negro. 'What do you think's happened? He's gone. Did you ever doubt it?' 'And now what are we going to do?' The sergeant didn't answer. He'd gone to the radio and was calling persistently. 'Lieutenant!' Lieutenant Razman, can you hear me?' After trying five or six times without a reply he cursed loudly and then started the motor of the jeep. 'He's so stupid he's capable of having gone to sleep... Come on, let's move!' They drove off towards the northwest, bouncing along the edge of the saltpan, so fast his men had to grab on to anything they could so as not to be flung out.

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At dawn Razman stopped to refuel. He used up all the petrol that was left and turned the drum upside down to show Gazel he wasn't lying. 'We're running out...' he said. The Targui didn't answer. Sat in the back of the jeep, he was peering at the horizon which was just beginning to appear, and at the grotesque, jagged shape that had suddenly sprung up before them. The red and ochre massif of the Sidi-el-Madia, had been formed as the result of an ancient and tremendous cataclysm -probably before the appearance of man on the planet- as if a giant had pushed it up from the center of the earth and stuck it there by magic. The eternal desert wind had swept it for thousands of years, stripping it of any trace of soil, sand or vegetation and now it looked like an infinite shining rock, naked, punished by the sun and cracked by the brutal changes in temperature between night and day. When travelers had crossed it they were sure that at dawn they'd heard voices crying and moaning, but what they'd really heard was the hot stone cracking as the temperature dropped drastically. It was a truly inhospitable place in an already inhospitable land. As if the Creator had thrown all the refuse of his mighty work there in an enormous jumble of rocks, sand, saltpans and 'empty lands'. But to Gazel's eyes the mountains didn't now look like a godforsaken waste, but like a labyrinth in which the whole army could hide without ever being found. 'How much petrol is left...?' he asked. 'Two hours' worth... three at the most. At this speed and on this terrain it consumes a lot...' he paused, before adding in a worried tome: 'I don't think we'll make it to the well.' Gazel shook his head. 'We're not going to the well.' 'But you said...' 'I know what I said. You heard it and so did your men... And they'll tell the others.' He paused. 'Out there on the saltpan I tried to figure out how you'd caught up with me, when I'd had such a head start. But yesterday I saw you speaking into this machine and then I understood. What's it called?' 92

'Radio.' 'That's it... Radio. My cousin Suleiman bought one. Two months hauling bricks to buy something that makes a noise. That's how you caught me isn't it?' Razman nodded. Gazel leaned forward and ripped the microphone out of its socket and threw it away. Then he smashed the transmitter with the butt of his gun. 'It's not fair. So many against one and you still have to use these French methods. It's not fair.' The lieutenant lowered his trousers and squatted less than three meters from the jeep. 'Sometimes I think you distort reality,' he declared. 'We're not talking about a fight between you and us. We're talking about the fact that you've committed a crime which you have to pay for. You can't kill someone and not be punished for it.' Gazel also jumped down and squatted nearby, thought without putting his gun down. 'That's exactly what I told the captain before I killed him,' he answered. 'He shouldn't have killed my guest,' He was silent for a moment, then added: 'But nobody punished him for it, so I had to do it myself.' 'The captain was obeying orders.' 'Whose?' 'Orders from above, I suppose... From the governor.' 'And who is the governor to be able to give such orders?' he said angrily. 'What authority does he have over me and my family, my camp and my guests?' 'The authority of being the government's representative in this province.' 'What government?' 'The republic's.' 'What's a republic?' The lieutenant breathed heavily then looked around for a stone with which to wipe himself. Then he stood up and slowly buttoned up his flies. 'Don't expect me to explain to you how the world works, not now...' The Targui also wiped himself on a stone, then threw handfuls of sand into his anus. He waited a moment, then stood up. 'Why not? You want to explain to me that I've committed a crime, but you don't 93

want to tell me why. That's ridiculous.' Razman went to the water drum and poured some into a small saucepan which hung on a chain at the back of the jeep. He rinsed his mouth out and washed his hands. 'Don't waste it!' snapped the Targui. 'I'm going to need it.' Razman obeyed, and turned round. 'Could be you're right. Maybe I should make you realize that we're not a colony any more and in the same way as things changed when the French came, things have changed again now that they've gone.' 'If they've gone then it's only logical we go back to the old, traditional ways.' 'No, it's not logical at all. The last hundred years haven't been spent in vain. Many things have happened. The world, the whole wide world, has been transformed.' Gazel made a wide sweeping gesture with his hands, encompassing all around them. 'Nothing has been transformed here. The desert's still the same, and will stay the same for another hundred times a hundred years... No one has come to me and said,”Here, take some water, or food, or ammunition or medicine, because the French have gone. We can't respect your laws and traditions any more, even though they go back to the ancestors of your ancestors, but in exchange we're going to give you new laws, better ones, and we're going to try to make life in the Sahara better and easier, so that you no longer need those old customs...' Razman, who was now sitting on the running board, stared thoughtfully at his boots, looking guilty. Then he shrugged his shoulders and agreed with him. 'You're right... They should have told you. But we're still a young country, which has just got its independence, and we're going to need years to adapt to the new situations.' 'In that case...' -Gazel's logic was, from his point of view, overwhelming- 'until you're able to adapt to it you'd be better off respecting what already exists. It's stupid to knock something down without having built something else to replace it first.' Razman realized he had no answer. He had never had the answers, not even for himself when, at moments when he had witnessed with consternation the deterioration of the society in which he was born, he had been overwhelmed with questions. 'Let's drop it...' he said. 'We're never going to agree. You want to eat something?' 94

Gazel nodded and looked the big, wooden supplies box. He opened a tin of meat and as they ate it, along with some biscuits and some hard, dry goat's cheese, the sun rose, warming the land and reflecting off the Sidi-el-Madia, whose rocks became clearer and clearer on the horizon. 'Where are we going?' Razman wanted to know. Gazel pointed to the right. 'Over there's the well. We're going to go to that other peak, there on the left.' 'I once passed below that peak and it's impossible to climb.' 'Not for me. The Huaila mountains are just like that, maybe even worse. That's where I go to hunt mufflon. Once I killed five and we had dried meat for a year and my children still sleep on the skins!' 'Gazel, 'the Hunter'!' Razman smiled. 'You're proud of who you are, and of being a Targui, aren't you?' 'If I wasn't, then I'd do something about it. Aren't you proud of being who you are?' He shook his head. 'Not much...' he admitted honestly. 'At this moment I'd rather be on your side than on the side I'm on. But you don't build a country like that.' 'If countries are built by doing things in a rush, then they won't work later,' said Gazel. 'It's better that we start moving. We've talked too much. They got under way again. There was another puncture and two hours later the engine backfired and started to fail, before giving up completely five kilometers from where the high cliff, sheer right to its summit, stood; where the Tidiken erg went to die. 'This is as far as we can get,’ said Razman as he scrutinized the smoothness of the black, shiny wall, which was like the wall of a Cyclops’s castle. 'Do you really think you can climb that?' Gazel nodded, jumped to the ground and started to fill the soldiers' backpacks with food and ammunition. He unloaded all the weapons in the jeep, made sure that not one bullet remained in any of them, then examined the regulation rifles and chose the best, while leaving his own lying on the seat. 'My father gave me this gun when I was a boy,' he said. 'And I've never used any other. But it's old and every day it gets more and more difficult to find the right 95

ammunition for it.' 'I'll keep it as a museum piece, and put a plaque under it, saying 'This belonged to Gazel Sayah, The Hunter-bandit'.' 'I'm not a bandit.' Razman smiled, trying to calm him down. 'It was just a joke...' 'Jokes are all right around the fire at night with friends.' He paused. 'Now I'm going to tell you something. Don't follow me any more because if I see you again I'll kill you.' 'If they order me to follow you, then I'll have to,' Gazel stopped in his job of rinsing out his old gerba with clean water and shook his head incredulously. 'How can you live like that, always depending on what they order you to do?' he asked. 'How can you feel yourself a man, a free man, when you have to obey someone else's will. If they say to you, 'catch that innocent man!' you catch him. If they say 'leave that murder' alone!' then you leave him, like the captain. I can't understand it...' 'Life isn't as simple as it might seem out here in the desert.' 'Then don't bring that life into the desert. Here it is clear what is good or bad, just or unjust.' He finished filling the gerba and then made sure that all the soldiers' canteens were full. He left the drum of water almost empty, and Razman saw it. 'You're not going to leave me without water are you...?' he asked nervously. 'At least give me a canteen.' Gazel shook his head firmly. 'A bit of thirst will make you realize how I felt out there on the saltpan,' he answered. 'It's a good thing to learn how to be thirsty in the desert.' 'But I'm not a Targui,' Razman protested. 'I can't get back to my camp on foot. It's a long way and I'll get lost for sure. Please...!' He shook his head again. 'You mustn't move from here,' he advised. 'When I've reached the mountains then you can make a fire with your men's clothes and blankets -they'll see the smoke and come looking for you.' He paused. Do you give me your word that you'll wait until I've reached the top of this cliff?' 96

He nodded silently and watched, without moving from his seat, how the Targui loaded himself with backpacks, canteens, the gerba and his weapons. He didn't seem to notice the weight and when he set off it was with a fast, decisive step, unbothered by the heat. He was over a hundred meters away when Razman pressed the horn insistently, making him turn round. 'Good luck!' he shouted. The other raised his hand in farewell, then turned his back on Razman and continued on his way.

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There's an old saying, that 'Palms trees love to have their feet in the water and their heads in the fire.' Proof of the old adage was now spread out before him, as far as the eye could see: over twenty thousand palm trees, their fronds soaring to the sky, immune to the stifling heat since their roots were firmly sunk into the cool, clear water of a hundred springs and innumerable wells. It was a beautiful sight, even with the sun beating down at its most merciless, because inside his enormous dark office, behind the thick glass windows and the immaculate tasteful lace curtains, Governor-ben-Koufra insisted on the air-conditioning being maintained at the same temperature - almost freezing, which he found comfortable for work - throughout the year. From there, with a glass of tea in one hand and a smoldering 'DavidoffAmbassatrice' in the other, the Sahara seemed almost bearable. Sometimes, as the sun rested for a moment on the bed of palms that constituted the only break in the horizon at El-Akab, before dipping down behind the minaret of the mosque, it could seem like paradise. Beneath the balcony was the secluded garden, which, according to legend, Colonel Duperey himself had designed when he'd ordered the palace to be built. There, in the shade of towering cypresses, rose beds fought for place among the apple and lemon trees, turtle doves cooed in their thousands and the quails rested after they had arrived in incredible numbers from their long migratory flights. El-Akab was beautiful, without a doubt. The most beautiful oasis in the Sahara, from Marrakech to the banks of the Nile, and for this reason it had been chosen as the capital of a province which in itself was larger than many European countries. And, from that 'wintry' office in the palace, his excellency the governor Hassanben-Koufra, with his refined gestures and cutting tongue, ruled his little empire with a firm hand and the absolute power of a viceroy. 'You are an incompetent, lieutenant, 'he said and turned with a smile that seemed more appropriate for a congratulation than for an insult. 'If a dozen men aren't enough to catch a fugitive armed with only a rifle, then what do you need? A whole division?' 'As I've already said, Your Excellency, I didn't want to risk the lives of my men. With that old rifle of his he would have shot us down one if we had tried to get any closer. His accuracy with a gun is legendary, whilst our men have hardly fired forty shots 98

in their entire lives...'He paused. 'We have orders not to waste ammunition.' 'I know,' said the governor as he moved away from the window and went back to sit behind his majestic desk. 'I gave the order myself. If there's no war in sight, then it's a waste of time to make first class shots out of recruits who after a year will be back in their own homes again...So long as they know how to pull the trigger it's enough.' 'But it wasn't enough, Your Excellency, if you'll forgive my saying so. Often in the desert a man's life depends on the accuracy of his aim...' he swallowed. 'And this was one such occasion.' 'Listen. Lieutenant,' Hassan answered, without losing his composure (in fact no one had ever seen him lose it). 'And remember that I can say this because I am not a soldier. It seems very praiseworthy to me to respect the lives of your men, but there are certain occasions, and this was one of them...' he paused, to emphasize his words, 'when the soldiers have to do their duty, before anything else, because the honor of the army is at stake. To have let a Bedouin kill a captain and one of our guides, strip two soldiers and make a lieutenant drive him across the desert is a disgrace to the Armed Forces and to me as the supreme authority in the Province.' Razman, whose light uniform was not warm enough for the air-conditioned office, nodded silently and tried to control his shivering. 'I was asked to catch a man and bring him to justice, Your Excellency,' he said, trying to make his voice sound calm and authoritative. 'Not to kill him like a dog. To have acted as a policeman I would have needed a clear, direct order from above. I had wanted to be of assistance but now realize my actions did not turn out fortunately. But I sincerely believe it would have been worse if I'd returned with five corpses.' The governor leaned back in his chair and shook his head slowly, as if drawing the conversation to a close. 'That's for me to decide and from the reports that have reached me, the corpses would have been worth more to us. We inherited the respect that the French had imposed on the Bedouin tribes and new, thanks to this Targui and your incompetence, this respect has been destroyed for the first time. It won't do,' he said angrily. 'It just won't do.' 'I really regret...' 'And you're going to regret it even more, lieutenant, let me assure you. From today on you are posted to Adoras to take over from Captain Kaleb-el-Fasi.' 99

Razman broke into a cold sweat and his legs trembled so much they almost knocked together. 'Adoras,' he repeated, absolutely incredulous. 'That is most unjust, Your Excellency. I may have made a mistake but I haven't committed a crime.' 'Adoras is not a prison,' the governor replied calmly. 'Just a frontier post. I am empowered to send anyone there I think fitting.' 'But everyone knows it's a place reserved solely for criminals...The scum of the army...!' The governor shrugged his shoulders indifferently and started to study a report on his desk with feigned interest. Without looking up, he remarked: 'That is just an opinion, not an official fact... You have a month in which to put your affairs in order and arrange the transfer.' Razman was on the point of saying something else but realized it would be useless. He stood up, saluted stiffly and went towards the door, praying that the trembling of his legs would stop so that the son of a bitch wouldn't have the added satisfaction of seeing him fall flat on his face. Once outside he had to lean his head against one of the marble pillars before feeling able to negotiate the majestic marble stair-case without tumbling down it, in full view of a score of officials, into the flower beds below. One of these officials went by silently behind him, knocked three times and entered, closing the door softly behind him. The governor had stopped pretending to read the report and was gazing out of the window at the minaret. He turned to the new arrival who had remained respectfully at the edge of the carpet and said: 'Yes, Anuhar, what do you want?' 'No news yet of the Targui, Your Excellency. He seems to have disappeared.' 'It doesn't surprise me in the least... one of these sons of the wind is capable of crossing the desert from end in a month. He'll have gone back to his family. Do we know who he is at least?' 'He is Gazel Sayah of the Kel-Talgimus tribe. He wanders in a very large territory near the Huaila mountains.' The governor looked at the map on the wall and shook his read pessimistically. 100

'The Huaila mountains! They're right on the frontier...' 'The frontier in that zone is almost non-existent, Excellency. It's never been settled exactly.' 'Nothing is 'settled exactly' there,' he said, getting up and pacing the length of the room. 'To find a Targui on the run in that wilderness is like trying to find a needle in a haystack...' He turned round. 'File it, Anuhar.' Anuhar-el-Mojkri, the governor's efficient secretary for over eight years, allowed himself the luxury of a deep frown. 'The military isn't going to like that sir... He has murdered a captain.' ‘They hated Kaleb. He was an absolute animal...' he took a new David off from the box on the desk and lit it slowly. 'The same as Malik-el-Haideri...' 'They're the only sort of people who can keep the rabble at Adoras under any sort of control...' 'Well that's lieutenant Razman's job now.' 'Razman?' the secretary said in astonishment. 'You've sent Razman to Adoras? He won't last three months. 'He smiled. 'That's why he was on the point of collapse outside. They'll end up raping him before they slit his throat.' The governor sank back into one of the wide, black leather armchairs in the corner of the office, blew a column of smoke into the air and shook his head. 'Not necessarily. Maybe it will make him wake up, fight for his life and realize he can't come here to read Beau Geste and imitate Duperey. 'He paused for a long time. 'I came here entrusted with a mission, and that was to clean all vestiges of decadent romanticism and unhealthy paternalism out of the area, and to make the people work together for the common good. There's oil here, as well as iron, copper, phosphate and a thousand other riches, which we'll need if we want to become a powerful, progressive and modern nation. 'He shook his head, convinced. 'And I won't do it with men like Razman, but with the likes of Kaleb and Malik...It's sad to say, but the Tuareg don't have any right to exist now, at the height of the twentieth century, just like the Amazonian Indians don't have any right either, or the American Redskins. Can you imagine the Sioux still chasing buffalo round the prairie between the oil wells and atomic power stations? There are life forms that complete a historical cycle and which then are doomed to extinction - and whether we like it or that's what's happening to our nomads. They 101

have to learn to adapt, or they'll be exterminated.' 'That sounds very hard...' 'It also sounded very hard when we started to say we had to expel the French when they'd been living with us for over a hundred years. Many of them were my own personal friends. I'd been to school with them and knew them well. But the moment came when we had to get rid of them without being bogged down by sentimentality, and we did it. There are some things more important than bourgeois morality, and this is one of them.' He paused and reflected for a long time. 'The President is quite clear about it. He said to me, 'Hassan, the nomads are a people logically approaching extinction. Our job is to turn them into useful workers, or to speed up the process of extinction so that they don't suffer too much and we avoid any problem...' 'However, in his last speech...' began Anuhar-el-Mojkri timidly. 'Oh come on, Anuhar!' he scolded him, like a child. 'There are things that can't be said in public when some of nomads themselves are listening and the whole world has got its eyes on our development as an independent country... The Americans, for example, became great defenders of human rights just after they'd finished annihilating all the American Indians.' 'Those were other times...' 'But the circumstances are identical. A newly independent nation that needs to exploit all its potential wealth and get rid of the burden of an irretrievable people. They're just ballast... But at least we give them the chance to integrate themselves into society. We're not shooting them down or rounding them up to put them in Reserves.' 'And what about those who don't want to integrate? The ones like this Gazel who still think that in the desert the ancient laws should apply. What are we going to do with them? Hunt them down with guns like the Red Indians?' 'No, of course not...Just expel them. You yourself said that the frontiers in the desert aren't marked and they don't take any notice of them anyway...So let them cross them. Let them go with their brothers to another country...' he waved his arm in the air. 'But if they stay they must adapt to our way of life or be prepared to accept the consequences.' 'They won't adapt,' said Anuhar, convinced. 'I've had a lot to do with them recently and although some have given up I'm afraid that most of them still cling to the 102

sand and their old ways of life...' He pointed out the window to the distant tower from which a muezzin was calling the faithful to prayer. ‘Are you going to the mosque...?' The governor nodded, went over to the desk and stubbed the cigar out in a heavy crystal ashtray. He leafed through the documents he had been examining. 'One of the secretaries will have to stay,' he said, then added: 'All this must be sent off to the capital tomorrow. We'll come back later.' 'Will you be dining at home?' 'No. Let my wife know.' They went out. Anuhar lingered to give some orders and then had to run down the steps to reach the black limousine just as the governor was getting in. The chauffeur had turned the air-conditioning in the car up to full, and the men traveled in silence to the mosque where they prayed side by side, surrounded by Bedouin who left a wide, respectful space around them. As they went out the governor looked happily at the shadowy palm grove. He loved this time of the day, which was he most beautiful time in the desert. It was at this hour he liked to wander slowly among the gardens and wells, watching the birds who had come from far away to spend the night in the crowns of the trees. It was also the time when all the smells woke up from their lethargy, having been stifled during the day by the overpowering sun. The scents of roses, jasmine and carnations were now released and the governor was convinced that nowhere in the world was the scent of flowers stronger than in that hot, rich land. He dismissed the chauffeur with a wave of his hand and went slowly up the path, forgetting for a few moments the headaches involved in governing a desolate region and men who were still half-savage. Anuhar followed faithfully like a shadow, knowing that at these moments the governor liked to walk in silence. He knew the exact spot where he would pause to light a havana and from which flowerbed he would pick a rosebud for Tamat's bedside table. These daily strolls had become a ritual that would only be missed if the heat was really unbearable or if the workload was truly mountainous, for it was His Excellency's sole form of exercise and relaxation. The night closed in quickly, as it always does in the tropics as if it didn't want 103

man to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the sunsets too much. However, the darkness that soon invaded the gardens didn't bother them because they knew every fountain and every path blindfolded, and the palace lights in the distance were enough with which to orientate themselves. But that night, before the darkness had closed in completely, a new shadow sprang from out of a palm tree or maybe out of the ground, and even without being able to see him properly and without noticing the heavy revolver in his hand, they knew at once with whom they were dealing, and that he had been waiting for them. Anuhar wanted to shout but suddenly the black, gaping mouth of the gun was staring him in the eyes. 'Keep quiet!' he snapped. 'I don't want to hurt anyone.' Governor Hassan-ben-Koufra didn't bat an eyelid. 'What do you want then?' 'My guest back. Do you know who I am? 'I can guess...' he said, and paused. 'But I haven't got your guest...' Gazel scrutinized his face closely and realized he was telling the truth. 'Where is he?' he demanded. 'A long way away. Forget it. You'll never find him.' Behind the veil the Targui's eyes glared intensely for a few seconds and he tightened his grip on the gun. 'We'll see about that,' he said and then pointed at Anuhar. 'You can go. If in one week Abdul-el-Kebir isn't at the guelta north of the Sidi-el-Madia mountains, safe, free and alone, then I'll cut your master's head off. Is that perfectly clear?' Anuhar felt incapable of answering so Hassan-ben-Koufra did it for him. 'If it's Abdul-el-Kebir you want then you'd better shoot me here and now and save us all a lot of bother, because they'll never give in to you.' 'Why not? 'Because the President won't agree to it.' 'What President?' 'The President of the Republic. Who else?' 'Not even in exchange for your life?' 'Not even in exchange for my life.' 104

Gazel Sayah shrugged his shoulders and turned coolly to Anuhar-el-Mejkri. 'You just deliver the message,' he said. 'And tell this President, whoever he is, that if he doesn't return my guest to me then I'll kill him too.' 'You're crazy!' 'No. I'm a Targui.' He waved the gun. 'Now go! And remember: in a week's time at the guelta north of Sidi-el-Madia.' He dug the barrel of the gun into the governor's kidneys and pushed him in the opposite direction. 'This way! ' he said. Anuhar-el-Mojkri went a few steps, then turned to watch them disappear into the shadows of the palm grove. Then he ran towards the lights of the palace.

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'Abdul-el-Kebir was the architect of our independence. He's a national hero. The first President of the nation as nation. Is it really possible you've never heard of him?' 'Never.' 'Where have you been all these years?' 'In the desert... and nobody came to tell me what had happened.' 'Did no travelers stop at your camp?' 'A few... But we always had more important things to talk about. What happened to Abdul-el-Kebir?' 'He was overthrown by the present President... He removed him from power, but he respected him and didn't dare kill him. They'd been comrades in the war and had spent many years together in the French prisons. Neither his own conscience nor the people would have forgiven him if he had killed him.' 'But he threw him into prison...?' 'He exiled him. To the desert.' 'Where?' 'To the desert, I've just told you.' 'The desert's very big.' 'I know. But not so big that one of his partisans couldn't find him and help him to escape. That was how they came to stop at your tent.' 'Who was the young man?' 'A fanatic.' He watched the slowly burning fire for a long time, seemingly lost in his thoughts. When he did speak it was half to himself, and he didn't look at the Targui. 'A fanatic who wanted to drag us into civil war. If Abdul had got free there would have been a bloodbath. The French, for all they persecuted him at one time, would give him all the help he wanted now.' He paused.' They prefer him to us.' He raised his head and looked round the narrow cave and then finally let his gaze rest on Gazel who was leaning against an outcrop of rock and watching him closely. The governor's voice was sincere in tone: 'Now do you understand why I keep telling you you're wasting your time? They'll never exchange him for me, and I don't blame them. I'm just a governor. I'm useful and loyal, I do my job as best I can, but no one's going to risk a civil war for my sake... It'll be many years before the memory of Abdul-el-Kebir is forgotten and before his name 106

loses its charisma.' He lifted a glass of tea carefully with his bound hand and put it to his lips, trying not to burn himself. 'And things haven't gone too well during this time...' he continued. 'Mistakes have been made, mistakes that might be expected from a new government of a country that has only just got its independence. But there are people who don't see it like that, and who are discontent... Abdul know how to promise things...things which the people now hope we will give. But it's impossible. To give them would be to try to make a Utopian state.' He became silent and replaced his glass on the sand next to the fire and felt the Targui's eyes trying to penetrate him from behind the veil. 'You're scared of him, 'Gazel declared at last. 'All of you are scared stiff of him aren't you?' He nodded. 'We swore loyalty to him, and even though I wasn't involved in the plot... I came along after it was over but didn't dare protest.' He smiled sadly. 'They bought my acquiescence by making me absolute governor of an enormous province and I accepted gladly. But you're right. Deep down I'm still scared of him. We're all scared of him because we have to sleep in the sure knowledge that one day he'll be back to settle old accounts. Abdul always comes back.' 'Were is he now?' 'Back in the desert again.' 'Whereabouts?' 'I'll never tell you.' The Targui glared angrily at him and there wasn't the least trace of doubt in his voice as he said: 'If I try, you'll talk...My ancestors were famous for the ways in which they tortured their prisoners and although we don't do it any more, the old methods have been passed down by word of mouth as curiosities.' He took the pot and filled the glasses with tea again. 'Listen!' he continued. 'As you weren't born in these parts maybe you don't understand, but I can't sleep in peace until I know that Abdul-el-Kebir is as free again as the day he arrived at my camp. If I have to kill, destroy and even torture for that, I'll do it even though I don't want to. I can't bring the one you ordered to be killed back to life, 107

but at least I can set the other one free.' 'You're wrong, you can't.' He gave him an odd stare. '"What makes you so sure?' 'I'm the only one in El-Akab who Knows where he is, and as much as you torture me I'll never tell you.' 'You're wrong,' declared Gazel. 'Someone else does know.' 'Who?' 'Your wife.' Gazel was delighted to see he was right as Hassan's face changed and for the first time he lost his self-possession. He tried to object feebly but Gazel ordered him to be quiet with a wave of his hand. 'Don't try to lie to me. I've been watching you for fifteen days and I've seen you with her...She's the sort of woman a man tells all his secrets to with absolute trust, isn't she?' He watched him closely. 'Sometimes I ask myself if you really are just a simple ignorant Targui, born and bred in the worst of deserts, or if someone else is hiding behind that veil.' The Targui smiled. 'They say that back in the time of the Pharoahs our tribe lived on the island of Crete and were even then powerful, intelligent and refined. So powerful and intelligent that they tried to invade Egypt but were betrayed by a woman and so lost the battle. Some then escaped to the east, founding the Phoenician civilization next to the sea and ruling the oceans. Others escaped to the west, settling on the sands and ruling the deserts. Thousands of years later you lot arrived, barbaric Arabs whom Mohammed had only just dragged out of the darkest ignorance...' 'Yes I've heard that legend that claims you're descended from the 'garamants' but I don't believe it.' 'Maybe it's not true. But what's certain is that we were here long before you and have always been more intelligent than you - although less ambitious. We like our way of life and don't aspire to anything else. We let people think what they like about us, but if they provoke us then we react.' His voice hardened. 'Are you going to tell me where 108

Abdul-el-Kebir is or do I have to ask your wife?' The governor suddenly remembered what the minister of the Interior had said to him on the eve of his departure to El-Akab: 'Don't trust the Tuareg... Don't let them fool you by their appearance, because I'm afraid they have the most cunning and most analytical minds on the whole continent. They're a race apart and if they put themselves to it they could dominate all of us, the people of the coast or the mountain. A Targui can understand what the sea is without ever having seen it, or unravel a philosophical problem which neither you or I would even understand. Their culture is very ancient and although they have been losing their warrior spirit, they are still particularly notable as individuals. Watch out for them...!' 'A Targui would never hurt a woman,' Hassan said at last. 'And I don't believe you're an exception. Respect for women is almost as important to you as the law of hospitality. Are you going to break one law in order to enforce another...?' 'Of course not,' said Gazel. 'But I don't need to hurt her. If she realizes your life depends on whether or not she tells me where to find Abdul-el-Kebir, then she'll tell me.' Hassan thought of Tamat, of their thirteen years of marriage and their two sons, and realized the Targui was right. Nor could he blame her, for he himself would do the same. After all was said and done, he now thought, telling him where to find Abdul-elkebir wasn't the same as letting Abdul go free. 'He's at Fort Gerifies,' he sighed. Gazel decided he was telling the truth and mentally worked out the distance. 'I'll need three days to get there, plus another one to get camels and provisions...' He thought for a while, then started to laugh. 'That means that by the time they're getting ready to ambush me at the Sidi-el-Madia guelta I'll already be at Gerifies.' He drank his tea slowly, savoring it. 'They'll wait a day for us, two at the most, before realizing what's happened and sending a warning to the fort... I've got time!' he said it totally convinced. 'I've got time...' 'And what are you going to do with me...?' asked the governor, with a slight tremble in his voice. 'I ought to kill you... But I'll leave you here with food and water for ten days. If you've lied to me and Abdul-el-Kebir isn't there, then you'll die of hunger and thirst 109

because no one could ever get out of those camel-skin bonds.' 'How do I know you really will send someone to look for me?' 'You can't know, but I'll do it... Have you got any money?' The governor pointed with his head to the wallet in his back pocket and the Targui took it out. He put aside the notes that were worth most and divided them into two piles. He kept one and put the other back in the wallet, which he left beside the fire. 'A nomad will come looking for you. I'll give him this half of the money and tell him where he can find the rest...' He smiled behind his veil. 'For such a sum any Bedouin would spend a month on camelback. Don't worry,' he said, trying to reassure him. 'They'll come for you. Now, take off your trousers.' 'Why?' he said in alarm. 'You're going to spend ten days in this cave, with your hands and feet tied... If you piss and then mess yourself on top of it, you'll only get sores,' He waved his hand. 'You're better of with your ass bare...' His Excellency, Governor Hassan-ben-Koufra, supreme and undisputed authority in a province larger than France, was about to protest but then seemed to think better of it, as he started to laboriously unfasten his belt and trousers, swallowing his pride and his anger. Gazel helped him take them off before tying him up carefully. Finally he relieved him of his watch and a ring with a fat diamond set in it. 'This will pay for the camels and provisions,' he said. 'I'm poor and had to kill my mehari. He was a beautiful animal and I'll never find another like him.' He collected his things together, left a gerba full of water and a bagful of nuts against the wall and pointed to them. 'Take care of them!' he said. 'Especially the water. And don't try to get free... it will only make you sweat and need to drink and then maybe you'll run out of water. Try to sleep, that's the best thing. When you sleep you don't use up any energy...' He went out. It was a dark, moonless night and the sky was full of stars which there in the mountains seemed even closer, as if touching the peaks that towered above Gazel's head. He stayed motionless for a few thoughtful seconds, orientating himself maybe, or tracing in his mind the route he would have to take to get to the distant fortress. He needed, above all, camels to carry a large amount of provisions and many 110

gerbas in which to store as much water as he could, for he was afraid that there were no wells on the outskirts of the Tikdabra erg, and further to the south the vast 'empty land' opened up, whose limits no one knew for sure. He walked all night with such a fast, springy step than anyone else would have been exhausted, but for a Targui it was nothing excessive. Dawn found him at the top of a small hill looking down on a valley where, thousands of years ago, a stream must have run. The nomads knew that in this valley it was enough to dig down half a meter to find an atankor which would give enough water for five camels, and therefore it was an essential halt for caravans coming from the south and heading to the El-Akab oasis. He could see three encampments spread out along the riverbed. At first light they began to revive the fires in the camps and bring in the animals, who were grazing on the slopes, in order to start their journey again. He watched them carefully, without letting himself be seen, and it was only when he was absolutely sure that there were no soldiers in the camps that he decided to climb down. He want up to the first group of tents and there, in the largest of the jaimas, were four men sipping their morning tea. 'Metulem, metulem!' 'Aselam aleikum,' they replied in unison. 'Sit down and have a tea with us. Would you like some biscuits?' The tea was greasy and sugary but warmed his body, chasing away the dawn coldness of the desert. He also enjoyed the biscuits and the strong tasting, almost rancid cheese and the juicy dates. The leader of the small group was a Bedouin with a scraggy beard and cunning eyes; he stared at the Targui and then asked, without the slightest alteration in his voice: 'Are you Gazel? Gazel Sayah of the Kel-Talgimus?' Gazel nodded and the Bedouin added: 'They're looking for you.' 'I know.' 'Have you killed the governor?' 'No.' The others looked at him with interest and even stopped eating, trying to ascertain whether he was telling the truth or not. 111

At last the Bedouin remarked casually: 'Is there anything you need?' 'Four meharis, water and food.' He took the watch and ring from the red leather bag round his neck and held them up. 'I'll pay with these.' An emaciated old man with the long delicate fingers of a craftsman took the ring and studied it with the air of one who knew what he was looking at, while the one with the scraggy beard took the heavy watch. After a while the craftsman passed the ring over to his leader. 'It's worth at least ten camels,' he assured him. 'The stone is very good.' The other nodded, kept the ring and handed the watch back to Gazel. 'Take all you need in exchange for the ring,' he said, smiling. 'You might need the watch.' 'I don't know how to use it.' 'Neither do I, but when you want to sell it they'll pay you well. It's solid gold.' 'They're offering a reward for anyone who catches you,' said the craftsman offhandedly. 'A big reward.' 'Do you know of anyone who's going to try and claim it?' 'None of us,' said the youngest of the Bedouins who had been watching the Targui with unconcealed admiration. 'Do you need help? I can come with you.' The chief, probably his father, interrupted him with a frown: 'He doesn't need help. Your silence is enough.' He paused. 'And we must not get ourselves mixed up in this. The soldiers are livid and we've enough problems with them already.' He turned to Gazel. 'I'm sorry. But I must protect my people.' Gazel nodded. 'I understand. You've already done enough in selling me your camels,' he said and turned to the young man. 'And he's right. I don't need help. Only silence.' The boy bowed his head slightly, as if enjoying his deference, and stood up. 'I'll go and choose the best camels for you. And prepare everything you need. I'll also fill you gerbas.' He walked away quickly as the others watched him. The chief obviously felt proud of him. 'He has spirit and is brave. And he admires what you're doing.' he said. 'You're 112

on the way to becoming the most famous man in the desert.' 'That's not what I'm after,' he replied firmly. 'I only want to live in peace with my family and ensure that our laws are obeyed.' 'Now you'll never be able to live at peace with your family.' said the craftsman. 'You're going to have to leave the country.' 'There's a frontier south of the Tikdabra "empty land",' said the chief. 'Another to the east, three days walk from the Huaila mountains.' He shook his head slowly. 'The western frontier is too far away, you'd never make it. To the north is the sea and the cities. I've never been there.' 'How can I know when I've crossed a frontier and am safe?' Gazel asked with genuine interest. The Bedouins looked at each other, unable to answer. The only one who up till then hadn't spoken, a Negro Akli, son of slaves, shrugged his shoulders. 'Nobody knows exactly. Nobody.' he repeated, more confidently. 'Last year I went down to the Niger with a caravan, and neither going nor coming back did we ever know which country we were in.' 'How long did it take you to get to the river?' The Negro thought for a moment, trying to remember. Finally he ventured somewhat hesitantly: 'A month...?' he clicked his tongue as if trying to get rid of certain disagreeable thoughts. 'Almost twice that coming back. The drought came, the wells dried up and we had to make a wide detour to avoid Tikdabra. When I was a boy you would find good wells and savannas many days before you reached the river. Now the wells have been blocked by the encroaching sand, the last traces of grass have disappeared and the sand threatens the banks of the river itself. The plains where the Peuls used to graze their livestock aren't even fit for the hungriest camel now, and there's not a trace left of the inhabited oases we used to stop off at.' He clicked his tongue again. 'And I'm not old... It's the desert that is moving too fast.' 'I'm not bothered if the desert moves and swallows up other lands,' remarked Gazel. 'I'm fine here. I'm only worried that the desert isn't big enough yet for us to live in peace in. So the more it grows the better. That way maybe one day they'll forget all about us.' 113

'They won't forget,' said the craftsman. 'They've discovered oil and oil is what the Rumi are most interested in. I know because I spent two years working in the capital and all the conversations there came back to oil one way or another.' Gazel looked at the old man with renewed interest. The craftsman, whether they worked gold and silver, like him, or leather or stone, were considered by the Tuareg to be in a lower class -a sort of caste half way between an Imohag and a ingad or serf, or even, sometimes, they were between an Imohag and an Akli slave. But even thus classified, the Tuareg realized that they were probably the most cultured class in the whole or their social system, now that many of them could read and write and that some had traveled beyond the boundaries of the desert. 'I was in a town once...' declared Gazel. 'But it was a small town and the French were still in control. Have they changed a lot since then...?' 'A lot,' he replied. 'At that time the French were on one side and we were on the other. Now it's brother fighting brother, some want one thing, others want another.' He shook his head sadly. 'And when the French left they divided up their territories with frontiers, arbitrary lines drawn across the map so that one tribe -or even one familycould belong to two different countries. So if the government is communist, they have to be communist. If the government is fascist, then fascist. Or if a king is ruling, then they must be monarchists...' He stopped and looking closely at Gazel asked him: 'Do you know what it means to be a communist?' Gazel shook his head. 'Never heard of them. What are they, some kind of sect?' 'More or less... But political, not religious.' 'Political...?' he repeated, bewildered. 'They claim that all men must be equal, with the same rights and duties. And that all the wealth should be divided up among everyone...' 'They say that everyone should be equal, even the idiot and the genius, that worker and the idler, the Imohag and the slave, the warrior and the coward...?' He let out a cry of amazement. 'They're equal?' He snorted. 'In that case, what's it worth to me to have been born a Targui?' 'It's more complicated than that,' the old jeweler assured him. 114

'I guess so...' he admitted. 'It must be a lot more complicated, because such idiocy isn't even worth talking about' He paused, as if putting an end to the subject, and then asked: 'Have you ever heard of Abdul-el-Kebir?' 'We've all heard of him,' said the chief, anticipating the craftsman. 'It was he who expelled the French and ruled the country in the first years of independence.' 'What sort of man is he?' 'A just man,' he admitted 'Mistaken but just.' 'Why mistaken?' 'Whoever trusts others to the extent of letting himself be overthrown and put into prison is mistaken.' Gazel turned to the old man. 'Is he one of these people who wants everyone to be equal? What are they called...?' 'Communists?' said the craftsman. 'No, I don't think he's a communist exactly. They say he's a socialist.' 'And what's that?' 'I don't really know.' He turned to the others for the answer but they all shrugged their shoulders to express their ignorance. He sighed, realizing he wasn't going to get very far asking such questions. 'I have to go...' was all he said as he stood up. 'Aselam aleikum.' 'Aselam aleikum.' He walked over to where they were just finishing the loading of the camels. He checked the packs with an expert eye and them climbed on to the back of the fastest of the kneeling camels. Before making the animal stand up, he took out a bundle of bank notes and handed them to the young man. 'You'll find the rest in the cave in the Tatalet gorge, half a day's walk away. Do you know it?' 'I know it,' he said. 'Have you hidden the governor there?' 'Next to the money,' he answered. 'In a week's time, on your way back from ElAkab, let him go...' 115

'You can trust me.' 'Thank you. And remember, in a week's time. Not before.' 'Be careful. May Allah go with you.' 'He spurred the camel in the neck, the animal rose and the others did the same. They moved off slowly, soon disappearing behind a group of rocks. Only then did the boy turn back to sit at the entrance of his father's tent. 'Don't worry about him,' his father said with a smile. 'He's a Targui and there's no one in the world able to catch a lone Targui in the desert.'

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He was woken by the light. And by the silence. The sun flooded in through the lattice window, illuminating the long rows of books and reflecting off the brass ashtray full of cigarette butts. However, despite the lateness of the hour there wasn't a sound to be heard coming from the patio, and he was sure that reveille hadn't yet been sounded. The silence made him uneasy. Over the years he had become accustomed to a rigid, military routine in which every one of his acts was governed by a strict timetable; and to suddenly notice that this timetable had changed, that he hadn't been made to jump out of bed at six o'clock, with half an hour to smarten himself up before breakfast, produced an inexplicable anxiety in him. So did the silence. The silence of the patio -which normally at this hour was buzzing with the noise of soldiers chatting before the heat became intense- was overwhelming and made him leap out of his bunk, pull his trousers on and go to the window. He couldn't see anyone. Nobody at the well on the battlements at the west corner -the only part of the wall visible from there. 'Hey!' he shouted nervously. 'What's going on? Where is everyone?' There was no answer. He kept on calling but the result was always the same. He became greatly alarmed. 'They've abandoned me,' was his first thought. 'They've gone and left me here, locked up, to die of hunger and thirst...' He ran to the door and was surprised to find it ajar. He went out onto the patio and was momentarily blinded by the sun reflecting off the walls -walls that had been whitewashed a thousand times by soldiers with no other duty but to spend days, years, passing a brush over the already immaculate surfaces. But none of the soldiers were now in sight. The sentry boxes on the four corners of the walls and beside the gate -through which the immense desert could be seen- where all empty. 'Hey!' he shouted again. 'What's going on? What's going on?' There was not even a puff of wind to bring any sound of life or to stir anything in the total, accursed silence of the place, which seemed to have been turned to stone, crushed and destroyed by a sun which had begun to beat down mercilessly. 117

He went down the four steps with two jumps and ran to the wall, calling out to the mess, the soldiers' quarters and the orderly room. 'Captain! Captain...! What sort of joke is this? Where has everybody gone?' A dark shadow loomed out of the dark entrance to the kitchen. It was a tall, extremely thin Targui, with a dark litham covering his face, a rifle in one hand and a sword in the other. He stopped under the porch. 'They're dead.' He said. Abdul-el-Kebir looked at him incredulously. 'Dead...?' he repeated stupidly. 'All of them?' 'All of them.' 'Who killed them?' 'I did.' He went up to him, hardly able to believe what he heard. 'You did what...?' He shook his head as if trying to shake out the idea. 'Are you trying to tell me that you single-handedly killed twelve soldiers, a sergeant and a captain...?' Gazel Sayah nodded calmly. 'They were asleep.' Abdul-el-Kebir, who had seen thousands of people die, who himself had ordered many to be executed and who had hated without exception every one of his jailers, nevertheless felt a terrible anguish and a hollow feeling in his stomach at the thought. He leaned against the wooden post that held up the porch so as not to lose his balance. 'You killed them while they were asleep?' he said. 'Why?' 'Because they killed my guest,' he paused. 'And because there were too many of them. If one had given the alarm, you would have died here of old age, behind these four walls...' Abdul looked at him in silence, and then nodded his head as if he suddenly understood something that at first had totally baffled him. 'Now I remember you... You're the Targui who offered us your hospitality. I saw you when they were carrying me away.' 'Yes,' he nodded. 'I am Gazel Sayah. You were my guest and I must now take you across the frontier.' 118

'Why?' He looked at him uncomprehendingly. At last he remarked: 'Because that's how it has to be... You asked for my protection and I am bound by law to protect you.' 'To kill fourteen men in order to protect me seems a bit excessive, don't you think?' The Targui didn't deign to reply, but strode off in the direction of the open gate. 'I'll bring the camels...' he said. 'Get ready for a long trip.' He watched him disappear through the gate and was suddenly oppressed by the thought of himself alone in that desolate fort. It felt more overwhelming and alarming even than the day he'd seen the fort for the first time, certain that he would never leave the place alive and that those walls would be his tomb as well as his prison. He stood quite still for several moments, straining to listen even though he was fully aware there was nothing to hear. The only possible makers of noise in that place were the wind and the soldiers, and today there was no wind and all the soldiers were dead. Fourteen of them! He recalled their faces one by one, from the sharp, pale features of the captain who hated the sun and loved the shade of his office, to the red, sweating fat-cheeked cook and the long, insolent mustache of the dirty corporal who had cleaned out his cell and brought him his food. He also knew every sentry and every minion, he'd played dice with them, written their letters home for them, read them novels during the long desert nights. And often it had been impossible to say who was more of a prisoner, he or them, in that desert fortress. He knew all of them, and now they were dead. He asked himself what sort of man it was who admitted to having murdered fourteen men in their sleep without the slightest change in his voice, without any regret and without showing the least sign of repentance. He was a Targui of course and in the university they had taught him that the Tuareg had nothing in common with other races in the world; their morality and customs were also totally distinct. 119

They were a proud, indomitable, rebellious people who ruled themselves according to their own laws -but no one had told him that these laws contemplated the possibility of killing fourteen men in their sleep. 'Morality is a question of custom and we must never judge, according to our own criteria, the acts of others who, thanks to their ancestral customs, have different criteria and a different view of life...' The words of the 'old man' came back to him as if it were only yesterday he had sat, sprawled behind his enormous desk, his hands and the sleeves of his dark coat covered with white chalk, trying to instill in them the idea that the ethnic minorities that made up what would one day be a free country shouldn't be thought of as inferior just because they had had less contact with the French than them. 'One of the greatest problems of our continent...' he would reiterate time and again, 'is the undeniable fact that a large part of the African community is intrinsically more racist than their own colonialists... Neighboring tribes -almost brothers- hate and loathe each other, and now that these countries are gradually getting their independence, it will be clearly demonstrated that the Negro has no worse enemy than that very Negro who happens to speak another dialect. Let us not make the same mistake. You, who will one day be the rulers of our new country, must not forget the Bedouins, the Tuareg and the Cabilenos aren't inferior, just different...' Very different. Previously, he had never hesitated, for example, before giving the order to attack one of those cafés where the French used to gather, even though he knew that such an order would mean the killing of innocent victims. Nor had he ever hesitated before opening fire with a machine gun at paratroopers or legionaries. Death had been his companion since adolescence, and had remained with him during the first years of his government, when he had sent dozens of collaborators to the gallows. He had no right to be shocked at the death of his fourteen jailers, but he had known them personally, known their names, their likes and dislikes. And he knew, what's more, they'd had their throats out in their own beds. He crossed the patio slowly and went to the large window of the soldier's hut and, shielding the glass from reflection with his hands, peered in. Nothing more than lines of vague bundles, bed after bed covered with dirty sheets 120

than showed no stain of the blood that had been soaked up by the straw mattresses. Not a breath. No sound of snoring, or of a word spoken in a dream, no sound of nails scratching skin dried by the sun and sand. Just silence and a few flies beating themselves against the window -as if they'd had their fill of blood and were fighting to get out into the fresh air and the light. Ten meters further along he pushed open the door of the captain's hut and for the first time sunlight flooded into that stuffy, dusty room and fell on the big bed at the end, on which a small and very thin body was also covered by an extremely white sheet. He closed the door behind him and went slowly round every corner of the fort without finding any other corpse, not even in the sentry boxes or by the gates; it was as if the Targui, in some strange ritual, had preferred, after killing them, to drag them to their beds and cover them with a sheet rather than leave them where they lay. He returned to his cell, collected his letters, the photographs of his sons and the well-thumbed copy of the Koran which he'd had ever since he had learned to read, and put it all, with a few clothes, into a canvas bag. Then he sat down in the shade of the porch next to the wall, as the sun beat down vertically and relentlessly, clearing the ground of all shadows. The oppressive heat made him sink into an uneasy doze, a poor imitation of sleep from which he awoke with a jump -startled by that same silence, that same peacefulness and anxious feeling of desolation. Sweat ran down his body and his ears ached as if suddenly plunged into a hollow universe, until finally he whispered a few words to himself just to hear the sound of his own voice and to reassure himself that such a thing as sound still existed. Could there be anywhere else in the world so silent as that pantheon -which the old fort had become- on a windless day in the Sahara. Why the fort had been built there, in the center of the plain far from any known well, caravan trail, oasis or frontier, why it had been built right there in the heart of emptiness, nobody now knew. Fort Gerifies was small and completely useless except, perhaps, as logistic support or resting place for nomadic patrols. So that particular spot was as good as any other in an area of over five hundred square kilometers. They'd dug a well, built some low walls with battlements, brought in some rickety old furniture from some dismantled 121

barracks, and condemned a group of men to guard a piece of the desert that was so extremely desert-like that, according to legend, not one traveler had ever passed by Gerifies. According to the same legend, the garrison of the French Foreign Legion there had taken three months to find out that they were no longer colonial forces but defeated foreigners. Six anonymous graves lay behind the back wall. At one time they had crosses with names on them, but some years ago the cook had taken them and burned them because they'd run out of firewood. Abdul-el-Kebir had often wondered who those Christians were who had come to die so far from their homeland; what strange circumstances had led them to enlist in the Legion and end their days in the loneliness of the wide Sahara. 'One day my grave will be dug next to theirs,' he had said to himself. 'Then there will be seven anonymous graves... The hero of national Independence will rest for eternity next to six unknown mercenaries... And from that moment on my guards can leave Gerifies.' But it hadn't turned out like that and now fourteen graves would be needed instead of one. Graves over which nobody would write their names -for no one would over be interested in where a handful of incompetent jailers lay. He turned instinctively back to the barrack window, still finding it hard to believe that in there the bodies of the men who until last night had filled the place with their noisy presence, were already beginning to rot in the dry, intolerable heat. How many times had he felt tempted to strangle one of them with his own bare hands! In all his years of captivity most of them had treated him with respect, but there were some who had imposed all sorts of humiliations, on him, especially after his return there. The punishment for letting him escape had fallen equally on all of them: all leave canceled for one year, and many favored provoking an 'accident' which would finish him off once and for all and would free them from what had become imprisonment for everyone there. Now he was horrified by the idea of resuming his flight -the endless trek over sand and rock under a merciless sun, not knowing where he was going or if that desolate plain actually came to an end anywhere. He remembered with horror the torment of thirst and the unbearable pain in every one of his cramped muscles, and he asked himself why 122

he still sat there waiting for this murderer to drag him off again over the sands and rocks. Then suddenly he appeared at his side, as if from nowhere, silently despite the four loaded camels who came behind him also without making the slightest sound, as if they had been infected with the noiselessness of their new master or as if their instinct had told them they had been led into a mausoleum. Abdul jerked his head in the direction of the barracks. 'Why did you drag the sentries back to their beds? D'you think they're better off there than where you killed them? What can it matter to them now? Gazel stared at him, as if not understanding exactly what he was talking about, then shrugged his shoulders. 'A vulture will find a body in the open air two hours after death,' he answered. 'But it will take three days for the smell to filter through those walls and by then we'll be well on our way to the frontier.' 'Which frontier?' 'Aren't all the frontiers just as good?' 'The southern and eastern frontiers are fine, but as soon as I step one foot over the western one they'll hang me from the gallows.' Gazel didn't answer, absorbed as he was in the task of drawing water from the well to give to the insatiable animals. When he had finished he noticed the canvas bag. 'Aren't you taking any more than that?' 'It's all I have...' 'It's not much for someone who has been the President of a country...' He pointed to the door. 'Go into the kitchen and bring provisions and all the receptacles for water you can find.' He shook his head. 'Water is going to be our big problem on this journey.' 'In the desert isn't water always the problem...' 'Of course. But where we're going it's worse than anywhere else.' 'And where are we going, if I might ask...?' 'Where nobody can follow us. To the "great empty land" of Tikdabra.'

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'Where could they have headed for?' No one answered. Ali Madani, the Minister of the Interior, was a tall, strong man with well-groomed hair and tiny eyes that he tried to hide -along with his intentionsbehind thick, dark glasses. He looked from one to the other, and on receiving no reply, continued insistently: 'Come on, gentlemen...! I haven't come one and a half thousand kilometers to sit and look at you. You're all supposed to be experts on the Sahara and on the behavior of the Tuareg. I repeat: where would they head for?' 'Anywhere...' said one colonel confidently, with a sullen gesture. 'They went out to the north, but that was just to find a rocky area in which to lose their tracks. From there on the desert's his...' 'Are you trying to tell me,' muttered the minister in a low voice in an attempt to restrain his anger, 'that a Bedouin -one single Bedouin- could get into one of our forts, cut the throats of fourteen soldiers, free the most dangerous enemy that the state has and then disappear into a desert which you tell me is his...?' He shook his head incredulously. 'The desert is supposed to be ours, Colonel... The whole country is supposed to be under the jurisdiction of the army and the forces of law and order.' 'This country is made up of ninety percent desert, Your Excellency,' interrupted the general, Commander-in-Chief of the Region, also in an angry voice. 'Nevertheless, all the wealth and all the effort is put into the remaining ten percent, the coast. I have to control a region that's half the size of Europe with the dregs of the army and a minimum of maintenance. The proportion is less than one man for every thousand kilometers, all of them stationed in forts and cases scattered here and there without any logic whatsoever. Do you really believe, Your Excellency, that in this way we can possibly consider the desert as belonging to us? Our presence and our influence are so weak that this Targui didn't even know -twenty years after the event- that we're an independent country... He is the "lord" of the desert,' he said with emphasis. 'The only lord it has.' The minister seemed to accept that he was right, or at least chose not to answer him directly and turned instead to Lieutenant Razman who stood respectfully in a corner alongside sergeant Major Malik-el-Haideri. 'You, Lieutenant, are the one who has apparently had most dealings with the Targui. What's your opinion of him?' 124

'He is extremely clever sir. In some way or another he always manages to do what we least expect.' 'Describe him to me.' 'He is tall and thin.' The minister waited expectantly, and when nothing else was forthcoming he urged him on: 'And...?' 'Nothing else Your Excellency. He is totally covered up the whole time, except for his eyes which are dark and his hands which are very strong.' The minister swore. 'In hell's name!' he exclaimed, banging his pencil on the table. 'Are we up against a ghost...? Tall, thin, dark eyes, strong hands... Is that all we know of a man who has checkmated the army single-handed, who has kidnapped the governor, carried off Abdulel-Kebir and who is causing the President a very great deal of anxiety? Am I dealing with a bunch of idiots?' 'No, Excellency,' the general spoke again. 'You're not dealing with idiots. The laws here permit the Tuareg to conceal their face according to tradition. Therefore the description corresponds to a Targui... Taking into account that they number about three hundred thousand, of which more than a third live in this country, we must accept that the description fits at least fifty thousand adult males.' The minister said nothing. He took off his glasses, laid them aside and rubbed his eyes with an air of intense preoccupation. He'd hardly slept during the last forty-eight hours, which with the long journey and the heat of El-Akab had exhausted him. But he was unable to sleep knowing that if he didn't recapture Abdul-el-Kebir immediately then his days at the head of the ministry were numbered and before long he'd find himself as an obscure official with no future. Abdul-el-Kebir was a time-bomb that would blow everything, the government and the system, sky-high in less than a month if he reached the border and got to Paris, where the French would give him the help they'd refused him before. And what with French money and his own popular supports there would be no stopping him and those who had betrayed him earlier would have just enough time to pack their bags and begin a long exodus, always on the look-out in case his revenge caught up with them, wherever 125

they were hiding. Abdul-el-Kebir had to be found and dealt with once and for all, because he couldn't bear such anxiety again. If the President had listened to him and had had him shot after his first escape attempt, none of this would have happened, for his proposal would have solved the problem definitively, whatever the consequences might have been. 'They must be found,' he said at last. 'You can have whatever you need -men, planes, tanks, whatever! But find him... and that's an order!' 'Sir...!' He turned to the one who had spoken. 'Yes, sergeant?' 'Sir,' repeated Malik in a barely audible voice, 'I'm convinced they've gone into the Tikdabra "empty land".' 'The "empty land"...? They must be mad... What makes you think that?' 'I've seen the tracks coming out of Fort Gerifies. Four camels fully loaded. And in the fort there's not one container left that's capable of carrying water -they've taken them all. If this Targui had wanted to get away quickly he wouldn't have taken four camels, not four loaded anyway.' 'But the tracks head north... And the "empty land" is to the south unless I'm mistaken.' 'No sir, you're not mistaken. But this Targui has tricked us many times already. It could be that he doesn't mind losing a day going north in order to shake off his tracks, and then turn back south to Tikdabra. Once on the other side of there he's safe.' 'No human being has ever crossed that region.' the colonel pointed out. 'It was chosen as a frontier for that very reason. It doesn't need protecting.' 'No human being could survive in the middle of a saltpan without water for five days, but I've seen this Targui do it Colonel sir,' replied Malik. 'With all due respect, I would like to emphasize he is not an ordinary man. His powers of endurance are beyond belief.' 'But he's not alone, and Abdul-el-Kebir is nearly an old man, plus he's weak after his last escape attempt and all these years of imprisonment. Can you really imagine him standing up to thirty days of thirst and over sixty degrees centigrade of heat? If they're 126

stupid enough to try that, then I can guarantee we won't have to bother about them any more,' said the colonel. Malik didn't dare contradict someone so high in rank again, but it was the minister himself who spoke for him: 'It may well be just a shot in the dark,' he agreed. 'But the lieutenant and the sergeant major are here because they're the only ones who've had any dealings with this savage, so their opinion is of particular importance... What do you think of this, lieutenant?' 'Gazel is capable of anything, sir... Even of keeping an old man alive at the cost of his own life... To protect his guest is the most important thing for him right now, more important than his own existence even, or his family's. If he thinks Tikdabra offers the safest refuge, then he'll go to the "empty land".' 'Agreed then, we'll look for him there too... Now,' the minister paused briefly, 'you mentioned his family. What do we know about them? If we get hold of them perhaps we could propose an exchange...' 'They have left their pastures...' the general's voice displayed his displeasure and discomfort. 'And it doesn't seem very dignified to me to drag women and children into this. What sort of a reputation would the army deserve if it had to stoop to those methods to solve its problems?' 'The army can stay out of it, General. My people will see to the matter. Although,' he added emphatically. 'I don't think the army could come out of this worse than they already have.' The general was about to make a violent response but managed to check himself with an effort. He had no doubt that, for the moment anyway, Ali Madani was the President's right-hand man and therefore the second most influential man in the country, while he remained just a simple military man only recently promoted to general. Everything that had happened was due more to the ineptitude of politicians like Madani than to any true inefficiency by the Armed Forces, but this wasn't the time or place to get tangled up in an argument that could only lead him into trouble. He bit his lip therefore and stood expectantly. When all was said and done, the minister would probably have disappeared from the political scene by the time he was promoted to brigadier general. 'How many helicopters do we have?' he heard the minister ask the colonel. 127

'One.' 'I'll send three more. And planes?' 'Six. But we can't spare them. Most of the outposts can only be supplied by air.' 'I'll send a squadron. They must sweep the whole area of Gerifies.' He paused. 'And I want two regiments stationed on the other side of the Tikdabra "empty land".' 'But that's on the other side of the frontier..."' protested the colonel. 'It'll be considered as an invasion of a neighboring country...! 'Leave problems like that to the Foreign Ministry and just concentrate on carrying out my orders.' He interrupted himself, annoyed by a knock at the door. It opened and an orderly came in and whispered something to the secretary, Anuar-el-Mojkri, whose expression changed visibly. He nodded and the orderly went out again. 'Excuse me, Your Excellency,' declared the secretary, 'but I'm informed that the governor has just arrived.' 'Ben-Kourfa...?' Madani said in surprise. 'Alive?' 'Yes sir. In a bad state, but alive... He is waiting in his office.' The minister jumped up and without saying a word left the room, crossed the high hall followed by the secretary and the surprised looks of local officials and then went into the governor's large, dark office, slamming the heavy door in Anuar's face behind him. Dirty, thin, haggard and with a ten-day growth on his chin, governor Hassan-benKoufra was but a shadow of the confident, arrogant man who had left his office that afternoon on his way to the mosque. He sat sprawled in one of the heavy armchairs, staring vacantly at the palm grove through the thick lace curtains, his mind far away probably back in the cave where he had suffered the most traumatic experience of his life. He didn't even raise his eyes when Madani came in. The minister had to stand right in front of him before he was noticed. 'I didn't expect to see you again.' The governor's eyes, red with exhaustion and dilated with terror, turned slowly and only with difficulty did he recognize the speaker. Finally he mumbled in a hoarse, scarcely audible voice: 'Me neither...' He held out his raw, wounded wrists. 'Look!' 'It's better than being dead... And it's thanks to you that fourteen men lost their 128

lives and the whole country is in danger.' 'I never thought he'd manage it... I was sure I was sending him to a trap and they'd finish him off at Gerifies. We had our best men there...' 'Best men...?' he exclaimed. 'he cut their throats like a load of chickens, one by one... And now Abdul is free. Do you realize what that means?' He nodded: 'We'll catch him.' 'How? He's not with a young stupid fanatic now, but with a Targui who knows the terrain better than we'll ever know it.' He sat down opposite ben-Koufra on the sofa, and ran his hand through his hair mechanically. 'And to think it was me who proposed you for this job, and insisted on your name...' 'I'm very sorry.' 'You're sorry...?' he laughed scornfully. 'If you were dead we could at least say he tortured you to inhuman limits... But here you are, bragging about some cuts that will have healed in a couple of weeks. Any rebel student can resist my men more than you resisted this Targui. You used to be tougher.' 'When I was young and it was French paratroopers doing the torturing... then I believed in something. The cause was good. Maybe I wasn't convinced it was right to keep Abdul in jail for the rest of his live.' 'It seemed right to you when you were made governor and given this office,' he reminded him. 'It seemed all right to you then when we decided what to do with him. It wasn't "Abdul" then of course, it was the enemy, the devil who was dragging the country into chaos by keeping us, his intimates, out of government. No, Hassan!' he shook his head gravely. 'Don't try to fool me, I've known you too long. The truth is that time, power and comfort have made you soft and frightened... You could be a hero and resist when you had nothing more to lose than hope of a better future. But not when you live in a palace and have a Swiss bank account like yours... Don't deny it,' he cut him short. 'Remember it's my job to be informed and I know exactly what the oil companies pay you for your cooperation.' 'Less than they pay you probably.' 'Naturally...' he said, without being in the least offended. 'But at the moment it's you who's on the line, not me...' He turned to look at the muezzin who was calling the 129

faithful to prayer from the minaret of the mosque, and said without turning round: 'Pray that I can repair the damage you've done. Because if not, then it'll be more than a governor's job you'll lose.' 'Does that mean you're dismissing me...?' 'What do you think?' he said. 'And I guarantee that if I don't find Abdul I'll have you tried for treason.' Hassan didn't reply, absorbed as he was in the sores the rope had left on his wrists and meditating on the fact that a few days ago he had been in Madani's place, judging someone harshly because of that Targui who was turning into everyone's obsession. He re-evoked the long hours and days of anguish and dismay he'd spent in that cave, asking himself every moment whether the Targui really would send someone to look for him or whether he'd let him stay there to die like a dog of hunger, thirst and terror. He remembered also the way in which the Targui had clearly demonstrated his superior intelligence and how he'd found his one weak point with such little effort -how he was sure of his cooperation without having to lay a finger on him. He hated the Targui for that, but he realized he hated him above all for having been able to keep his promise of sending someone to save him. 'Why?' said Ali Madani, turning to him again as if he'd been reading his thoughts. 'Why did a man who kills so cold-bloodedly, let you go...?' 'He'd promised to.' 'And a Targui always keeps his promises, I know... But even so I find it hard to believe such a mentality exists in which it's all right to murder fourteen strangers in their sleep, but it's wrong not to keep a promise made to the enemy.' He shook his head and sat down behind the large desk, in what had been Hassan's chair. 'Sometimes I ask myself how we can possibly be living in the same country when we have so little in common...' He continued, as if talking to himself. 'It's part of the inheritance we have to thank the French for. They mixed us together like an enormous pudding and them they cut us up into little bits, dividing us just as they pleased. Now, twenty years later, here we are trying in vain to understand something about some of our own people.' 'We knew that already...' said Hassan wearily. 'We all arrived at the same conclusion but nevertheless it didn't occur to any of us to give up the part that didn't 130

belong to us and be content with a smaller, more homogenous country...' He opened and closed his hands with difficulty and suppressed an expression of pain. 'We were blinded by ambition, wanting to grasp more and more territory even though we know we wouldn't know how to govern it. That's where our policy came from: if we can't get the Bedouin to adapt to our way of thinking then we must destroy them. What would have happened if years ago the French had decided to destroy us if we refused to adapt ourselves to their way of thinking...? 'Exactly the same as what did happen in the end: we made ourselves independent... Maybe that's what the future of the Tuareg is -they'll make themselves independent from us. 'Can you imagine them independent?' 'Did the French imagine it of us, before we started to throw bombs and show we could be independent? This Gazel, or whatever he's called, has shown he can beat us. If all of these people banded together I guarantee they would throw us out of the desert. And half the world would be disposed to help them in return for oil from their land... No,' he said more positively, 'we must never let them have the chance of realizing they could turn their camels into gold-plated Cadillacs.' 'Is that why you've come?' 'That, and to put an end once and for all to Abdul-el-Kebir.'

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It was a sea of naked female bodies sprawled in the sun, with skin the color of gold, copper or sometimes oven red on the oldest peaks; gigantic bodies, with breasts sometimes over two hundred meters high, buttocks a kilometer in diameter and long, interminable, inaccessible legs through which the camels climbed sluggishly, slipping, groaning, biting, threatening every moment to give up and tumble to the bottom of the dune, never to move again and be swallowed up by the sand. The gassi, the paths between one dune and another, became a torturous labyrinth, many of them were non-existent or simply led you back to where you had started from, and it was only Gazel's incredible sense of direction and unfailing judgment that held them, day by day, always in a southerly direction without ever going back the way they'd come. Abdul-el-Kebir prided himself on how well he knew the country he had governed for so many years and he had lived right in the heart of the desert; but not even in his worst dreams could he have imagined that such a sea of dunes, such a vast expanse of sand, existed. It was an erg to which he saw no end, not even when they climbed the highest of the ghourds. Sand and wind were all that existed there on the outskirts of the 'empty land' and he failed to understand how the Targui could assure him that there was somewhere else worse than that petrified scene. They let the daylight hours go by sheltering from the wind and in the shade of an ample, yellowish colored tent which they shared with the camels; then in the early evening they started to walk again, continuing all night by moonlight and starlight, until they were surprised again by the beauty of the dawn when the shadows seemed to race from crest to crest of the saber-shaped sifs, on the 'blades' of which the grains of sand seemed to remain in place by simply hugging each other. 'How much further?' he asked on the fifth dawn, when at first sight he realized that the great 'empty' plain still wasn't in sight. 'I don't know. No one has ever come back alive from this place so the days of sand and the days of "empty land" have never been counted before.' 'We're going to our deaths then...?' 'Just because nobody's ever done it doesn't mean it can't be done.' 132

Abdul shook his head incredulously: 'I'm amazed at the faith you have in yourself. I'm beginning to be scared.' 'Fear is one's worst enemy in the desert,' was the answer. 'Fear leads to desperation and madness -and madness leads to stupidity and death.' 'Are you never scared?' 'Of the desert never. I was born here and have spent my whole life here... We've got four camels, the mares will give milk again today and tomorrow and there are no signs of harmatan. If the wind respects us, we still have hope.' 'How many days of hope?' asked Abdul. He fell asleep trying to calculate how many days of hope were left them, and how much longer he would have to suffer this martyrdom. At noon he was awoken by a distant droning sound and opened his eyes to see Gazel, outlined in the door of the tent, kneeling and looking up at the sky. 'Planes...' said Gazel, without turning round. Abdul crawled to his side and could see a small reconnaissance plane circling about five kilometers away and slowly moving towards them. 'Can they see us...? he asked. Gazel shook his head but even so he went over to the camels and hobbled them with rope, tying their back legs to their front legs so they couldn't get up. 'The noise will scare them...' he said. 'And if they bolt they'll give us away.' When he'd done that he waited for the plane to disappear on one of its circuits behind the peak of the nearest dune, and then ran out and hastily threw sand onto the most visible parts of the tent. Fifteen minutes later and without any disturbance whatsoever except for the bellowing of the animals, one of which had persistently tried to bite them, the droning noise died down and the plane became just a speck in the distance -having passed only once over their heads. Sitting in the half-light, propped against one of the camels, Gazel took a handful of dates from his leather bag and began to munch them as if nothing had happened, and as if they were in no danger whatsoever. He looked as peaceful as if he were sat at home in his own comfortable jaima. 'Can you really take power back from them if you manage to cross the frontier...? 133

he asked though he was obviously not particularly interested in the answer. 'They think so, though I'm not so sure myself. Most of my people are either dead or in prison. Others betrayed me...' He took the dates the Targui offered him. 'It won't be easy... But if I do manage it, you can ask me anything you like. I will owe it all to you.' Gazel shook his head slowly. 'You won't owe me anything. But I'll still be in your debt for the death of your companion... But as much as I do and despite the passing of the years I'll never be able to give him back the life he entrusted in me...' Abdul looked at him for a long time, trying to see behind those deep, dark eyes -the only part of his face he'd seen till then. 'I'm wondering why some lives mean so much to you, and others so little. You couldn't have done anything that day, but its memory plagues and torments you. On the other hand, having slaughtered fourteen men leaves you completely indifferent.' The Targui didn't answer. He just shrugged his shoulders and continued putting dates into his mouth behind the veil. 'Are you my friend? Abdul asked suddenly. He looked at him in surprise. 'Yes, I suppose so.' 'The Tuareg take off their veils in front of their family and friends... But you've always kept yours on so far.' Gazel thought for a few moments before slowly putting his hand up to his face and letting the veil fall so that Abdul could see his thin, strong, heavily lined features as much as he liked. Gazel smiled: 'It's just a face, like any other.' 'I imagined you to be different.' 'Different...?' 'Older, maybe... How old are you?' 'I don't know, I've never counted the years. My mother died when I was a child and only women are interested in that sort of thing. I'm not as strong as I used to be, but nor am I getting tired yet.' 'I can't imagine you ever getting tired. Have you got a family?' 'I've got a wife and four children. My first wife died.’ 134

‘I’ve got two sons and my wife died too, though they didn't tell me when.' 'How long have you been in prison for?' 'Fourteen years.' Gazel said nothing, trying to imagine what it meant to spent fourteen years of one's life in prison, but he had no idea of what it could possibly be like to be shut up for so long. 'Were you always in Fort Gerifies?' 'These years, yes. But before that I spent eight years in French prisons...' he smiled bitterly. 'When I was a young man fighting for freedom.' 'Yet despite that you want to return to the fight and the possibility of them betraying you and locking you up again?' 'I belong to a certain class of man that can only be on the top or on the bottom.' 'How long were you on the top for?' 'In power? Three and a half years.' 'It doesn't make up for it,' said the Targui, shaking his head. 'However good the power is, three and a half years of it don't make up for twenty two spent in prison. It never has. For us Tuareg freedom is always the most important thing. So important that we don't even build stone houses, because to feel the walls all around us makes us suffocate. I like to know that I can lift any wall of my tent and see the expanse of desert on the other side. And I like to watch the wind blow through the canes of the sheribas...' he paused. 'And Allah can't see us if we hide ourselves under stone roofs.' 'He sees us wherever we are, even in the darkest dungeons. He measures our sufferings and makes up for them, if they were for a just cause.' He looked at him straight in the eyes. 'And my cause is a just one.' 'Why?' 'What do you mean "why"' he said, disconcerted. 'Why is your cause any more just than theirs... You're all after power aren't you?' 'There are many ways of using power. Some use it solely for their own advantage. Others use it in order to serve society and make a better future for their country. That's what I was trying to do, and it was for that reason they couldn't charge me with any crimes and didn't dare have me shot.' 'They must have had some reason for betraying you.' 135

'I wouldn't let them steal,' he smiled. 'I wanted to form a government made up of pure men, but didn't realize then that no country has enough pure men to make a government with. Now they've all got yachts, palaces on the Riviera and Swiss bank accounts, even though when we were young and fought together we swore and oath to fight corruption in the same spirit as we were fighting the French.' He clicked his tongue as if mocking himself. 'It was a stupid oath. We could fight the French because as much as we might try we could never become French ourselves. But it's not so easy to fight corruption because it's so easy to become corrupt oneself.' He looked at Gazel closely. 'Do you know what I'm talking about?' 'I'm a Targui, not an idiot. The difference between us lies in the fact that we can see and understand your world, and keep clear of it. But you never come near our world and wouldn't understand it anyway. And because of that we'll always be superior.' Abdul-el-Kebir smiled for the first time in a long time, genuinely amused. 'Do the Tuareg really still think they're the chosen people of the gods?' Gazel pointed outside. 'Who else would have survived two thousand years on these sands? If we run out of water, I'll still be living when the worms are eating you. Isn't that proof that we're the chosen ones?' 'Possibly... and if so then it's the time to ask for all the help you can get, because what the desert hasn't managed in two thousand years, man will manage in twenty. That is to wipe you off the face of the earth -even though they know they'll never be able to build anything on your tombs.' Gazel closed his eyes, not worried overmuch by the threat or the warning. 'Nobody could destroy the Tuareg -except the Tuareg themselves. And they've been at peace with each other for years now,' He paused and without opening his eyes added: 'Now it's better if you sleep. It's going to be a long night.' And it really was a long, exhausting night: from the moment the red, shimmering sun began to fall behind the haze and crests of the dunes until the moment it reappeared on their left, rested and brilliant, flooding the same landscape of gigantic naked women with its light. They said their prayers facing Mecca and studied the horizon again. 'How much longer? said Abdul. 136

'We'll reach the plain tomorrow... Then things will really begin to get bad.' 'How do you know?' The Targui couldn't answer. It was like predicting sandstorm or an unbearable heatwave, or like having a premonition that there would be a herd of antelopes behind a dune, or like following a forgotten path without getting lost. 'I just know...' was all he said. 'Tomorrow we'll reach the plain.' 'I'll be glad of that. I've had enough of going up and down dunes and sinking into the sand.' 'You won't be glad of it. At least there's a breeze here and even if it's not much it at least helps you to breathe. The rivers of sand are formed in the windstreams. But the "empty lands" are like valleys of death where everything is still and the air is so hot it becomes thick. Your blood wants to boil and your head and lungs feel like they're bursting. That's why no animal or plant lives there. And nobody,' he emphasized his words and pointed to it with his finger, 'has ever crossed that plain.' Abdul didn't reply, struck more by the tone of the Targui's voice than by his actual words. He had got to know him now and had observed, in every one of their moments together, how well he managed everything and how nothing or nobody seemed to scare him: he was totally at his ease in the land he walked on and in the world he moved. He was a calm, distant, hermetic sort of man who always seemed to keep one ahead of any problem or danger that might occur, but now, when he spoke of the "empty land" he did so in such a tone of awe as to alarm Abdul. For any other human being, the erg they were crossing would have meant the end -madness and certain death. For the Targui it was just the 'easy' part of a journey that was soon going to become difficult. And it terrified Abdul to imagine what a man like that would call 'difficult'. Gazel, for his part, was having a fight with himself, asking himself if he wasn't overestimating his strength as well as scorning a piece of advice -or was it a law?- that had been passed down by word of mouth among the Tuareg for generations: 'Avoid Tikdabra'. Rub-al-Jali, south of the Arabian Peninsula, and Tikdabra, in the heart of the Sahara, are the most inhospitable lands on this planet; they are places reserved by the gods for the souls of the worst murderers, rapists, infanticides, and where the tormented 137

souls of those who ran away during the Holy Wars still dwell. Gazel Sayah had learned since he was a child not to take any notice of spirits, ghosts or apparitions, but he knew other 'empty lands' less famous and less terrible than Tikdabra and so had a good idea of what lay in store for them. He observed his companion. He had watched him closely since the first moment they had met -since the moment he'd seen a flash of fear in his eyes when he had told him that he had killed the guards. If he had withstood so many years of imprisonment and yet was still prepared to return to the fight, then he was a truly courageous man, with no ordinary spirit. But Gazel knew well that the fighting spirit had nothing to do with the spirit needed to confront the desert. One didn't fight the desert, because it couldn't be beaten. The desert had to be resisted, by lying to it and cheating it, in order snatch one's can life away just as it thought it had you in its clutches. In the 'empty lands' you didn't have to be a flesh and blood hero so much as a bloodless stone - because stones were the only things capable of being a part of the landscape there. And Gazel was deeply afraid that Abdul - like any other human being who hadn't been born an Imohag and hadn't been born there among the sand and rock - didn't have the least ability to turn himself into a stone. He looked at him again. He was undoubtedly a man who wasn't afraid of men, but he was overwhelmed by the solitude and silence of that sweetly aggressive world, where everything was smooth curves and quiet colors; where no animal walked, no snake or scorpion lurked, where not even a thirsty mosquito attacked at dusk... But which stank of death even though there were no smells discernible, for in that aseptic sea of dunes even the smells had disappeared a thousand years ago. Abdul was beginning to show the first signs of anxiety, weakening in front of the vast expanse of sand even though their problems hadn't even started. Already his pulse beat quickly as they climbed to the top of one of the old, red, solid ghourds to see on the other side an exact repetition of the landscape they'd already left behind a thousand and one times. Also now he started to swear when the camels threw off their loads yet again or when they fell, threatening never to get up again. And this was just the beginning. They put up the tent and at mid-morning two airplanes appeared. Gazel was glad to see them, and to see how they flew insistently over their heads 138

without spotting them, because he realized this was the incentive Abdul needed: evidence of immediate danger, of returning to prison, evidence of another kind of death, the dirty, ignoble death that was surely awaiting him should he be caught by their pursuers. And both of them knew that if they disappeared for ever into the Tikdabra 'empty land' they would immediately become a legend, like the 'great caravan' in its day, and like the heroes who never surrender. It would be a hundred years before the people who loved him would give up the hope that the mythical Abdul-el-Kebir would return from the desert -and his enemies would somehow have to come to terms with this phantom because they would never have physical, palpable proof of his death. The airplanes broke that terrible silence and filled the air with benzene which revived memories in him. When the planes had gone far enough away they went outside to watch them circling like vultures in search of their prey. 'They suspect where we're heading,' said Abdul 'Wouldn't it be better to turn back now and escape to the other side?' The Targui shook his head slowly. 'Even if they suspect our direction it doesn't mean they're going to find us. And even if they find us they'll have to come and get us. And nobody's going to do that. The desert's our only enemy now, but he's also our ally. Remember that, and forget about the rest.' But although he tried, Abdul couldn't forget the rest. In fact, he didn't really want to forget it because he'd realized that for the first time in his life he'd come across something that truly terrified him.

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The light had changed, but not the shadows for there was nothing on that white, endless plain capable of casting the slightest shadow. The last dunes died down gently, like thirsty tongues, or like long, tired waves along an interminable beach. It was a random frontier declared by Nature's whim, with no explanation as to why the dunes ended here and the plain began there. The silence was so complete that at one point Abdul heard the racing beat of his own heart and the blood throbbing in his temples. He closed his eyes in a vain effort to shut that nightmare landscape out of his mind, but it was so fixed on his retinas that he was sure it would be the vision that would remain with him in his last agony. There were no mountains, no rocks, nothing but a shallow hollow, it was like a sheet of paper on which all the books in the world could have been written. Insh-Allah! Why had God, who was capable of creating everything, wanted to make such a patent image of absolute nothingness there? Insh-Allah! It was His whim, and there was nothing for it but to accept that. He had managed to loop the loop of his own creation and make a desert within the desert. Gazel was proved right as at the end of the dunes the wind gave way to a rarefied atmosphere and in less than one hundred meters the temperature rose by fifteen degrees centigrade. It was like a buffeting of hot air in his face, urging him back to the sweet protection of the sand which until then he had imagined to be an incomparable nightmare. They started walking as the sun went down towards the horizon, but even then it didn't get cooler -as if that cursed place defied even the simplest laws of nature and its rarefied air had the power of making itself impenetrable, like a bell-jar isolating the 'empty land' from the rest of the planet. The camels let out a cry of terror as their instinct warned them that this hard, hot ground was where all roads ended. With darkness came the stars and Gazel chose one which they would have to follow constantly. Later a pale moon appeared and cast their pale shadows on the ghostly plain: perhaps the first shadows to appear there since the beginning of time. 140

The Targui went on foot with an even, mechanical step, whilst Abdul rode a young mare: the most resistant of all the camels and in who fatigue and lack of water hadn't yet begun to tell. When a milky clearness began to fade out the stars from the sky, Gazel stopped, made the animals kneel and erected the wide camel-hair awning over them. Just one hour later Abdul began to feel he was asphyxiating, that the air wasn't reaching his lungs. 'Water...' he bagged. Gazel just opened his eyes and shook his head very slowly. 'I'm going to die...' 'No.' 'I tell you I'm dying...!' 'Don't move. You must stay calm. Like the camels. Like me. Let your heart calm down and work slowly and your lungs use the minimum amount of air necessary. Don't think about anything.' 'Just a sip...' he pleaded again. 'A sip...' 'It would only make you worse. You'll drink when evening falls.' 'This evening...!' exclaimed Abdul, horrified. 'That's over eight hours away!' But he realized it was pointless to insist. He closed his eyes and tried to relax all his muscles, tried to ignore the terror he felt lodged, like something alive, in his stomach. He tried to separate his body and his mind, and leave the body resting there by itself against the camel, as he realized the Targui was doing -apparently having achieved his intention of becoming a human stone. And he contemplated himself divided in two: one part nothing more than a witness, completely outside the reality of desert thirst and heat, while the other part had become an empty shell, a human casing incapable of feeling or suffering. And without actually falling asleep his mind slipped off to distant parts, to happier, bygone times, to memories of his sons who when he'd last seen them were just children, but who now must be grown men with children of their own. Reality and fantasy became confused in his mind: as intensely vivid scenes crowded in his mind alongside apparently more authentic ones, but which were also just figments of his unbridled imagination. 141

He woke twice in a terrible anguish, still thinking he was a prisoner, only to find on waking that reality was even worse, because his jail had become the biggest ever to exist on the face of the earth. And the Targui lay there in front of him like a statue, without moving and hardly even breathing: he looked at him, trying to find out what sort of man he was and what sort of feelings he had. He was afraid of him, He was afraid of him but at the same time he was grateful to him for his freedom and respected him; he was probably the most self-assured, most upright and admirable man he'd ever met, but there was still something that stood between them. Maybe it was fourteen corpses. Or maybe it was more their racial and cultural differences. The fact, which Gazel had affirmed, that a man from the coast could never manage to really know a Targui or even accept his customs. The Tuareg were alone in Islamic communities in following faithfully the teachings of Mohammed. They proclaimed the equality of the sexes and not only had they not covered their women's faces with veils -as opposed to the men- but they let them enjoy absolute freedom up to the moment of their marriage, without having to account for their behavior either to their fathers or their future husbands -who were usually chosen for love. The Tuareg's 'fiesta of the unmarried ones' was famous throughout the Sahara: the Ahal, when young men and women got together to eat by firelight, play their onestringed anzads and dance in groups until the early hours. Then the girls would take the young men's hands and draw patterns on their palms, patterns whose significance only the Tuareg understood, and which told the young man how the girl desired to make love that night. Then each couple went off into the darkness to satisfy, on the white gandurahs laid on the soft land, the desires expressed in the patterns. For a traditional Arab, jealous of his wife-to-be's virginity or of his daughter's honor, such customs were way beyond mere scandal, and Abdul knew of countries, like Arabia and Libya, and even regions of his own country, where such behavior would be punished by stoning or by the heads of the culprits being out off. But the Imohag had always defended the rights of their women to have sex, to 142

dress as they pleased and to have a say and vote in family affairs, even since the old days of Muslim expansion when religious fanaticism had been so rigid and exacting. They were a people who, since their appearance on the face of the earth, had known how to make the best of what was offered them, and spurning whatever restricted their freedom of character, and even though he knew they were ungovernable, Abdul-elKebir would have felt proud and happy to have been their leader. The Tuareg would have understood and accepted what he had tried to offer: they would never have betrayed him or condoned other's betrayal of him, because when they swore obedience to an amenokal, that obedience lasted beyond the grave. But the men of the coast, those who had hailed him to the point of madness when he had managed to expel the French and thus offer them for the first time a homeland and a reason to feel proud of themselves, hadn't known how to keep their oath of allegiance and had hidden in the depths of their miserable shacks the moment they had sensed danger. 'What does it mean to be a socialist...?' Gazel had asked him on that first night, when they rode side by side on the swaying camels and still felt disposed to talk. 'It means to claim that justice is the same for everyone...' 'Are you socialist...? 'More or less.' 'Do you think we're all equals -Imohag and servant alike?' 'Before the law, yes, you are...' 'I'm not talking about the law, I'm talking about servants and masters being completely equal.' 'In a certain way...' he had tried to go as far as he could without getting too involved -'You Tuareg are about the last people in the whole world to still keep slaves and not be ashamed of it. It's not right.' 'I don't have slaves. I have servants.' 'Really...? And what would you do if one of them didn't want to work for you any more and ran away?' 'I'd go and find him, beat him and bring him back. He was born in my house and I gave him food, water and protection when he couldn't provide them for himself. What right has he got to forget it and go off when he doesn't need me anymore?' 143

'The right to his own freedom. Would you agree to be somebody's servant just because he fed you were a child? When is that debt paid?' 'But that's not the case. I was born an Imohag, they were born Akli -slaves.' 'And who established that the Imohag are superior to the Akli?' 'Allah. If it wasn't like that then he wouldn't have made them cowards, thieves and slaves. Nor would he have made us brave, honorable and proud.' 'My God!' he shouted, 'you would have been the most fanatical fascist...' 'What's a fascist?' 'One who claims his race is superior to all others.' 'In that case then I am a fascist.' 'You really are,' he said with conviction. 'Though I'm sure that if you knew what it really meant, you'd renounce it.' 'Why?' 'It's not the sort of thing you can explain while lurching about on the top of an apparently drunken camel... It's better if we leave it for another time.' But that time had never come and every day that passed Abdul became convinced that it would never come, as the heat, thirst and fatigue wore them out and the mere act of speaking a word required a superhuman effort. When he finally woke up completely Gazel had already taken down the tent and had retied the loads three of the camels. Gazel nodded to the fourth animal: 'We'll have to kill that one tonight.' 'But that will attract the vultures and the vultures will attract the planes. That way they'll find our tracks.' 'The vultures never come into the 'empty land',' he filled a small ladle with water and handed it to him. 'The air is too hot here.' Abdul drank thirstily and held out the ladle for more, but Gazel had closed the gerba tightly again. 'That's all for now.' 'That's all...?' said Abdul, shocked. 'I haven't even wet my throat.' Gazel pointed to the camel again. 'Tonight you'll drink his blood and eat his flesh. Tomorrow Ramadan begins...' 144

'Ramadan?' repeated Abdul in total amazement. 'Do you think that in our situation we're in any condition to respect the laws of fasting?' 'Who better than us to respect them at the moment? And what better location for our suffering?' The animals had stood up and Gazel held out his hand to help Abdul get up. 'Come on,' he begged. 'The road is long.' 'How many more days of this martyrdom are there? He shook his head firmly. 'I don't know, I give you my word I don't know. Let's just pray that Allah makes it as short as possible. But not even He can make the desert smaller. That's what I believe and that's how it will be.'

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Sergeant major Malik-el-Haideri shook his head resolutely once again. 'Nobody's going to take water from this well, or from any well for five hundred kilometers around, until I find out where Gazel Sayah's family is hiding.' The old man shrugged his shoulders impotently. 'They went away. They dismantled their camp and left. How do we know where they went?' 'You Tuareg know everything that happens in the desert. A camel doesn't die or a goat get sick without you hearing about it on the grapevine. I don't know how you do it but I know that's how it is. You take me for an idiot if you think I'm going to believe that a whole family, with its jaimas, animals, children and servants, can move from one side of the territory without anyone noticing.' 'They went away, that's all.' 'Where to?' 'I don't know.' 'You have to find out if you want water.' 'Then my animals will die, and my family too.' 'That's not my fault,' said Malik, prodding the old man's chest, almost making him reach for his dagger. 'One of your lot, a filthy murderer, has killed one of us. Soldiers who protect you from bandits, soldiers who look for water, dig wells and keep them clear of sand. Soldiers who go looking for caravans when they get lost, risking their lives in the desert...' he shook his head. 'No. You've got no right to any water, no right to live even, till I find Gazel Sayah.' 'Gazel isn't with his family.' 'How do you know?' 'Because you're searching for him in the Tikdabra 'empty land'.' 'We could be wrong. And if we don't find him, he'll have to return to his people one day or another.' He lowered his voice, trying to sound more conciliatory and convincing. 'We don't want to harm his family. We've got nothing against his wife or children. We only want him and all we're going to do is wait for him. He has to turn up sooner or later.' The old man shook his head: 'He'll never turn up. If you're around, he'll never show himself. He knows the 146

desert better than anyone,' He paused. 'And it's not right for warriors or soldiers to mix women and children up in their fighting. It's a tradition -and law- as old as the hills.' 'Listen old man...!' his voice became curt, loud and threatening again. 'I haven't come here for a lecture on morals. This godforsaken pig murdered a captain right under my nose, kidnapped the governor, cut the throats of some poor kids in their sleep and thinks he can make a fool of the whole country. And it doesn't work like that. I swear to you it doesn't work like that. Now, you have to choose...' The old man stood up and without saying a word walked away from the well. He hadn't gone five steps when Malik shouted: 'And remember that my men need to eat! We'll kill one of your camels every day and you can send the bill to the new governor at El-Akab!' The old man stopped momentarily but didn't turn round. Then he walked on to where his children and animals were waiting. Malik beckoned to a black soldier. 'Ali!' The solider ran over. 'Yes, sergeant...?' 'You're a Negro, like this idiot's slaves. He's not going to tell us anything because he's a Targui and thinks his honor will be stained forever if he talks. But the Akli are different. They like to talk and tell you what they know and one of them is sure to feel disposed to earn himself a few coins and get his master out of a jam.' He paused briefly. 'Take them some water and some food tonight and give it to them, as if it were your own. Solidarity between black brothers, that sort of thing... And try to get back with the information we need.' 'If they think I've come as a spy, the Tuareg will cut my throat.' 'But if they don't, you'll be promoted to corporal.' He stuffed a bundle of crumpled notes into his hand. 'Persuade them with this.' Malik know the Tuareg well, and knew their slaves. He'd only just fallen asleep when he heard footsteps approach his tent. 'Sergeant!' He stuck his head outside and wasn't surprised to see a black, smiling face in front of him. 147

'They've gone to the guelta in the Huaila mountains. Next to the graves of Ahmed-el-Ainin the marabout.' 'D'you know where that is?' 'No, but they told me how to get there.' 'Is it far?' 'A day and a half.' 'Tell the corporal. We'll leave at dawn.' The negro's smile broadened as he said emphatically: 'I'm a corporal now. A lance-corporal...' The sergeant smiled. 'You're right. Now you're a lance-corporal. So get busy and make sure everything's ready by dawn... And bring me my tea fifteen minutes beforehand.' 'Listen, lieutenant,' the pilot said again. 'We've flown over those dunes at less than a hundred meters altitude. We could have seen even a rat -if there was such a thing as a rat in that godforsaken place- but there was nothing. Nothing! Do you have any idea of the sort of track four camels leave in the sand? If they'd gone that way, we would have seen something.' 'Not necessarily, if it was a Targui leading the camels,' said Razman insistently. 'And even less so if it happens to be the particular Targui we're after. He wouldn't let the camels walk one behind the other leaving a trail, he’d lead them four abreast so their feet wouldn't sink into the hard sand on those dunes. And if the sand is soft, then the tracks would be swept over by the wind in less than an hour.' He paused, and the others watched him expectantly. 'The Tuareg travel by night and stop at dawn. You never take off before eight in the morning which means it's almost noon by the time you reach the erg... In those four hours any tracks left in the sand would have disappeared.' 'And what about them...? Four camels and two men. Where are they hiding...?' 'Oh come on captain...!' he exclaimed, opening his arms. 'You've flown over those dunes every day. Hundreds, thousands... maybe millions of dunes! Are you telling me that a whole army isn't capable of camouflaging themselves there? A hollow, a light colored cloth with a bit of sand on it and you're laughing...' 'OK, agreed...' said the pilot. 'I agree totally. What do you want to do then? Shall 148

we carry on looking, wasting time and petrol? We won't find them,' he said insistently. 'We'll never find them.' Razman went over the large map on the hangar wall and tried to calm the two men down. 'No...' he said. 'I don't want you to go back to the erg. Just take me right into the 'empty land'. If my calculations are right, they must be in the plain by now... Can you land here?' The two pilots looked at each other and it was clear they didn't like the idea. 'Do you have any idea what the temperature is on that plain?' 'Of course. The sand can reach eighty degrees centigrade at noon.' 'And do you know what that means for airplanes as old and in such a lousy state as ours? Problems with motor cooling, turbulence, unexpected and uncontrollable airpockets and, above all, ignition... Of course we can land, but we would run the risk or never being able to take off again. Or of exploding as soon as we tried to make contact.' He waved his hand to show there was to be no argument. 'I refuse.' It was obvious that his companion shared the same point of view. Nevertheless, Razman kept on insisting: 'Even if the order came from above...?' He lowered his voice instinctively. 'Do you know who we're looking for?' 'Yes.' said the talkative one. 'We've heard rumors. But they're politicians' problems -and they shouldn't mess the military up in them.' He paused and pointed to the map. 'If they ordered me to land anywhere in the desert because we were at war or the enemy had invaded us, I'd land there without a moment's hesitation. But I'm not going to do it to hung down Abdul-el-Kebir -because I know Abdul-el-Kebir would never have asked me to do such a thing himself...' Lieutenant Razman stiffened, and without being able to help it glanced automatically at the mechanics struggling to get the planes ready at the other end of the huge hangar. He lowered his voice again and warned them: 'What you've just said is highly dangerous.' 'I know,' said the pilot. 'But I think that the time's coming, after all these years, when we'll have to say what we really think. If you lot don't catch Abdul-el-Kebir in Tikdabra -and I don't think you have much chance- then he'll be back here very soon and 149

everyone will have to make it clear where he stands.' 'It seems you're glad not to have found him.' 'My mission was to look for him, and I looked for him as best I could. It's not my fault we didn't find him. Deep down it scares me to think what might happen. Abdul at large means the division of the country, riots and maybe even civil war. No one wants that for his own people.' When Razman left the hangar to return to his billet, the pilot's words echoed in his mind -now that the possibility of what they all feared, civil war, had actually been mentioned. The confrontation between two factions of the nation divided by just one man: Abdul-el-Kebir. After a century of colonialism his people were not split into clearly defined social classes -very rich rich and very poor poor- and didn't yet correspond to the classical model of developed countries: capitalism on one side and the proletariat on the other, both ending by facing death in a relentless fight for the supremacy of their ideals. For them, with seventy percent illiteracy and a long tradition of subjection, the charisma of individual men was still the most important thing: their ability to draw people and the echo their words made in the depths of their follower's hearts. And in that, Razman knew Abdul-el-Kebir was way ahead. Thanks to his noble, honest face, which inspired confidence, and a clever tongue, the people had followed him blindly after he kept his promise of leading them out of colonialism to freedom. He fell onto the bed and gazed vacantly at the old fan which despite its efforts did nothing to cool the room. He asked himself what his own position would be when the time came to choose. He remembered the Abdul-el-Kebir who had been the hero of his youth, whose portrait had covered the walls of his room, and then he remembered governor Hassanben-Koufra and all his cronies, and realized that his decision had been taken long, long ago. Then he thought about the Targui: that strange man who had defied thirst and death and who had outwitted him so neatly; he tried to guess where he was at that moment and what he would be doing, and of what he and Abdul talked about when they fell down exhausted after a night's walking. 'I don't know why I'm pursuing them,' he said to himself, 'if, deep down, I'd like 150

to be escaping with them...'

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They had drunk the camel's blood and eaten its meat. Gazel felt in excellent spirits, strong and full of energy to face the 'empty land' fearlessly. But he was worried by the silence into which his companion had sunk, by the terror and desperation he read in his eyes each time a new day dawned to cry out to them that the landscape still hadn't changed. 'It's not possible!' was the last thing he'd heard him say. 'It's just not possible.' He had had to help him dismount the camel and drag him into the shade, give him water and rest his head in his arm like a frightened child. And he asked himself what strange spell the great plain had over him. 'He's an old man,' he kept telling himself. 'A man prematurely aged by all these years locked up within four walls. And now everything, except thought, requires a superhuman effort from him' How could he break it to him that the true difficulties hadn't yet begun? There was still water, and three camels to steal blood from. There were still a few days before those strange, brilliant lights would begin shining at the back of their eyes like a thousand suns -the surest symptom that dehydration had set in. The road was very long and not only demanded enormous willpower and an invincible spirit of survival, but offered no hope of success in exchange. 'Avoid Tikdabra!' He had no recollection of when he'd first heard that warning -maybe it was in his mother's womb- yet now here he was right in the heart of Tikdabra dragging with him a man who was rapidly turning into a shadow; but he was convinced that alone he could have beaten the 'empty land' with the help of those four camels. He would have been the first to do it and his fame would have spread from end to end of the desert, like an oral legend. But he was dragging an unbearable load with him, like one of those chains some masters tied to the ankles of rebellious slaves, and with that extra weight -a wreck of a man, beaten in less than a week- neither he nor any Targui in the desert was going to get anywhere. He was afraid the moment was approaching when he would have to choose: either to shoot him, put an end to his suffering and give himself a chance, or carry on together to the bitter end, and suffer the most fearful of deaths. 'It'll be he himself who asks me to kill him,' he said to himself. 'When he can't go 152

any further he'll beg me and I'll have to do it...' His only hope was that by then it wouldn't be too late. If his guest asked him voluntarily to kill him then he was within his rights to do so -and from that moment on he'd be free from responsibility and free to try to save himself. 'Five days...' he worked it out. 'In five days I'll still be in a condition to try it by myself. But if he keeps going any longer than that it'll be too late for us both...' He realized the difficulty of his position. On the one hand he had to try to keep his companion together, to feed his hopes and do everything humanly possible to save him. But on the other hand he was afraid that every hour and every day he prolonged Abdul's life meant one hour or one day less in which he had to save his own. Abdul, because of his condition and unaccustomedness, needed three times as much water as the Targui. That meant that in the moment of truth, the Targui would, if he were by himself, quadruple his chances of survival. Gazel watched him as he slept, his mouth wide open as if continually gasping for the air that refused to enter his lungs, and occasionally mumbling. He'd be doing him a favor if he prolonged that sleep into an eternal one, sparing him all the terror and hardship of the coming days, letting him die while he could still sleep peacefully with the tiny illusion in his heart that he was still free and with the slight hope that they would manage to cross the border. What border? It had to be there somewhere in front of them -or maybe even behind them nowbut there was no one in the world to point it out to them. The Tikdabra 'empty land' was incapable of tolerating a simple human presence, let alone a frontier. The 'empty land' was the frontier itself. The frontier between countries, between regions, between life and death. 'She' had imposed herself on man as a natural frontier and Gazel realized that in one sense he loved the 'empty land' because of the fact he found himself there of his own will and because he was the first human being since the beginning of time to consciously try and defy the 'desert of deserts'. 'I'm sure I can beat you...' were the last words he mumbled before falling into a deep sleep. 'I'm sure I can beat you and put an end to your legend...' But while he slept a voice kept repeating monotonously in his mind, 'avoid 153

Tikdabra!' until the figure of Laila appeared in the shadows, came to wipe his brow, give him cool water from the deepest well and sing to him as she had sung that night of the Abal, when she had traced strange patterns on the palms of his hands. Patterns which only the Tuareg knew the meaning of. Laila! 'Laila!' She stopped in her task of grinding the millet and looked up with her dark eyes to see the wrinkled face of old Suilem, who was pointing to the peak that looked down on the guelta. 'Soldiers.' was all he said. There were soldiers, indeed, and they came down from all sides with their guns at the ready, as if preparing to attack a dangerous enemy enclave rather than a wretched nomad camp full of women, children and old men. One glance was enough for her to understand the situation, and she turned to the Negro and said in a voice that left no room for argument: 'Hide yourself! Your master must know what happens!' The old man hesitated but a few seconds before obeying. He slipped swiftly between the jaimas and sheribas and disappeared as if swallowed by the reeds around the lake. Then Laila called her husband's children, the women and the servants all together, took the baby in her arms and waited, arrogant and resolute, until the man who seemed to be in command stood before her. 'What are you looking for in my camp?' she said, although she knew only too well. 'Gazel Sayah. Do you know him?' 'He is my husband. But he is not here.' Sergeant Malik contemplated with great pleasure the beautiful, arrogant, defiant Targui, whose face was not hidden by any veil, and whose arms, strong legs or the rise of her young breasts were not covered by any heavy robes. It was many years -since, in fact, he'd arrived in the desert- since the sergeant had been so close to such a woman and he had to make a great effort to forget his thoughts about her and reply, with a slight 154

smile: 'I already know he's not here. He's far away, in Tikdabra.' She felt a shudder of hearing the feared name but fought to dissimulate it: no one must ever be allowed to say they saw a Targui woman afraid. 'If you know where he is, why have you come here?' 'To protect you... Your husband has become a dangerous criminal and the authorities are scared that the angry mob will attack you.' Laila almost burst out laughing at the impudence of the man, and pointed to the desert all around them. 'The mob?' she repeated. 'What mob? There's not a soul for two days' walk in any direction.' Malik smiled like a tame rabbit, happy and amused for the first time in ages. 'News flies in the desert, you know. They'll be here soon and we must avoid any incidents that could spark off a tribal war... So you'll come with us.' 'And if I refuse?' 'You'll still come, only we'll have to force you.' He looked around at everyone present. 'Are they all here...?' She nodded and he gave a wave of his arm. 'Good. Let's get moving them!' Laila pointed to everything around her. 'We must take the camp with us.' 'The camp stays here... My men will remain, waiting for your husband.' Laila seemed to lose her composure for the first time and in her voice there was a trace of imploring. 'But it's all we have!' Malik laughed contemptuously. 'It's not much, then... But where you're going you won't even need that much.' He paused. 'Understand that I can't go round the desert loaded down with pots, blankets and carpets like some tinker.' He signaled to one of his men. 'Get them moving! Ali! You stay here with four men -and you don't need to be told now what to do if that Targui turns up.' Fifteen minutes later Laila turned to look down on the water of the guelta in the hollow below, and beside it her jaimas, sheribas and goat pens and the corner near the reeds where the camels grazed. That and a man was all she possessed in this life apart 155

from the baby in her arms, and a sudden fear overcame her that she would never see her home or her husband again. She turned to Malik, who had stopped beside her: 'What is it you really want with us? I've never seen you use women, children and old men before in your fighting... Is your army so weak that you need to use us in your fight with Gazel?' 'He's got someone we want,' was the answer. 'But now we've got something he wants... We're using his methods -and you can be thankful we didn't cut anyone's throat while they were asleep. We're offering him an exchange: one man for a whole family.' 'If that man was his guest, he can't accept. Our law forbids it.' 'Your law doesn't exist!' said Malik as he sat down on a rock and lit a cigarette. The column of soldiers and hostages began to descend the other side of the rocky hill, to the level ground where the vehicles were waiting. 'Your law, made by the Tuareg for the convenience and exclusive use of the Tuareg, doesn't have any validity in national law.' He blew a cloud of smoke into the woman's face. 'You can't do what he's done and hide behind the fact that your tradition permits it and that the desert is very big. He didn't want to understand that, so now we're going to have to explain it to him with a little force. He'll come back one day and on that day he'll have to accept his responsibilities. If he wants to see his wife and children go free, he'll have to give himself up for trial.' 'He'll never give himself up.' said Laila with conviction. 'In that case, you'd better get used to the idea that you'll never be free again.' She didn't answer but gave a long, last look at that part of the reps where she knew old Suilem was hiding, and then, as if turning her back for ever on her past, she span round and followed her family down the rocky slope. Malik-el-Haideri finished his cigarette and watched -visibly affected- the gentle swaying of the woman's hips. Then stubbing his cigarette out angrily on the stone, he got up and went down after her.

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When he saw it, with the first light of day, he thought his eyes were playing him tricks. But as he got closer he was sure there was something, what, exactly, he didn't know, sticking out of the sand on the flat plain. It started to get hot and he realized it was time to stop and erect the tent before the mare, which had been stumbling since midnight, collapsed completely. But his curiosity was too strong and he forced the animals to make a last effort before stopping a kilometer away from the strange object. He spread the canvas over the animals and the man who was now just a dead weight, checked that everything was in order and set off, walking slowly -forcing himself to take it easy and not squander what little strength he had left by breaking into a run, as he wanted to, in order to get there as quickly as possible. From two hundred meters away there was no doubt about it: there, a white stain outlined against the white sand, was the mummified and almost intact -thanks to the dryness of the atmosphere- skeleton of a harnessed camel. He studied it from close up. Its enormous teeth were set in the sad smile of death, its eyes had gone from its sockets and a few breaks in the skin allowed him to see its totally empty insides. It was kneeling with its neck stretched out along the sand, pointing to the northeast, the same direction as Gazel had come from. When camels died of thirst, they always died looking towards their point of destination, as a final hope. That meant it had been coming from the south-west. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It was the skeleton of a mehari, something to break the monotony of the landscape he'd borne with him for days on end. But if it had died there, it meant that there was no water where it had come from. His lame camel was about to die, less than a kilometer away, pointing in the opposite direction. It would be mummified too and they would both stare at each other, without seeing, two camel corpses marking the middle of the road. In death they would unite the north of the Tikdabra empty land with the south -the limits to the strength of the poor desert animals. What hope was there for him then, with two exhausted wraiths for camels and a man who had given in and who could only just be kept alive with an effort. He didn't want to think of the answer, which was obvious. Instead the wondered 157

who the owner of the white mehari could have been, and where he now was. He examined the skin and the bits of exposed skull. Anywhere else in the desert he would have been able to guess how long the animal had been dead, but there, with such heat and dryness, in a land where not one drop of water had ever fallen and where no being had ever survived, he might as well be dealing with an animal three years dead or a hundred years dead. It was a mummy, and Gazel didn't know much about mummies. He felt the heat begin to be insufferable and retraced his steps. He was relieved to reach the shade again, and on entering looked at Abdul closely; he was gasping, hardly able to breath regularly. He cut the animal's throat and gave Abdul the blood to drink as well as the rest of the already putrefied stomach liquid -hardly six fingers full in the old tin saucepan. It was fortunate he didn't regain consciousness because if so there would have been no way to make him swallow the disgusting liquid- and Gazel asked himself seriously if maybe he wasn't killing him by making him drink it, as he wasn't accustomed, like the Targui, to drink water that was often putrid. 'He might just as well die of this as of thirst,' he reflected. 'And if he can bear it, it will help him to keep going.' Later, he lay down to sleep; but unlike every other morning, after the long night's journey, he couldn't fall asleep instantly. He was obsessed by that skeleton, so dreadfully alone there in the heart of the plain, and he tried to imagine the crazy Targui who had braved Tikdabra, coming from Gao or Timbuktu in the south in search of the oases of the north. The camel was still harnessed but had lost its saddle and its load; that meant that its master had died before it had and the animal had continued alone in a vain attempt to save itself. Bedouins and Targuis always freed their animals of the tackle and harness when they were about to die, as a sign of respect and gratitude for its faithful service. If this camel's owner hadn't done so, it was undoubtedly because he hadn't been able to. He expected to find the man's corpse later that night or the following day; the sockets of his eyes would also be looking to the northeast, in search of an end to that interminable plain. But there wasn't a corpse. There were hundreds. He stumbled over them in the dark. He could just make out their shapes in the fantastic half-light of a new moon, and 158

on the following morning he found himself surrounded by an uncountable number of men and animals, scattered about until they were lost in the distance. At that moment Gazel Sayah, inmouchar of the Kel-Talgimus, known among his people as 'the hunter', realized he was the first person ever to find the remains of the 'great caravan'. Shreds of clothing still half-covered the bodies of guides and leaders, many of whom still grasped their guns or empty gerbas. On the camels' humps were sun-faded Tuareg saddles with gold and silver trappings, and their large packs of merchandise had been split open by time and the precious contents had spilled out onto the sand. Elephant tusks, ebony statuettes, silks which disintegrated on touch, coins of silver and gold and, in the bag of what were probably the richest merchants, diamonds the size of chick-peas. This was the legendary great caravan: the old dream of all the dreamers in the desert; a thousand and one riches which not even Shahrazad would have dared imagine. Gazel didn't feel the least pleasure at his discovery, but a profound uneasiness and anguish, because looking at the mummies of those poor people, with their expressions of terror and suffering, was like looking at himself in ten, twenty, a hundred or a million years time, when his skin too would have turned to parchment and his eye-sockets would be staring emptily into space and his mouth set wide open in his last groan in search of water. And he cried for them. For the first time he could remember, Gazel Sayah cried for someone. He realized it was absurd and stupid to cry for people who had died so long ago, but seeing them there before him and imagining the enormous hopelessness of their last hours, broke his strength of mind. He set up his camp among the dead and sat down to contemplate them, wondering which one might be Gazel, his uncle, the warrior-adventurer who had been hired to protect the caravan from bandits and ambushes, but who had been unable to protect it from its real enemy: the desert. He spent the day keeping the dead company -the first company they'd had since death- and asked their spirits, which he supposed to be wandering eternally there, to help him escape such a tragic fate and show him the route they'd failed to find in their own lives. And the dead spoke to him with their tongueless mouths, their empty eye-sockets 159

and their bony hands dug into the sand. They couldn't tell him the right way, but the long unending row of mummies fading into the southwest called out to him that the way they had come -in other words, the way he was heading- was wrong and led to nothing but days and days of solitude and thirst, with no possible hope of success. There remained only one hope, therefore: to turn to the east and veer south again later, and trust that in this direction the end of the 'empty land' might be found sooner. Gazel knew Targui guides well and knew that when one of them went off course, he persisted in his error to the bitter end, because the fact of going off course meant that he'd lost all notion of distance, space and his situation, so there was nothing else to do but press on, trusting that his instinct would lead him to water and safety. Tuareg guides hated to change direction if they weren't exactly sure of the route, because the centuriesold lore of the desert teaches that there's nothing so wearying or demoralizing as wandering from one end to another without a concrete destination. It followed then that when the guide of the 'great caravan' had suddenly found himself, for some reason which now no one would ever know, immersed in the unknown world of the 'empty land', he had been obliged to carry on and hope Allah would make the road shorter than it really was. And now there he was, dried up in the sun and teaching Gazel a lesson, which Gazel accepted. Evening fell and when the sun had stopped raging he left the shade of his tent and filled his bag with gold coins and fat diamonds. Not for one moment did he feel he was stripping the dead of their belongings. According to the unwritten law of the desert, everything there belonged to whoever found it; the souls who had ensured Paradise found all the riches there they desired and so had no further need of their earthly belongings, and the accursed souls who, for their wickedness, were barred entry, had no right to wander for eternity with their pockets full. Later, he divided the last remaining water between Abdul, who didn't even open his eyes to enjoy it, and the youngest of the camels, the only one capable of lasting a few more days. He drank the blood of the last animal he'd killed, tied the old man onto the saddle of the young camel, and got ready to resume the march; now they would leave behind even the canvas they used for shade, which was now a useless weight as Gazel had decided they weren't going to stop again, either by day or night, and their only hope 160

of salvation lay in his and the camel's ability to keep walking until they got out of that hellHe said his prayers -praying for Abdul, himself and for the dead- gave a last glance at the army of mummies and set off on the new route leading the camel by its halter. The animal followed without a murmur, knowing that its only hope of salvation lay in placing a blind trust in the man in front of him. Gazel didn't know if that was the longest or the shortest night of his life, because his legs moved like an automata's and his superhuman willpower turned him once again into a stone; but this time he was one of these 'walking stones' talked of in the desert: heavy rocks that moved mysteriously across the plain, leaving wide furrows behind them, without anyone knowing whether they were moved by magnetic forces, pushed by eternally condemned sprits or simply transported in one of Allah's whims.

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Captain Abdul Osman opened his eyes and straightway cursed his luck. The sun had just risen a quarter over the horizon and was already heating up the earth -or, rather, the hard, white, almost petrified sand of the plain. That torturous plain in which they'd spent the last six days, camping out and suffering the most unbearable heat either had experienced in thirteen years service in the desert. He turned and lifted his head slightly to look at fat Kader, who was still asleep and snorting uneasily, as if fighting to stay in the world of his dreams, refusing to return to the godawful reality around them. Their orders had been crystal clear: 'stay at that point watching the 'empty land' until we send someone to get you. That might be tomorrow, next month or next year... But if you move from there, you'll both be shot.' There was a well nearby whose dirty, stinking water gave them continual diarrhea, and some hunting where the 'empty land' ended and the high plateau of the hamada began, with its rocks, bushes and dried up river beds which thousands of years earlier must have rushed down to the distant Niger or the even more distant Chad. Good soldiers - and it was assumed that that's what they were- were expected to survive in such conditions for as long as was necessary. That they might go mad in that solitude and in such unbearable heat hadn't entered into the calculations of whoever had given the orders -and it was certain that whoever it was had no knowledge, not even from afar, of life in the Sahara. The day's first drop of sweat ran down his thick mustache, down his neck and into the hair on his cheat. He pulled himself up reluctantly and stayed sitting on the dirty blanket as he ran his half-closed eyes over the white plain. Suddenly his heart missed a beat. He reached for the field-glasses and focused on a point almost directly in front of him. Then he shouted urgently: 'Kader...! Kader! Wake up you damned son of a bitch?' Big, fat Mohammed Kader opened his eyes grudgingly, but without taking offense; after so many years of living with Abdel he was used to not hearing his name pronounced except with an inevitable but affectionate insult attached. 'What...? What the fuck's going on...?' 'Have a look and tell me what that is...' He handed the field-glasses to Kader, who leaned on one elbow and focused on 162

the point where the corporal was pointing to. He said calmly: 'A man and a camel.' 'Are you sure?' 'Positive.' 'Are they dead?' 'Looks like it...' Corporal Abdel Osman leaped up and clambered onto the back of the jeep, leaning the binoculars on the machine gun, and studied the object again, trying to stop himself from shaking. 'You're right...' he said at last. 'A man and a camel.' He paused as he scanned the area. 'The other one's not there.' 'Doesn't surprise me...' said the fat one, as he picked up the blankets they'd slept on and the stove which they used for cooking and making tea. 'What surprises me is that 'he' got his far.' Osman stared at him and said hesitantly: 'And now what do we do?' 'Go and get him, I suppose...' 'That Targui is dangerous. Fucking dangerous.' Kader, who had finished putting everything into the jeep, pointed to the machine gun on which Osman was leaning and said: 'You point that thing and I'll drive. If he moves, let him have it.' Osman hesitated a moment before agreeing. 'At least it's better than sitting here waiting... If he really is dead, we can get the hell out of here today. Come on!' He cocked the gun as Kader started the motor and they drove slowly off in the direction of the two bodies. Three hundred meters away Kader stopped, looked around him carefully and took the field glasses, while the corporal didn't let the reclining figure out of his sights. 'It's the Targui, no doubt about it,' said Kader. 'Is he dead?' 'I can't tell if he's breathing or not, it's hard to tell with all those clothes he's wearing. The camel's dead, it's started to swell already...' 163

'Shall I plug the bastard from here?' Mohammed Kader shook his head. The corporal was senior to him in rank but he was undoubtedly the more intelligent of the two, apart from the fact that his coldbloodedness -or was it his laziness- was famous in the regiment. 'It would be better if we took him alive. He could tell us what happened to Abdulel-Kebir, and the Commandant would like that...' 'Maybe he'll promote us.' 'Maybe,' said the private dubiously -he wasn't interested in being promoted to having greater duties. 'Or maybe he'll give us a month's leave in El-Akab.' The corporal seemed to become more determined. 'Right...! Let's close in!' At fifty meters they could see there was no weapon lying next to the Targui's body, and that his hands were, open and empty. He had collapsed about ten meters away from the camel as if he'd been trying to go on when his strength had finally left him altogether. At last they came to a halt, less than seven meters away and all the time kept the machine-gun aimed at the Targui's chest. At the slightest movement, Osman was ready to riddle him with bullets. Kader took a submachine gun from the rack, jumped down, and going round behind the camel so as not to cross Osman's line of fire, went up to the Targui. His turban had slipped down until it almost met the dirty veil. He dug the barrel of his gun into the man's stomach, but he didn't move or make a sound. He hit him with the butt, and finally knelt down and listened to his heart beat. From behind the machine gun the corporal became impatient: 'What's happening? Is he alive or dead?' 'More dead than alive... He's only just breathing and seems completely dehydrated. If we don't give him water he won't last more than five or six hours.' 'Search him.' He did so, thoroughly. 'No weapons...' He stopped to open a small leather bag and let a cascade on coins and diamonds fall onto the sand. 'Fucking hell...!' Corporal Osman jumped down from the jeep and in two strides was at Mohammed's side. He bent down to pick up the handful of fat stones and coins that rolled 164

on the ground. 'What's this? The son of a bitch is a millionaire! A bloody millionaire...!' Kader lay the gun down and put everything back in the bag. Without lifting his head he said: 'Yeah... And only he knows it...' he paused. 'And now we do too.' 'What do you mean?' He looked him straight in the eyes. 'Don't be stupid! If we take him back alive they'll give us a month's leave, and as soon as he recovers he'll demand his money back and the Commandant won't waste a minute in finding out who's got it.' He paused. 'But what would have happened if we'd found him just a few hours later?' 'Are you capable of letting a guy die like that?' 'We'll be doing him a favor,' he retorted. 'What d'you think's going to happen when they get their hands on him, after all he's done? They'll beat shit out of him, give him a hell of a time and then probably hang him, won't they?' 'That's nothing to do with me. I'm just doing my duty.' He reached down and pulled the veil away from the unconscious man's face. 'Look at him. Are you going to murder him...?' Although he didn't want to, Kader couldn't stop himself looking at the gaunt face covered with scabs and wrinkles, with a shaggy white beard that made him seem older. He tried to look away but something drew his attention and he cried suddenly: 'That guy can't be the Targui...! It's Abdul-el-Kebir! Sensing danger, he grabbed his gun but at that very same moment two shots -only two- were heard and corporal Osman and private Kader leaped into the air and if hit by and invisible hand, and fell flat on their faces, the first on top of Abdul-el-Kebir, the other onto the sand. For a few seconds everything was quiet. The corporal turned his head slowly, saw his friend's face with a neat red hole in its forehead, and felt a sharp pain in his chest and stomach. Even so, with a great effort he rolled over to face the sky, then propped himself up laboriously to see who had fired the shots. There was no one. The plain was as endless, desolate and solid as ever, offering no cover whatever to a sniper. Then before his very eyes -which were beginning to cloud 165

over slowly- he appeared, half-naked and covered in blood, like something from another world. The dead, swollen camel had just given birth to a tall, powerful man with a gun in his hand. He crossed round to their side of the animal and after a quick glance to check the corporal was not dangerous, he kicked Kader's gun away and ran to the jeep to search anxiously for a canteen of water. He drank without stopping, and without taking his eyes off the wounded corporal. He drank and drank, gulping and choking, letting the water run down his neck and chest, drinking as if he hadn't drunk for years. Finally, after he'd drank all of it, he belched, and leaned against the spare wheel for a moment to get his breath back after the enormous effort. Then he took another canteen over to Abdul-el-Kebir; he raised his head and made him swallow as best he could, though more water was spilled down his neck than actually went down his throat. Then he splashed his face before turning to Osman: 'Do you want water...?' The corporal nodded. Gazel took him by the shoulders and dragged him into the shade of the jeep, and propped him up. He held the canteen for him to drink from and examined the wound in his chest. Blood gushed from it and he shook his head: 'I think you're going to die...' he said. 'You need a doctor and there's none.' Osman nodded and asked wearily: 'You're Gazel aren't you? I should have remembered, and remembered that old hunter's trick. But what with the clothes, the turban and the veil, I got taken in...' 'That was my plan.' 'How did you know we would come?' 'I saw you at first light, and had time to get everything ready.' 'You killed the camel?' 'He would have died anyway.' The corporal coughed and a thread of blood escaped from the corner of his mouth; he closed his eyes for a moment in a gesture of profound pain and defeat. When he opened them again he pointed to the bag which still lay at Kader's side. 'Did you find the "great caravan"?' He nodded and pointed behind him. 166

'There. Three days away.' The other shook his head, as if he found it hard to believe or as if marveling at the fact that it really did exist. He didn't say anything else, and ten minutes later he was dead. Gazel didn't move. He squatted there before him, respectful of his last agony, and only when Osman's head sank finally onto his chest did he stand up. Then, with the remains of his strength, he dragged Abdul into the back of the jeep. He rested for a while after the extreme effort, then stripped Abdul of his clothes and turban and got dressed. After that he felt exhausted. He drank again before lying down in the shade, next to Osman's corpse and falling asleep immediately. Three hours later he was woken by the fluttering of the first vultures. Some had already penetrated to the camel's entrails and others were making timid approaches to Kader's body. He looked at the sky. The birds of prey had arrived in their dozens, for they were on the very edge of the empty land and they appeared as if by magic, emerging from the shrubs and bushes of the hamada nearby. They worried him. Vultures wheeling in the air were visible for kilometers around, and he had no idea how far away the next patrol was. He examined the sand. It was hard, and even though there were picks and shovels in the jeep he felt in no condition to dig a ditch deep enough for the camel and the two men. Then he scrutinized Abdul's face; he was breathing better but still a long way from regaining consciousness. He gave him more water and checked the supplies: two full drums of water, a drum of petrol and plenty of food. He thought for a long time. He had to get away from there as quickly as possible, but he had no idea how to work the jeep, which in his hands was just a heap of scrap metal. He struggled to remember. Lieutenant Razman had driven a vehicle exactly like this one, and he had been intrigued by the way he had pulled the steering wheel this way and that, the way he's kept pressing the pedals on the floor and moving a lever with a black knob on it on his right. He got into the driver's seat and imitated every one of the lieutenant's movements, 167

turning the wheel, pressing firmly every one of the pedals -the accelerator, the clutch and the brake- trying to move the black ball from one side to the other. But the motor remained completely quiet. Not a sound. And then he realized that all those movements were to do with driving the car, but first you had to start it. He bent down and examined carefully all the levers, buttons, keys and dials on the dashboard. He pressed the horn, which frightened the vultures, managed to spray water onto the windscreen and immediately wipe it off again with two waving arms -he tried everything but without hearing the longed-for rumble of the engine. Finally he saw a key in a look. He pulled it out. Nothing happened. He put it back in again, with the same result. Then he turned the key and the mechanical monster stirred, coughed three times, shook itself violently and then fell silent again. His eyes brightened when he realized he was on the right road. He now turned the key with one hand while with the other he heaved the steering wheel from side to side like a madman, with the same result: a few coughs, a shake and silence. He tried the key and the lever together. Nothing. The key and the pedal. Nothing. The key and the pedal on the right, and the motor screamed, over-accelerated, but didn't die again as he let his foot slowly out and listened, with great satisfaction, to its gentle purringHe carried on experimenting, with the brake, the clutch, the accelerator, the gearstick, the handbrake, the light-switches... and finally, when he was almost desperate, the jeep leaped forward, its back wheels running over corporal Osman's body, and came to a halt three meters away. The vultures flapped angrily. He tried again and got another two meters further. He kept trying until evening and when he finally decided to give up he was still no more than a hundred meters away from the corpses and the vultures. He ate a soup made with biscuits, honey and water and got Abdul to swallow some, and when night had only just fallen he curled up on one of the blankets on the ground and fell into a deep sleep. This time it wasn't vultures, but hyenas and jackals fighting over the carrion that 168

woke him in the early hours of the morning, and for several minutes he lay listening to the quarreling, the breaking of the bones under the powerful jaws and the ripping sound of the flesh being torn from its roots. Gazel hated hyenas. He detested vultures and jackals, but towards hyenas he had felt an uncontrollable aversion since one morning, when he was still a boy, he found a new-born kid-goat and its mother devoured by one. They were repulsive, stinking animals, cowardly, treacherous and cruel; and if enough of them got together they were capable of attacking an unarmed man. Why Allah had put them on this earth was one of the questions he often asked himself, but he never found the answer. He went over to Abdul who was sleeping deeply and now breathing normally. He gave him more water and sat down to wait for the dawn, meditating on the fact that he, Gazel Sayah, would become part of desert history, and legend, as the first man to have conquered the Tikdabra 'empty land'. And maybe it would be known one day that it was he who had also found the 'great caravan'. The 'great caravan'! If only the guides had turned slightly south, it would have been enough to save them. But Allah had not wanted it like that and only He knew for what terrible sins he'd punished those men with such an awful fate. He gave man life and He took it away, and the only thing to do was to accept the fact calmly and be grateful that on this occasion He had been merciful and allowed him to save his guest's life and his own. Insh-Allah! Now he supposed he was in another country and out of danger, but the soldiers still seemed to be his enemies and the persecution hadn't stopped. And there was no way of escape. The last camel was being devoured by the carrion beasts and it would be days before Abdul-el-Kebir could walk. Only that dead lump of metal could get them out of danger, and he felt a great anger swell inside him at his great ignorance and impotence. Simple soldiers, the dirtiest Bedouins and even freed Negro Aklis who had spent a few months with the French could make a vehicle much bigger and loaded with cement go further than he, Gazel Sayah , renowned for his intelligence, bravery and cunning, could move that jeep. He felt like a stupid child faced with the tortuously complicated 169

and impenetrable machine. Objects, things, had always been his enemies. He loathed them and had reduced the number he needed for his nomadic life to no more than two dozen of the most essential ones . He rejected them instinctively and for him as a free man and lone hunter, his guns, his gerba for water and his saddle and harness were enough. During the days he had spent in El-Akab waiting for the right moment to seize the governor he had suddenly been faced with a totally new and unsettling world in which he saw true Tuareg, formerly as austere as himself, seemingly corrupted by material belongings, things which in earlier days they’d neither heard of nor needed, but which now seemed as indispensable to them as water or the air that they breathed. The dawn drove away the jackals and hyenas, but the vultures still came in their dozens, infesting the sky with their death-wheeling, tearing with their strong beaks the flesh of two men and a camel who only twenty-four rejected them instinctively and for him as a free man and lone hunter, his guns, his gerba for water and his saddle and harness, were enough. During the days spent in El-Akab waiting for the right moment to seize the governor, which he saw true Tuareg, formerly as austere as himself, seemingly corrupted by material belongings -things which in earlier days they'd neither heard of nor needed, but which now seemed as indispensable to them as water or the air they breathed. And from what the could see the most pressing of all these needs was the car, the ability to be transported from one end to another with no apparent reason. The young nomads now would no longer be able to enjoy, like their fathers, vast journeys of days and weeks spent walking patiently and calmly across the plain, always knowing that at the end of their road their destination would be waiting, and would still be waiting centuries from now. Now, by a strange twist of fate, there was Gazel Sayah, the man who hated and despised machines, who was repulsed by every kind of mechanized vehicle, groveling at the feet of a machine on which his and his guest's live depended. He cursed his ignorance and the fact that he couldn't make it go just by kicking it, and take them across the plain to the freedom that was now within their grasp. The dawn drove away the jackals and hyenas, but the vultures still came in their dozens, infesting the sky with their death-wheeling, tearing with their strong beaks the flesh of two men and a camel who only twenty-four hours earlier had abounded with life, 170

and squawking to the world that there, right at the very edge of the 'empty land', the human beings had once again unleashed a tragedy.

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'It was around this time, when everyone was asleep, and on that same campbed as you're sitting, that your husband slit the captain's throat and began to make life really difficult for himself.' Laila instinctively made to get up but Malik put his hand on her shoulder and made her stay where we was. 'I haven't given you permission to move,' he said. 'And you'd better get used to the idea that until they send another officer nothing moves here in Adoras without my permission.' He crossed the room and sat in the old rocking chair where Captain Kaleb-el-Fasi had used to read, and slowly started to rock himself backwards and forwards without taking his eyes off the girl. 'You're very lovely...' he said at last, his voice a little hoarse. 'The most beautiful Targui I've ever seen. How old are you?' 'I don't know. And I'm not a Targui. I'm an Akli.' 'Akli? You're a slave girl?' he exclaimed. 'Amazing...! That Targui must have been crazy for you to make a slave girl his wife. But it doesn't surprise me... you look as if you'd be really great in bed. Are you...?' He didn't get an answer, nor did he expect one. He took a cigarette from the top pocket of his shirt and lit it with the lighter that had once belonged to the captain. He smoked it slowly, taking great pleasure in the smoke and in the sight of the defiant, bold girl who stared back at him. 'Do you know how long it is since I've seen a naked woman?' he asked, smiling bitterly. 'No, how could you know? Even I've forgotten now...' He nodded to an old calendar hanging above the bee. 'The only thing I've had in all this time is that fat whore up there, who must be at least a hundred years old... and I've spent hours looking at her, jerking off and dreaming of the day when I'd hold a real woman again.' He took out a dirty handkerchief and mopped up the sweat running down the back of his neck. 'And now you're here, just like in my dreams -only much lovelier and younger than I'd ever dreamed of...' He paused and finally, calmly, without altering the tone of his voice but with total firmness, he added: 'Take your clothes off.' Laila didn't move, as if she hadn't heard; but a spark of fear appeared in her deep, 172

black eyes and her fingers twitched on the dirty rough mattress cover. Malik waited a few moments as he finished his cigarette, which he then placed on the floor in front of the chair and rocked over it. He lifted his head again and stared at her. 'Listen...' he said. 'There are two ways of doing these things. The easy way and the hard way. I personally prefer the former, because like that it's more pleasant for both. If you collaborate, and we have a nice time together, then I'll collaborate with you and make your detention more comfortable. But if you resist, I'll get what I want by force anyway and afterwards won't care a damn what happens to you. Or what might happen to your people...' he forces a smile. 'Two of your husband's sons are very handsome... Nice young adolescents! Have you seen how some of my men look at them? They've been locked up for years here too, and there are at least eight of them who would be very happy if I looked the other way tonight and them get their dirty hands on those kids while everyone's asleep...' 'You're a pig!' 'No more than anyone else who has spent as much time in this cursed desert.' He stopped rocking and leaned forward to look through the window at the dunes enclosing the oasis. 'You see things differently here, as the years go by and you lose any hope that one day they'll let you back... When you realize no one's interested in you any more, or cares a damn about you, then you lose interest in everyone else, and don't care a damn about anyone else either.' He turned back to look at her. 'They're not going to give me anything. What I don't take for myself nobody's going to offer me -and I guarantee that as soon as they set eyes on you, all the others will do the same thing. Take your clothes off!' he said, and this time it was an order. Laila hesitated. She still tried to resist, and her whole being rebelled at the idea of obeying him, but she realized -and had known from the first moment she saw him- that Malik was capable of anything, even of letting his men entertain themselves, until they were exhausted, with her husband's children, the children he'd taught her to love as if they were her own. Finally, and very slowly, she stood up. She crossed her arms, took the edges of her simple dress and pulled it up over her head before throwing it down in a corner. Her 173

young, firm, dark body, with its small breasts and strong buttocks, was completely naked. Malik contemplated her for time as he rocked to a fro, as if he enjoyed the idea of prolonging that moment as long as possible, and taking a cruel delight in his thoughts before getting undressed himself.

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The sun was very high, the vultures had become a cloud against which it was impossible to fight, and the stench from the corpses was starting to be unbearable. He saw the column of smoke rising in the west first, coming closer fast, and when he jumped onto the jeep to examine the machine gun mechanism, prepared to defend himself, he spotted the gray hulk of another, slower and heavier vehicle, with a light, rapid-firing canon raised on its turret, coming from the south. His acute vision made him realize that all resistance against such a show of strength would be useless, and he tried to console himself with the knowledge that he had beaten the desert of deserts, Tikdabra, and that only his loyalty to his guest had defeated him. He took up his rifle and walked right to the edge of the hamada, without seeking the protection of any rock or bush; Abdul-el-Kebir was behind him and out of range of the bullets. He prepared his gun and waited, calculating the distance and the moment when the jeep would come into range; but just as he could discern the soldiers clearly and was wondering, with his rifle raised, whether to shoot the driver or the solider manning the machine gun, there was a distant explosion. A shell whistled through the air and the jeep, hit full on, was blown to pieces; brought to a halt as suddenly as if it had met an invisible wall. On smashed up corpse was hurled over forty meters away while the other disintegrated as if it had never existed, and in a few seconds there was nothing left of the jeep but a smoking pile of scrap metal. Gazel Sayah, inmouchar of the Kel-Talgimus, known by the nickname of 'the hunter', was riveted to the ground in total astonishment; unable, perhaps for the first time in his life, to understand what was happening before his very eyes. Then he turned his gaze slowly to the other vehicle, the 'caterpillar tank', which continued uninterrupted on its way towards him, and stopped about twenty meters away, just at the point where the 'empty land' and the hamada met. A tall man with a clipped mustache and sand-colored uniform with stars on its cuff, jumped down immediately and approached the Targui with a resolute step. 'Abdul-el-Kebir...' he inquired. Gazel pointed behind him. 175

The officer gave a relieved smile and shook his head as if disencumbered of an enormous burden. 'In my own name and in the name of my government, I am pleased to welcome you to my country... It will be my honor to escort you to the military post and to take President Abdul-el-Kebir to the capital.' They began to walk slowly towards the jeep and as they did so Gazel couldn't help staring again at the still smoking vehicle. The officer noticed and shook his head: 'We're a small, poor and peaceful country, but we don't tolerate anyone invading our borders.' They arrived together at the jeep and the officer examined the body of Abdul-elKebir closely; he checked that he was breathing normally and seemed out of danger, then he lifted his eyes and looked at the infinite plain spread before them. 'I never would have thought that anyone... anyone in the world could have crossed that godforsaken place...!' Gazel smiled. 'Take a piece of advice from me,' he said. 'Avoid Tikdabra!'

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After three hours on the road he tapped the officer lightly on the arm. 'Stop...' he said. The other obeyed, bringing the jeep to a halt, and raised his hand so that the tank behind stopped also. 'What's wrong...?' he asked. 'This is where I get out.' 'Here?' he said in amazement and looking uneasily around him at the plain of rocks and bushes. 'What are you going to do here?' 'Go back home...' said the Targui. 'You're going south. My family is way over there, in the northeast, in the Haila mountains... It's time for me to go back to them.' The solider shook his head as if unable to believe what he was hearing. 'On foot? And alone...?' 'Someone will sell me a camel.' 'It's a very long journey, skirting round the empty land.' 'That's why I want to get started as soon as possible.' The officer turned and nodded towards the sleeping figure of Abdul-el-Kebir. 'Aren't you going to wait for him to wake up? He'll want to thank you personally...' Gazel shook his head and then got down from the jeep with his weapons and gerba of water. 'He's got nothing to thank me for... He wanted to cross the frontier and he's crossed it. Now he's your guest...' He looked at the sleeping old man affectionately. 'Wish him luck from me.' The other realized that the Targui had made up his mind and there was nothing he could do or say to dissuade him. 'Do you need anything?' he asked. 'Money, or provisions?' Gazel shook his head and pointed to the plain. 'I'm a rich man now and I've seen a lot of game to hunt here. I don't need anything.' He stop completely still as the vehicles went by and drove off to the south, and it was only when the dust had settled and the roar of the engines had disappeared in the distance, that he looked around him. He orientated himself, even though there were no natural features in sight that might serve to give a direction, and set off slowly, with the 177

peaceful air of someone out for a stroll in the cool evening: admiring the landscape, every bush, rock, mosquito and even every slippery snake. He had water, a good rifle and plenty of ammunition. And he was in his world, the world he loved, the heart of the desert; and he felt he was going to enjoy the long trip, to find his wife, sons, slaves, goats and camels waiting for him at the other end. There was a soft breeze and when darkness fell the animals of the plain came out to roam among the low thickets; he shot a beautiful hare, which he cooked over a fire made of tamarisks and ate for supper. Then he contemplated the stars, which came to keep him company, and revelled in his memories. Laila's face and body. The laughter and playing of his children. The voice and profound, wise words of his friend Abdul-elKebir. The beautiful exciting, unforgettable adventure that had befallen him at the very threshold of his maturity, that would mark his life forever and which the old men would talk about for years, astounding the young bloods with the deeds of the only man to defy both a whole army and the Tikdabra 'empty land' at the same time. And he would tell his grandchildren how it felt to spend a day in the company of the spirits of the great caravan; how he'd told them of his fear of dying like them on the plain, and how the mummies had pointed him towards the right road with their muffled voices and fleshless fingers; and how he'd followed that road for three days and three nights without stopping once, knowing that if he did so neither he nor the camel would have been able to resume the march; and finally how, thanks to their indomitable wills, he and the camel had managed to turn themselves into robots, insensible to heat, thirst or fatigue. And now there he was, spread out on the white sand, a full damp gerba in his hand, the bag of gold hanging at his waist and the rest of the hare still smoking by the fire. He felt at peace with himself and with the world around him; he felt proud of being a man and a Targui, and proud, above all, of having shown, that no one -not even a government- could allow itself the luxury of slighting the laws and customs of his people. Then he wondered what his future would be like, far from the pastures and places he'd known since he was a child. He would have to emigrate over the frontier, but this didn't worry him because the desert was the same for thousands of kilometers and in whatever country they settled; and there was no reason to fear that anyone would dispute his right to live on the sand and rocky plains, because it was obvious that there were 178

fewer and fewer people wanting the desert as a way of life. He'd had enough of war and fighting now and longed only for the peace of his jaima, his hunting trips and the wonderful get-togethers round the camp fire listening yet again to old Suilem's stories -stories he'd heard as a child but which he would continue to listen to without tiring for as long as old Suilem lived to tell them. On the evening of the third day he came across an encampment of jaimas and sheribas next to a well. They were Tuareg, people of the spear; poor but hospitable and friendly and they agreed to sell him their best mehari. They killed a sheep in his honor, which they ate with the most delicious cous-cous he'd tasted in a long time, and invited him to a party that would take place the following night. He realized he couldn't refuse without offending them, and took a heavy gold coin from the red leather bag hanging round his neck, and put it down in front of them. 'I'll only come along if it's me who pays for the sheep,' he said. 'This is what I'll pay with.' The master of the house accepted in silence and studied the coin carefully. 'There aren't many of these in circulation these days,' he remarked. 'It's all dirty paper notes now, whose value changes from one day to the next. Who gave it to you?' 'An old caravan leader...' he answered, without lying but without exactly telling the truth either. 'He had a lot of them.' 'He would have used this to pay the guides and camel drivers...' said the old man. 'He would have bought animals and provisions with it too... You know.' he added with an ironic smile, 'I enlisted with the "great caravan"! But ten days before it left I started spitting blood and they turned me away. "You've got tuberculosis," they said. "You won't make it to Tripoli..."' He shook his head as if still finding it hard to believe the ironies of fate. 'And I'll soon be ninety years old... And there's nothing left of the "great caravan".' 'How did you cure yourself of tuberculosis?' asked Gazel. 'My first wife and my eldest son died of it.' 'I made a deal with a butcher in Timbuktoo...' answered the old man. 'I worked a year for him without pay in exchange for being able to eat the raw humps of all the camels he killed in that time.' He laughed. 'I became as fat as a barrel, but in the end I 179

stopped spitting blood... Almost two hundred camel humps!' he exclaimed. 'And I haven't gone near one of the damned beasts since, and I'd rather walk for three months than get on one's back...' 'You're the first Imohag I've ever heard talk badly about camels...' said Gazel. 'Maybe...' said the old man, amused. 'But maybe I'm also the first Imohag to have recovered from tuberculosis...' The beautiful girl with the plaited hair, high breasts and bejeweled, red-palmed hands, tuned up the one string on her violin; then she played it, making a shrill sound like a lament or a high-pitched laugh, and recited a story -all the time looking straight at Gazel, the stranger, as if dedicating it to him. 'Allah is all-powerful. Blessed be His name...' she paused. 'They say -though this was not in the land of the Imohag or the Tekna, nor in Tunisia, Marrakesh, Algiers or Mauritania, but in Arabia, near the holy city of Mecca - where every believer must make a pilgrimage at least once in his life – that there once lived three clever merchants in the busy flourishing town of Mir, the glory of Califas. After many years of doing business together these merchants had managed to accumulate a considerable sum of money, which they decided to invest in a new business. ‘ However the three men didn’t trust one another so they put all the money in a bag and gave it to the lady of the house in which they were staying. They asked her to look after it , and made her promise not to let any one of the merchants have it without the other two also being present. ‘ A few days later they had to write a business letter to the next town and they needed parchment to write it on. One of them said: ‘I’ll go and ask the good lady. She’ll have some for sure.’ ‘ But when he went into the house he said to her: ‘Give me the money bag, we need it.? ‘I won’t give it to you unless your friends are present,’ answered the woman, and she continued to refuse despite the persistent arguments of the merchant, who was very clever. Finally he said: ‘Lean out of the window and you’ll see my friends in the street. I’ll go down and get them to tell you to give it to me. ‘ 180

The woman did what he said, while the merchant ran downstairs and whispered to his friends in the street: ‘ She’s got a parchment but she doesn’t want to give it to me unless you both ask for it as well.’ Not realizing the trick, they shout up to the woman: ‘Give it to him. We all need it", and so the woman gave the merchant the bag and the thief flew from the town. 'When the other two found out what had happened and realized they had lost all their money, they blamed the poor woman and took her before a magistrate, demanding justice. 'The judge was a fair, intelligent man, and after listening to both sides of the story, declared: '"The law is on your side and the woman should return the bag or refund the money from her own pocket... However, your agreement makes it impossible for her to hand over the money unless all three of you are present, so you will have to go and find your partner. Then if you bring him here in front of me I'll make sure that the agreement is kept..." 'And that was how justice and right triumphed, thanks to the wisdom of the intelligent magistrate. 'Allah wishes that it might always be so. Blessed be His name...' The girl played the violin to finish off the story, and then without taking here away from Gazel, added: 'Why don't you, who seem to have come from so far away, tell us a story?' Gazel looked around at the score of young men and women gathered round the fire, over which two sheep were slowly cooking and giving off a strong, sweet aroma. 'What sort of story do you want to hear?' 'Your story...' the girl answered quickly. 'Why are you alone and so far from home? Why do you pay for what you buy with old gold coins? What mystery are you hiding? Despite your veil your eyes betray the fact that you're hiding a great secret.' 'That's just your eyes wanting to see a secret where in reality there's only tiredness,' he assured her. 'I've made a long journey. Maybe longer than anyone else in the world had ever made... I've just crossed the Tikdabra "empty land"...' 181

The last to arrive at the fire had been a strong young man with a shaven head, a slight squint and a deep scar that went from his cheek down to his neck. He asked suddenly, with a change in his voice: 'Are you by any chance Gazel Sayah, inmouchar of the Kel-Talgimus, whose family was camped at the guelta in the Huaila mountains...?' His heart missed a beat. 'Yes, that's me,' he said. 'I've got bad news for you...' said the young man sorrowfully. 'I've come from the north and there the news was running from tribe to tribe, jaima to jaima, that the soldiers have carried off your wife and children... everyone in the camp. The only one to escape was an old Negro servant who said the soldiers were waiting at the camp to kill you on your return...' With a tremendous effort he managed to stifle a sob in his throat, and forced himself -even more than he had done in Tikdabra- to contain his emotions. 'Where did they take them...?' he finally managed to articulate, in a falsely calm voice. 'Nobody knows. Maybe to El-Akab, or maybe further north, to the capital... They want to exchange them with you for Abdul-el-Kebir...' The Targui stood up and walked slowly towards the dunes, followed by a respectful silence and everyone's gaze. The joy of the party had vanished as if by magic and no one even seemed to notice that one of the sheep was burning. The gri-gri of misfortune had appeared, as if from the flames of the fire, wiping any spark of enthusiasm from their eyes and any desire for amusement from their bodies, with its foursmelling breath. Gazel dropped down onto a dune in the darkness and buried his face in the sand, digging his nails into his hand so hard as to draw blood, forcing himself not to give free rein to his lamentation. He was no longer a rich man returning to the peace of his fireside after a long adventure. Now he wasn't even the hero who had snatched Abdul-el-Kebir from the clutches of his enemy and led him through the hell of the 'empty land' to safety on the other side of the frontier. He was nothing more now than a poor imbecile who had lost all he had in the world because of his stupid stubbornness in sticking to some worn-out 182

laws that meant nothing to no one. 'Laila...!' A shudder ran down his back like a jet of ice cold water when he imagined her in the power of those men in dirty uniforms, heavy belts and strong, stinking boots. He remembered the look on their face when they had pointed their rifles at the entrance of his tent, he recalled the dirtiness of their camp and the despotic way in which they dealt with Bedouins at El-Akab -and although he tried to avoid it a hoarse groan escaped from his lips and made him bite the back of his hand. 'Don't... Don't hold it back. Even the strongest man has a right to cry at a time like this.' He lifted his head. The beautiful girl with the plaited hair had sat down next to him and put out her hand to stroke his face, just as a mother might soothe a frightened child. 'It's past now' he said. 'Don't try to fool me,' she said firmly. 'It hasn't passed. These things don't pass... They stay right inside, like a lodged bullet. I know because my husband died two years ago and my hand still seeks him during the night.' 'She isn't dead. Nobody would dare hurt her,' he said, as if trying to convince himself. 'She's almost still a child... God wouldn't let them harm her.' 'There's no other God than the one we want to exist,' she answered forcefully. 'You can trust in him if you like, it won't do any harm. But if you're able to conquer the 'empty land' then you're capable of getting your family back... I'm sure of it.' 'But how...?' he asked, dispiritedly. 'You heard what he said. They want Abdul-elKebir, but he isn't with me anymore.' The girl fixed her gaze on him in the light of the full moon which had just risen, turning night into day. 'Would you have made the exchange if he was still with you?' 'They're children...' he said. 'My wife and children... The only thing I have in this life.' 'You've still got your Targui pride,' she reminded him. 'And from what I know about you you're the proudest and most courageous of us all.' She paused. 'Maybe too much so... When you warriors go off to fight you never stop to think about us, the women 183

who stay behind and who receive the blows but have no part in the glory.' She clicked her tongue as if remonstrating with herself. 'But I haven't come to blame you... What's done is done, and you had your reasons for doing it. I came because in moments like this a man needs someone... Do you want to tell me about her?' He shook his head. 'She's just a child...!' he sobbed.

184

The door flew open and sergeant Malik-el-Haideri leaped from the bed towards the revolver lying on the table, but stopped half-way, when he realized that the figure outlined in the doorway was that of lieutenant Razman. Half-naked as he was, he made an attempt to maintain his military air by standing to attention, trying to click his heels, and saluting - all of which was truly ridiculous - and it was clear from the look on the lieutenant's face that he was in no mood to appreciate the humor of the situation. As soon as his eyes had become accustomed to the darkness in the room, he crossed to one of the windows, threw open the shutters and point to the next hut with his whip. 'Who are those people locked up in there sergeant?' Malik felt a cold sweat break out from every pore of his body, but fought to keep himself together. 'The Targui's family, lieutenant sir.' 'How long have they been here?' 'A week, sir.' Razman spun round, as if unable to believe what he heard. 'A week...?' he repeated horrified. 'Are you trying to tell me you have these women and children locked up... roasting alive in that hell for a whole week...? Why didn't you report to your superiors?' 'The radio is broken.' 'Liar... I've just spoken to the radio operator. You gave the order to maintain silence... That's why it was impossible to inform you of my arrival...' He stopped abruptly on seeing the frightened and completely naked figure of Laila huddled up on a blanket in the furthest corner or the room. His eyes moved from the girl to Malik, and back again an then finally he asked in a hoarse voice, almost as if he were afraid to ask: 'Who's she?' 'The Targui's wife... But it's not what you think, lieutenant...' he tried to justify himself. 'She agreed to it willingly... She agreed!' he repeated, holding his hands out as if begging. Razman went over to Laila, who tried to conceal her nudity with a corner of the blanket. 'Is it true you agreed to it? He didn't force you?' The Targui stared at him, then shifted her gaze to Malik before saying firmly: 185

'He said that if I didn't do it he'd hand the children over to the soldiers.' Razman nodded silently, turned slowly and pointing to the door shouted at Malik: 'Get out!' The sergeant tried to grab his clothes but Razman shouted again: 'No! You're not fit to wear that uniform again. Get out as you are...' Malik went out, followed by the lieutenant; at the door way he stopped on seeing all the soldiers waiting expectantly, with Razman's wife and the enormous sergeant Ajamuk. 'Go over to the dunes...!' He obeyed, even though the sand burned the soles of his feet. He walked silently, his head bent down and without looking at anyone, until the dunes began. When he realized it was impossible to go further, and impossible to climb the steep slope, he turned and wasn't surprised to see the lieutenant taking his regulation revolver out of his holster. One shot was enough to blow his brains out. Razman stood thoughtfully looking at the corpse, then very slowly replaced his gun and walked back to face everyone present. No one had moved. He looked from one to the other, trying to read their thoughts, and when he spoke it was as if he had decided to let out something which deep down had been torturing him for a long time. 'You're the scum of the army...!' he said. 'Men I have always loathed and soldiers I would never have wanted to command. Thieves, murderers, drug addicts and rapists... Vermin!' He paused. 'But maybe in the end you're all no more than simple victims -a reflection of what this government has turned our country into.' He waited for a moment to let what he was saying sink in, then raising the tone of his voice he spoke again: 'But the time's coming when things will change... President Abdul-el-Kebir has managed to cross the frontier and has made an initial call to all those who want a return to democracy and freedom to unite and arm...' He paused again, even more dramatically, realizing he needed to use a certain amount of theatricality. 'And I'm going to join him!' he said at last. 'What I've seen today has finally convinced me, and now I'm ready to break with the past and take up the fight alongside the only man I can really trust... And I'm going to give all you a chance too...! Those who want to follow me across the frontier and join 186

Abdul-el-Kebir, can come with me...' The men looked at each other in total amazement. They could hardly believe that their most longed for dream -escape from Adoras and the country-, was being offered to them on a plate by the very same officer who was supposed to be keeping them there. Many of their comrades had tried to escape, but had always been caught and sent either to the firing squad or to prison for a life sentence. But now, suddenly, there was this young lieutenant in a smart uniform, who had come with a pretty wife and an elephantine, good-natured looking sergeant, trying to convince them that what had once been the worst of crimes had been magically transformed into a heroic deed. One almost burst out laughing. Another actually jumped for joy. Razman, fully aware of what he was doing and of the true feelings of that bunch of crooks, solemnly asked all those prepared to follow him to raise their right arms -and as if operated by some invisible but irresistible spring, all hands sprang up in unison. Razman gave a faint smile and exchanged a look with his wife, who also smiled. Then he turned to Ajamuk: 'Get everything ready,' he ordered. 'We'll leave in two hours...' He pointed with his whip to the lattice windows of the hut from where Gazel Sayah's family had witnessed the whole scene. 'They'll come with us...' he added. 'We can take them across the border where they'll be safe.'

187

It was a long journey, going home but without knowing where home now was, going back to his family without knowing if he still had a family or not. It was a long journey. He went west first, leaving a day's distance between him and the 'empty land': then, when he knew the 'empty land' had ended, he turned north, realizing that he was crossing the border again and that the soldiers might appear at any moment. Soldiers, who seemed to have become his nightmare. It was a long journey. And a sad one. Never, not even in his worst moments in Tikdabra when he had felt Death to be his only traveling companion, had he imagined that events could take such a turn because for him, as a warrior and nobleman of a race of noble warriors, the only definitive defeat would have been death. But now he suddenly realized -like a great blow from a club- that death was nothing compared to the awful reality of realizing that people he loved had become the victims of his own private war. This was truly the most awful of defeats. His children's faces, Laila's voice, the infinitely repeated scenes of daily life in his camp, passed through his mind again and again like an obsession. But all that belonged to the time when everything was peaceful and quiet, when the years passed at the foot of the high dunes without anyone coming to disturb the tranquillity of their simple, monotonous life. Cold dawns in which Laila had curled up close to him, seeking the warmth of his body. Long brilliant mornings when he was out hunting, anxiously waiting for game. Sultry afternoons of sweet sleepiness. Then the red sky of evening and long shadows that stretched as if they wanted to touch the edge of the horizon... And the sweet - smelling, dense nights telling the same stories as always round the fire, but never tiring of them. Fear of the howling harmatan wind and the drought. Love of the windless plain and the big black cloud that came to pour down and let the land cover itself in the green carpet or acheb flowers. The goat that died; the young mare camel that had suddenly become pregnant after waiting so long; the crying of the baby and his eldest son's loud laughter; Laila's moan of pleasure in the half-light... 188

That was the life he loved, the only life he'd ever wanted -and the life he had lost because he hadn't been able to forget an insult made against his Targui honor. Who could have blamed him for not confronting a whole army? Who wouldn't blame him now for having done it and for having lost his whole family in the adventure. He had had no idea of the size of the country nor of how many inhabitants it had; but even so he had confronted it -all its soldiers and leaders- without stopping to think of the consequences such ignorance could bring in its tow. Where, in that enormous country, was he going to find his wife and children? Who, among all its inhabitants, would be able to give him news of them...? He felt extremely small: not because of the enormity of the land but rather the vileness of those who lived in it and who were capable of dragging women and children into a man's fight. Day by day, as he went north, he became aware of his own smallness, despite the fact that in more than forty years of his existence not even the desert, in all its immensity, had managed to intimidate him. He didn't know what weapons he could use against such people. No one had told him the rules of this game... And he remembered the old story that Suilem always told, of the two families who had hated each other so much that at one point they had buried a child in the dunes, making the mother go mad. But that had been an isolated occurrence, happening only once in the Sahara and alarming the people so much that its memory still persisted, passed down by word of mouth around the fire and serving to instruct the children, and sicken the adults. 'See how hatred and fighting lead to nothing but fear, madness and death...' He could repeat from memory every one of the old man's words, and perhaps now for the first time he understood the profound significance of the story. So many men had died since that dawn when he had decided to take his camel and set off into the desert to revenge his wounded honor, that he had no right to be surprised that some of their blood had now splashed on him and his family. First there had been Mubarrak, whose only crime had been to lead a patrol along the tracks of some men of whom he knew nothing. Then there had been the sweating captain, who had defended his action by claiming that he had only been obeying orders... 189

And the fourteen soldiers at Gerifies who hadn't done anything except get in his way, the soldiers he'd killed at the edge of the empty land and the two in the jeep who had been blown to pieces so suddenly they hadn't known what had hit them. Too many... And he, Gazel Sayah, had only one life to offer them in exchange: just one death to compensate for so many deaths... Perhaps that was why they were demanding his family as part payment of the enormous debt. Insh-Allah! as Abdul-el-Kebir would have said. He suddenly remembered the old man and wondered what had become of him, whether or not he had returned as he'd promised to fight again for his place of power. 'What a madman...' he muttered to himself under his breath. 'A mad dreamer. One of those men born to receive all the blows of life, and to have the gri-gri of ill-luck ride by his side, stuck to his clothes. That gri-gri of his was so strong it's even infected me with its bad luck.' For the Bedouins, the gri-gri were evil spirits who could bring ill-luck, sickness or death, and although the Tuareg officially laughed at such superstitions -which were supposed to belong to servants and slaves- even the most noble inmouchar always went out of his way to avoid certain places famed for their evil spirits, or certain people who were known to attract the gri-gri in a special way. It was sad, not to say tragic, if a gri-gri became enamored of someone -for then it was useless trying to shake it off, even if you buried yourself in the deepest dunes or tried to cross the hell of Tikdabra. The gri-gri clinged to one's skin, like a tick, a smell or like the dye from one's clothes. And now Gazel felt he had been possessed by the gri-gri of death: the most persistent of all of them. The only way a warrior could free himself of it was by fighting another warrior whose death spirit was stronger. Sometimes at night, he imagined he could see it by the light of the fire, sitting opposite him. 'Why have you picked on me?' he would ask it a such times. 'I never called you. It was the soldiers who brought you to my house the day the captain shot that young man...' It was only logical that from the moment a guest had been killed under his roof, 190

the gri-gri would stick to him as master of the jaima in the same way as the gri-gri of adultery stuck to the woman who was unfaithful to her man during the month preceding their wedding. 'But it wasn't my fault...' he protested, in an attempt to drive it away. 'I only wanted to defend him, and would have given my own life in exchange for his.' But, as old Suilem said, the gri-gri were deaf to the threats or entreaties of humans: they had their own ways, and when one was enamored of someone, he was enamored till the end of time. He used to tell a story about a man for whom the gri-gri of the locust had had a rare love. 'He lived in Arabia and year after year, without fail, the cursed plague would come to flatten his crops and the crops of his neighbors. 'So his fellow citizens took him to the magistrate and asked him to execute the man, before they all died of starvation. But the caliph realized it wasn't the poor man's fault and defended him, saying: "If I kill him, the gri-gri -who loves him beyond deathwill only come and visit his grave every year. Therefore I order him -and his spirit, whenever he dies- to go to the west coast of Africa every seven years and remain there for seven years. That way, because the locust is one of Allah's creatures and we can't go against Allah without offending him, we distribute the burden equally and at least have seven years of abundance after seven of misery." 'The man did as the caliph ordered and after his death his spirit continued to do the same and that's why the plague comes here every seven years, and then goes away with the man's spirit back to his own country.' Whether the legend was true or not, it was certain that the Tuareg were cleverer than the Arabian peasants and had solved the problem of their hunger due to the plague in a more practical way than having an innocent man executed: they ate the locusts, in the same way as the locusts ate their crops. Toasted on the embers or turned into flour, they had become one of their favorite foods; and when they arrived in their millions, clouding over the midday sun, it wasn't seen as the arrival of a catastrophe but as the coming of prosperity and abundance for months to come. And three years later they would be back and Laila would turn them into flour which, when mixed with honey and dates, made a treat for the children. He loved those cakes too and pined for the time when he used to munch them and 191

drink steaming hot tea, watching the sun go down from the entrance of his jaima. And then, when he'd finished and the women were milking the camels and the boys bringing in the goats, he would walk slowly over to the parapet of the well to check the depth of the water. And now he refused to believe that all that was over and that he would never return to his well, his palm grove, his family and his animals, for the mere fact that some invisible evil spirit had taken a liking for him. 'Go away!' he pleaded again. 'I'm tired of carrying you with me and of killing people without knowing why I'm killing...' But he knew that even if the gri-gri wanted to leave, the tormented souls of Mubarrak, the captains and the soldiers, would never let him.

192

Every weekend Anuar-el-Mojkri left his cool, comfortable office in the Governor's Palace, got into the old Simca he'd left parked, loaded with water and provisions, in a nearby backstreet, and rattled of towards the foothills of the mountain that overlooked El-Akab, and on whose summit stood the ruins of an almost inaccessible fortress which served as a refuge for the inhabitants of the oasis in times of war and strife. There was nothing to explore within the castle walls - many of which had fallen, and the stones had been taken by the French to construct the public buildings in El Akib but after searching carefully, Anuar had discovered in the caves and on the rocky walls of the narrow gullies behind the ruins, an infinite number of cave paintings, which, once he'd cleaned off millennia of dirt, told of the most remote history of the Sahara and its inhabitants. Elephants, giraffes, antelopes and leopards; hunting scenes, love scenes and images of the daily lives of the ancient settlers in those lands, all appeared as his expert hands cleaned the rock with infinite care. He had the instinct of a born archaeologist, and sought the pictures in spots where he himself would logically have engraved them. This was his pride and his great secret. In his cramped bachelor's apartment he had amassed hundreds of beautiful color pictures which he had taken during more than two years of meticulous work; photographs which one day would illustrate the thick tome with which Anuar-el-Mojkri would surprise the world with his discovery of the 'Frescoes of El-Akab'. He was confident, too, that there he would one day find what he was always looking for: a replica of the 'Tassili Martians'drawings'. These were gigantic figures, more than two meters high, showing in considerable detail the clothing and postures of astronauts who, back in the dark ages, must have visited those wastelands -which then had probably been fertile and rich in all sorts of exotic animals. To show that El-Akab -so far from Tassili- had also been visited by beings from another planet, would undoubtedly have been the culmination of all the governor's secretary's ambitions; and he would gladly have sacrificed his promising political career for one of those drawings, crude as they were. In the heavy afternoon, as the sun beat mercilessly down on his floppy straw hat, he began to have hopes that the wall of living rock in a tiny hollow protected from the wind and rain, might provide him with a new and revealing discovery: he was overcome 193

by a strange nervousness, like a premonition; his hands trembled as he traced the incision of a deep line, which vaguely suggested the outline of a tall figure. He wiped the sweat which ran down his face, steaming up his glasses, drew round the now quite visible line with a piece of chalk, took a sip of water... and then jumped in terror at the sound of a deep, menacing voice he know only too well. 'Where's my family...?' he asked from behind his back. He spun round and had to lean against the wall, so as not to collapse with shock at the sight of the black, gaping barrel of a gun and the tall figure of the Targui who had become his nightmare, less than three meters away. 'You...?' was all he could say. 'Yes, me...' was the dry reply. 'Now tell me where's my family?' 'Your family?' he said, surprised. 'What have I got to do with your family? What's happened to them?' 'The soldiers took them away.' Anuar-el-Mojkri felt his legs giving way, so sat down on a rock. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his hands. 'Soldiers?' he repeated, incredulously. 'That's impossible... absolutely impossible. I would have known...' He cleaned his glasses with a handkerchief which he took, trembling, from his back pocket, and stared at Gazel with his short-sighted eyes. 'Listen...' he went on. 'The minister did mention the possibility of seizing your family and trying to exchange them for Abdul-el-Kebir, but the general opposed it and nothing more was said about it. I swear!' His voice was totally sincere. 'What minister? Where does he live?' 'The Minister of the Interior. Madani -Ali Madani. He lives in the capital. But I doubt if he's got your family...' 'If he hasn't got them, then the soldiers have.' 'No...' he dismissed the idea confidently with a sweep of his hand. 'The soldiers definitely haven't got them. The general is a friend of mine, we dine together twice a week... He's not the sort of man to do such a thing and anyway if he did do it, he would certainly have consulted me about it first...' 'Well, my family isn't there. My slave watched the soldiers take them away -and five of them are still at the guelta waiting for me.' 194

'They can't be soldiers,' he insisted. 'They must be police sent by the minister...' he shook his head and added contemptuously: 'He's capable of doing such a thing, the son of a bitch.' He put his glasses -now perfectly clean- back on and peered at Gazel with a new interest. 'Is it true that you crossed the Tikdabra "empty land"? Gazel nodded and the secretary snorted -either in admiration or incredulity, it was hard to say. 'Amazing!' he exclaimed. 'Absolutely amazing! Did you know that Abdul-elKebir is in Paris? The French are giving him assistance and it's very possible that you, an illiterate Targui, have changed the course of our country's history...' 'I'm not interested in changing anything...' he reached for the canteen and drank, lifting his veil slightly. 'The only thing I want is for them to give me my family back and let me live in peace.' 'That's what we all want -to live in peace. You with your family and me with my rock carvings. But I doubt if they'll let us.' Gazel nodded to the drawings outlined in chalk on the wall next to him: 'What's this?' 'The history of your ancestors. Or the history of the people who lived in the desert before it was conquered by the Tuareg.' 'Why do you do it? Why do you waste your time up here instead of staying down in the peace and shade of El-Akab?' 'Maybe because I'm disillusioned with politics. You remember Hassan-benKoufra? They dismissed him, so he went to Switzerland where he'd stashed away a small fortune. But after two days there he was knocked down by a Coca-Cola lorry. It's ridiculous! In a few months he went from being "viceroy of the desert" to crying in a clinic covered in snow, with his leg broken.' 'Is his wife with him?' 'Yes.' 'Then that's all that matters...' he remarked. 'They love each other. I watched them for days so I know.' Anuar agreed. 'He's a first-class son of a bitch, an unscrupulous politician, a thief, a traitor, a fox... But there was something good in him and that was his love for Taman. If only for 195

that reason, I suppose he deserved not to die.' Gazel Sayah smiled, although the other couldn't see the smile behind the veil. He stood up, looked around at the pictures on the wall, and picked up his gun. 'And maybe it's your love of my ancestors' history that stops me from killing you now. But make sure you don't move from here, or try to give the alarm. If I see you in ElAkab before Monday, I'll blow your head off.' Anuar picked up his chalk, brushes and rags again and resumed his work. 'Don't worry,' he relied. 'I hadn't thought of it anyway.' Then, as the Targui was going away, he shouted: 'And I hope you find your family!'

196

It was a rickety old bus. The filthiest, most clapped-out, stinking public transport vehicle that had ever run down a road -though it didn't actually 'run' so much as wheeze along at fifty kilometers an hour and it wasn't actually on a road, but was crossing plains of sand, bushes, rocky foothills and infinite stretches of shingle. About every two hours it had to stop because of a puncture or because the wheels had got stuck in the sand. Then the driver and conductor would make all the passengers -goats, dogs and basketfuls of chickens included- get out and either exhort them to push or tell them to sit by the side of the road while they changed the wheel. Also, every four hours they had to refuel by the primitive method of attaching a hosepipe to a petrol drum which had been lashed tightly onto the roof. And whenever they came across a steep hill, the men were made to get out and walk. It was like that for two days and two nights, squashed like dates in a rabbit-skin bag, sweating and asphyxiating in the unbearably stifling atmosphere, never knowing how much longer the torture would last or if they were ever going to see a change in that monotonous desert landscape. Every time they stopped Gazel felt an impulse to abandon the grimy bus and continue the road on foot, however long it might be; but every time they stopped he also realized that it would take him months to reach the capital by his own means, and every day, every hour that he wasted might be crucial for Laila and his children. He continued to put up with his confinement, therefore. He, who loved his solitude and freedom more than anyone, had to suffer the chattering traders, hysterical women, noisy children and the pestilential chickens; and he couldn't turn himself into a stone there, as he had done in the 'empty land', isolating himself from everything around him and separating his spirit temporally from his body. There every sway, every puncture, every pothole or belch from someone near him brought him back to reality; and not even in the middle of the night did he manage to snatch a few moment's sleep to revitalize himself or return, in his dreams, to his family. Finally, on the misty dawn of the third day, when a persistent, sticky wind blew gray, choking dust into their faces and cut visibility down to fifty meters, they passed through a group of shacks built out of sun-dried bricks, a dry ravine, a stinking small square and finally the bus jerked to a halt right in the middle of an abandoned area which had once been a market place. 197

'End of the line!' the conductor shouted as he got down, stretched his arms and legs and looked all around him -as if he could hardly believed that yet again they'd succeeded in the mad odyssey of going to El-Akab and getting back alive... Thanks be to God! Gazel got off last and looked round him at the crumbling walls of the market place which threatened to fall on his head the minute a bit of wind got up. He went, hesitantly, up to the driver. 'Is this the capital?' Gazel asked him. 'Oh no...!' was the amused answer. 'But this is a far as we go. If we tried to run this crate along a normal road they'd lock us up in the madhouse.' 'And how do I get to the capital?' 'You could take another bus, but I'd recommend you to take the train, it's quicker.' 'What's the train?' Gazel was not, of course, the first Bedouin the driver had dealt with in the twenty years of bumping his bus through the desert, and so was not surprised by the question. 'It's better if you go and have a look at it for yourself...' he said. 'Go down the street for three blocks and when you come up to a big brown building, you're there.' 'Three what...?' 'Three blocks of houses...' he made a sweeping gesture with his hands. 'Oh well, I suppose that where you live there's none of them... Just go down the street until you get the brown building. It's the only one.' Gazel nodded, picked up his rifle, sword and the leather bag in which he had food, ammunition and all his belongings, and set off in the direction the driver had pointed. Then, from the roof of the bus, the conductor shouted at him: 'Hey you...! You can't walk around here with those weapons... If they see you they'll give you a hell of a time.... Have you got a license for it?' 'What?' 'A license for the gun... No, I can see you haven't got one... Hide it or you'll end up in jail!' Gazel stood in the middle of the market place, uncertain of what to do, until one of the passengers, who was going off in another direction with a bag on his shoulder, another in his hand and a roll of carpets under his arm, gave him an idea. He ran after 198

him. 'I'll buy your carpets,' he said, showing him the gold coin. The other didn't even answer. He took the coin, lifted his arm to let Gazel take the load and then hurried off, almost breaking into a run in case the stupid Targui changed his mind. But Gazel didn't change his mind. He unrolled the carpets, wrapped his sword and rifle in them, rolled them up again, tucked them under his arm and strode off towards the station. From the top of the bus the conductor shook his head and burst out laughing. The train was even dirtier, noisier and more uncomfortable than the bus, and although it had the advantage of not getting punctures, it had the disadvantage of filling the compartment with smoke and cinders, and of stopping with hopeless regularity at every town, village, shanty town and simple homestead on the way. When he had seen it arrive at the bright station, roaring and snorting clouds of steam, more like some monster from one of Suilem's stories than anything real, Gazel had had to call on all his warrior's bravery and inmouchar's calmness to let himself be carried along with the tide of passengers, and to climb impetuously into one of the rickety old carriages with wooden benches and glassless windows. He tried to act as he saw everyone else acting. He put his carpet roll and bag in the luggage rack and sat down in one of the corners, and tried to reassure himself that it was no more, really, that a gigantic bus which ran on iron rails and avoided the dusty highways. But when he heard the guard's whistle and felt the locomotive jerk forward with snorts, clashing of iron and the shouting of the engine driver, his heart missed another beat and he had to grip the seat tightly to prevent himself from jumping up and leaping out onto the platform. And on the downhill slopes, when the train reached almost a hundred kilometers and hour and wind and smoke poured in the open windows, and trees, houses and electricity pylons dashed dizzily by, Gazel thought he would die of shock and bit the edge of his veil so as not to scream out to them to stop the infernal machine. Then, in the mid-afternoon, the mountains came into view and he thought he was 199

dreaming; never had he imagined such an enormous mass could exist, soaring like an impassable barrier, steep and aloof, and with the peaks covered in white. He turned to a fat woman who was sitting behind him and who seemed to spend most of her time suckling two identical infants, and asked her: "What's that?" "Snow," said the woman, giving herself an air of superiority and wide experience. "And wrap yourself up because it will soon start to get cold." And indeed it did get cold -colder than anything the Targui had ever known -as the carriage filled with a freezing air and snowflakes, making the poor passengers wrap themselves, shivering, in whatever they had to hand. When it was almost dark they stopped at a tiny mountain station and the ticket collector announced that they had ten minutes in which to buy some supper. Gazel jumped down and couldn't resist the temptation of running off the platforms to touch the white snow with his own hands. Its consistency shocked him, more than its coldness. It was an indescribable soft crunchiness which melted between his fingers. It wasn't like sand, or water or stone -it was in fact unlike anything he'd ever touched before. It disturbed him and was such a shock that it took him a while to realize that his feet which were virtually half-naked in his flimsy sandals, were beginning to freeze. He turned back thoughtfully and slowly, almost horrified by his discovery; he bought a thick, heavy blanket from a man, and a big bowlful of hot cous-cous before returning to his seat. He ate in silence, watching the night draw in and the snowy landscape be swallowed by the shadows, and looked at the wooden, roughly painted walls of the compartment, on which bored travelers had killed the long hours by carving all sorts of things with their knives. There at the station, with his feet in the snow, Gazel Sayah had suddenly realized that old Xhaltoum's prediction was well on its way to being fulfilled. The desert, the beloved desert where he was born, his home at the foot of those high mountains which now would be covered in green meadows and trees, was far behind him, and he was on the way to hostile, unknown and distant lands where he intended to confront the leaders of the world armed with nothing more than an old sword and a pathetic rifle.

200

He was woken by a screech of brakes, an abrupt jolt and the sound of sleepy voices that seemed to come form beyond the grave, echoing in what seemed to be an enormous empty cavern. He stuck his head out of the window and marveled at the height of the steel and glass dome above him, and which seemed bigger still lit up as it was by dim bulbs and illuminated signs. The passengers who had persisted to the bitter end of that long journey now got down with their crumpled, cardboard suitcases and went off wearily, cursing the absurd timetable of that Methuselan train that was always at least six hours late on arrival. He got off last, loaded down with his carpets, his leather bag and the blanket, and followed the other passengers through a large, opaque glass door; he was impressed by the grandiosity of the station, so high that groups of bats flew through it, and in which nothing could be heard except the snorting of the locomotive, as if it was breathing deeply and trying to recover from the tremendous effort. He crossed the large waiting room with its marble floor and long benches on which whole families slept, clutching their pathetic luggage, and finally went through the exit door which left him at the top of a wide staircase. He stopped and looked at the spacious square before him and at the massive buildings around it. He was overwhelmed by the wall of windows, doors and balconies which enclosed the square almost hermetically, and he shook his head incredulously at the variety of unknown and foul smells that assaulted him like hungry beggars who'd anxiously been awaiting his arrival. It wasn't the smell of human sweat or excrement, nor of a dead and rotting animal. It wasn't the smell of stagnant water or of a billy-goat on heart. It was subtler, less fragrant, but equally strong and repulsive to a man of the open's sensibilities. It was the stink of overcrowded people, of thousands of different suppers all stewing next to one another, of garbage cans scattered over the pavement by starving stray dogs, and of sewers emitting their stench through the drains as if the city was built -as in fact it wason a deep sea of human excrement. And the air was thick. Thick and silent in the warm night. Damp salty, thick and silent. Air that tasted of sulfur and lead, of badly burnt petrol and of oil a thousand times refried. 201

He stood very still, wondering whether to go on into the sleeping city or whether to turn back and spend the night on one of those benches, when a man in a shabby uniform and a red hat left the station, crossed over to his side and as he was on the top step turned to look at him: 'Something wrong...?' he asked, and when Gazel shook his head he made a gesture of understanding. 'I know... This is the first time you've been in the city, right? Have you got anywhere to sleep?' 'No.' 'I know a place near home... Maybe they'll take you in.' He noticed the Targui still hadn't decided to move, so waved his arm encouragingly. 'Come on, don't be afraid... I'm not a queer nor am I going to rob you...' He liked the man's face: tired, marked with the lines of a difficult life, yellowish after so much night work, with red-rimmed eyes and a limp, nicotine-stained mustache. 'Come-on...' he said again. 'I know what it's like to feel alone in a city like this. I arrived from the cabila fifteen years ago with less luggage than you and a cheese under my arm...' he laughed, mocking himself. 'And now look at me, I've got a uniform, a hat and even a whistle...' Gazel went up to him and they crossed the square together, towards the wide avenue which began on the other side and down which a car went from time to time. Almost right in the middle of the square the man turned to him and said: 'Are you really a Targui?' 'Yes.' 'Is it true you only show your face to family and intimate friends?' 'Yes.' 'Then you're going to have problems here...' he declared. 'The police won't let you go around here with your face covered. They like to have us all under control, everyone with his identity card, with their photo and finger prints on...' He paused. 'I bet you haven't got an identity card, have you?' 'What's an identity card?' 'You see...!' They carried on their way, the man not hurrying, as if he enjoyed the nighttime walk and chat and was in no hurry to get home. 'Lucky you...' he said. 'Very lucky, if you've managed to go all this time without 202

one. But tell me what the devil's brought you to the city?' 'Do you know the minister?' he asked suddenly. 'Minister? What minister?' 'Ali Madani.' 'No!' was the immediate answer. 'Luckily for me I don't know Ali Madani, and I hope I never will.' 'Do you know where I can find him?' 'In the ministry, I suppose.' 'And where's the ministry?' 'You go straight down this road till you get to the esplanade, then you turn right till you come to a gray building with white awnings over the windows.' He smiled. 'But I warn you not to go anywhere near it. They say at night you can hear the screams of the prisoners being tortured in the basement. Though others say it's not that but the wailing of all the poor souls they murder down there. At dawn they drag the corpses out and chuck them into a van.' 'Why do they kill them?' 'Politics...' he said, with a gesture of disgust. 'In this damned city everything's politics, especially since Abdul-el-Kebir's on the loose. There's going to be a real rumpus...' he declared, then pointed to a sidestreet towards which he crossed. 'Come on, it's down here.' But Gazel shook his head and pointed down the main road. 'No,' he said. 'I'm going to the ministry.' 'To the ministry?' he repeated, astonished. 'At this time of night? What on earth for?' 'I have to see the minister.' 'But he doesn't live there. He only works there during the day.' 'Then I'll wait for him.' 'Without sleeping?' The railwayman was about to add something else but saw suddenly the look of decision in the Targui's dark eyes, just visible in the chink between his turban and his veil, and then he glanced at the roll of carpets under his arm, and he at once felt strangely nervous, though without being able to say exactly why. 203

'It's late,' he said abruptly, thoroughly uneasy. 'It's late and tomorrow I have to go to work again.' He hurried across the road, almost getting knocked down by a big garbage truck, and after turning many times to check that the Targui wasn't following, he disappeared down a sidestreet. The Targui was completely unperturbed. He waited until the garbage truck and its stench had gone by and then carried on alone up the wide, dimly lit avenue. With his tall figure and his robes flapping in the breeze he looked absurd and anachronistic against that landscape of huge buildings, dark windows and shut doors. He was lord of the sleeping city -a title that only a stray dog was around to challenge. Later a yellow car went by and a woman called to him from a doorway: 'Dssssst!' He went over to her respectfully but became immediately uncomfortable as soon as he caught sight of her plunging neckline and split skirt, which showed one of her legs. She, however, became even more uncomfortable at the sight of him when she saw him clearly in the light of a street lamp. 'What do you want?' he inquired, rather hesitantly. 'Oh, nothing...' the prostitute excused herself hurriedly. 'I got you mixed up with a friend of mine. Sorry. Good night!' 'Good night.' He carried on, and two streets further down became intrigued by a muffled roaring sound which got stronger as he went on, until it became monotonous and constant. He couldn't recognize it but it reminded him of the rhythmic beating of a large stone tamping down the earth. He crossed a wide road, which seemed to be the end of the city limit, and when he crossed under a line of tall streetlamps which stood right on the edge of the sand, he could see, by the light of the lamps, the wide beach and below it the enormous waves, with white foamy crests, crashing down furiously. He stopped, stupefied. Suddenly, out of the blackness, appeared a vast expanse of water the size of which he'd never imagined existed; he watched it arch itself up to a certain height and then hurl itself onto the ground, making that muffled sound, and then drawing back with a whisper before renewing the attack with renewed determination. 204

The sea! There was the wonderful sea of which old Suilem talked so much and about which the most adventurous travelers who had passed by his jaima had always talked with such respect. Suddenly a wave -one bolder than the rest- ran impetuously up the sand, almost drenching his sandals and the edge of his gandurah, and he himself was so shocked he couldn't even jump out of the way. The sea, from which his garamant ancestors came; the sea which washed the Senegalese coast and to which the river that bordered the south of the desert went to die; the sea, where the sands and all the known came to an end, and beyond which only the French lived. The sea, which he'd never dreamed of knowing -as far away from his land as the furthest star in the most distant galaxy; an impassable frontier imposed by the Creator himself on the sons of the wind, the eternal wanderers of all the sands and rocks. He'd reached the end of his road, and he knew it. That sea was the limit of his universe and its furious roar the voice of Allah warning him that he had overreached himself, that he'd gone further than he allowed the Imohag of the plain to go, and that the moment of accounting for his great insolence was coming. 'You'll die far from your own world,' old Khaltoum had predicted, and he couldn't imagine anything further from his world than that howling barrier of white foam rising furiously in front of his eyes, and on the other side of which nothing was discernible except the deepness of night. He sat quietly on the dry sand, out of reach of the surf, recalling his life and thinking of Laila, his children and the paradise he'd lost; he let the hours pass in this mode until the first light of dawn, a vague, pale green light that started to spread over the sky allowing him to admire the enormous expanse of sea spread out before him. He had imagined that the snow, the city and the waves had exhausted his ability to be surprised, but the sight unfolded before him by the dawn made him realize that he was mistaken yet again, as the metallic leaden gray of a rough, menacing sea hypnotised him and plunged him into a deep trance which kept him silent and absorbed, and looking like an inanimate statue made of salt. Later, the first rays of sun turned the gray into a luminous blue and an opaque green which gave the white foam greater intensity, especially when contrasted with a 205

black menacing storm cloud coming in from the west. It was an explosion of sights and shapes such as he could never have imagined, and it would have kept him pinned to the spot for hours if a persistent rumbling of vehicles behind him hadn't snapped him out of the trance. The city was waking up. What by night had been no more than high walls with closed windows and dark patches of vegetation, was now transformed by the sun into a riot of colors -the violent red of the buses clashing with the white buildings, the yellow taxis, the thick green trees and the anarchic jumble of lurid posters, splashed over the walls in their thousands. And the people. It seemed like the whole world had an appointment on the esplanade that morning... People coming and going, in and out of the tall buildings, bumping into each other and stepping out of the way in a sort of absurd dance in which they would suddenly stop at the edge of the pavement and then wait a little while before surging forward in unison across the wide road -while all the buses, taxis and hundreds of other, assorted vehicles came to an abrupt halt, as if held back by some invisible hand. Then, after watching for a while, Gazel came to the conclusion that this hand belonged to a certain stout apoplectic-looking man who stood waving his arms up and down like a madman, and blowing his long whistle so insistently and angrily that everyone stopped, as if it had been the Almighty himself who was making the noise. He was certainly an important man, that, despite his red face and sweatstained uniform, because even the heaviest lorries stopped when he raised his hand, and only went on their way again when he let them. And just behind him -surrounded by thick railings and a small garden of withered tress- stood the tall, massive, over-elaborate gray building with the white awnings that the railwayman had directed him to. There Ali Madani, the Minister of the Interior, the man who had seized his wife and children, lived, or at least worked. He made a decision, picked up his belongings, crossed the street in a determined manner and went up to the fat, apoplectic man who stared at him in surprise, but who didn't stop waving his arms and blowing his whistle. He stood in front of him. 206

'Does Madani the minister live here?' he asked in a deep, serious voice that struck the traffic cop even more than the extraordinary sight of his robes and veil. 'What?' 'Does Madani the minister live or work there?' 'Yes. That's where his office is and he'll be arriving in five minutes time, dead on the stroke of eight. Now scarper!' Gazel nodded wordlessly, crossed the road again, followed by the gaze of the policeman, who had lost his rhythm, and stood at the edge of the beach to wait. Exactly five minutes later he heard the scream of a siren and two motorcyclists appeared, followed by a long, black sedan car. All the traffic stopped to let the convoy through without any delay, and it entered majestically the small garden of the gray building. From the distance Gazel saw a tall, elegant, arrogant man get out and be received by porters and clerks with ceremonious bows; then he went slowly up the five marble steps of the wide entrance, which was guarded by two soldiers with submachine guns. As soon as Madani disappeared inside, Gazel crossed the street again to the manifest nervousness of the policeman, who hadn't stopped watching him out of the corner of his eye the whole time. 'Was that the minister?' he asked. 'Yes, that's him... And I thought I told you to go away. Leave me alone!' 'No!' the Targui's voice was dry, menacing and firm. 'I want you to tell him something from me: if he doesn't let my family go free the day after tomorrow, right here where you are, then I'll assassinate the President.' The fat traffic cop locked at him in total amazement. He took a while to answer, and when he did could only babble stupidly: 'What did you say? You're gonna kill the president?' 'Exactly,' he said, and pointed to the ministry. 'Tell him that. I, Gazel Sayah, who freed Abdul-el-Kebir and killed eighteen soldiers will kill the President if they don't return my family to me. Remember! The day after tomorrow!' He turned and walked away through the buses and trucks which were blowing their horns angrily at the policeman who seemed to have become a statue watching, with eyes like a dead cow's, a tall Bedouin disappear into the crowd. 207

For the next ten minutes the policeman tried to recover his nerves and get the traffic flowing smoothly again; he tried to convince himself that what had happened has been a stupid joke or a hallucination brought on by overwork. But there was something about the certainty in the madman's voice that worried him; that, and his having mentioned Abdul-el-Kebir, when it was a well-known fact that the ex-President had escaped and was in Paris, and constantly calling his supporters to organize themselves. Half an hour later, unable to concentrate on his work and afraid that he was either going to cause a serious accident or a breakdown in the traffic flow, he left his post, went over the road, through the ministry garden and into the spacious entrance hall with its white marble pillars. 'I want to talk to the head of security,' he said to the first porter who crossed his path. Fifteen minutes later, Ali Madani, the minister himself, was listening, with a worried frown on his face, very attentively to what he said, while sitting behind a beautiful, almost ethereal lacquered mahogany table. 'Tall, thin, with his face covered by a veil...?' he repeated, wanting to make sure that the policeman hadn't made a mistake. 'Are you sure?' 'Completely sure, Your Excellency... A real Targui, like you only see on the postcards these days. A few years ago there were plenty in the Kasbahs and market places, but since they've been stopped from wearing the vein, I haven't seen any...' 'It's him, there's no doubt about it...' said the minister, who had lit a long, filtered Turkish cigarette and seemed lost in his own thoughts. 'Now tell me as exactly as you can what he said.' 'He said that if you didn't let his family go free out there on the corner, by the day after tomorrow, then he'd shoot the President.' 'He's completely mad...' 'That's what I said to him, excellency... But sometimes these madman can be dangerous.' Ali Madani turned to Colonel Turki, the Director General of State Security and the man he considered as his true right hand, and exchanged a profoundly uneasy look with him. 208

'What the devil's he talking about...?' he asked him. 'As far as I know we haven't touched his family.' 'Maybe it's not the same man.' 'Oh come on, Turki...! There aren't that many Tuareg in the world who know about Abdul-el-Kebir and the death of those soldiers. It must be him.' He turned to the policemen and waved him away. 'You can go... But not a word of this to anyone.' 'Don't worry, Your Excellency,' he answered nervously. 'In matters of security I'm as silent as the grave...' 'So you'd better be,' was the curt reply. 'If you do as I say then I'll recommend you for promotion. But if you don't then you'll have to answer to me personally. Is that clear?' 'Of course, Excellency, of course.' When the policeman had left the room, the minister stood up and went over to the window. He parted the lace curtains and gazed out at the sea and at the distant black cloud and at the rain on the water, making a beautiful effect of light and shadow. 'So he's here...' he said to himself, but in a voice loud enough to be heard. 'That damned Targui isn't content with the million and one problems he's already caused us but has to come right up to our own door now to provoke us further... It's outrageous! Absurd and outrageous!' 'I'd like to meet him...' 'Hell and damnation, me too...' he exclaimed with conviction. 'You don't meet a man with such guts often.' He stubbed his cigarette out on the glass. 'But what the devil's he looking for?' he said, suddenly angry. 'What's this story about his family?' 'I haven't got the least idea, Excellency.' 'Get in touch with El-Akab,' he ordered. 'Find out what's happened to this madman's family. Shit...!' he muttered as he dropped the cigarette butt from the window and watched it hit his own car parked at one end of the garden. 'As if we didn't have enough with Abdul...!' He turned to look straight at him. 'What the hell are your people in Paris doing?' 'They can't do anything, Excellency,' he said apologetically. 'The French have got him perfectly protected. We haven't even found out yet where they're hiding him.' The minister went to his table, picked up a pile of documents and waved them accusingly at the colonel. 209

'Look at this!' he said. Reports on generals deserting, people crossing the border to join Abdul, secret meetings in our garrisons in the interior... All I need is a mad Targui trying to knock off the President! Find him!' he ordered. 'You've got the description: a tall man dressed like a ghost, with a veil over his face so that you can only see his eyes. There can't be many like that running round town.'

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He found what he was looking for in the shape of an old Rumi temple: one of those curious churches the French had scattered round the country, even though they must have known that they would never convert one single Muslim to Christianity. It stood in what had been on the point of becoming a fashionable and luxurious residential area in one of the suburbs, right next to the beach and a stretch of high cliffs; but it had been one of the first targets in the revolution - engulfed by flames one dark midnight; flames which had raged until dawn because neither the fireman nor the people living nearby had dared go near to put out the fire, knowing that nationalist snipers were posted in the woods nearby, ready to shoot down whoever was foolish enough to go near the conflagration. In time it had become a crumbling, dusty skeleton, a refuge of rats and lizards, for not even the tramps would go near it since one of them had been found dead there one night -the night of the tenth anniversary of its construction, by a strange coincidence- in highly mysterious circumstances. The big central nave had lost its roof and had been turned by the sea breeze into a most unpleasant place; at one end, however, behind what had been the high altar, there was a door leading to several small and relatively cozy rooms, two of which still had almost all the glass left in the windows. It was a lonely, quiet place, exactly what Gazel needed after the most nerveracking days of his life; he was confused and sickened by running through the city, bewildered by the multitude of people, the traffic and the insufferable uproar of a world, the chief occupation of the inhabitants of which seemed to be to try to break the eardrums of people like Gazel who had always been accustomed to peace and silence. Exhausted, he spread his blanket on the floor in a corner and fell asleep still clutching his gun; a sleep plagued by nightmares in which trains, buses and crowds of people rushed noisily at him and flattened him into a shapeless, bleeding mess. He woke at dawn trembling with the cold but with sweat streaming down him because of the dreams; he also felt immediately a lack of air, as if a giant hand was trying to suffocate him, as, for the first time in his now long life, Gazel had slept within four walls and under a concrete roof. He put his head outside. A hundred meters away the sea was blue and calm, very different from the raging, foaming monster of the day before, and the strong bright 211

sunlight made silvery reflections on it. Carefully, almost ceremoniously, he opened the packet of things he'd bought in the kasbah and spread them on the blanket. He propped up a small mirror in one corner of a window and gave himself a dry shave with his extremely sharp dagger, just as he had always done; then he cut his wiry, curly black hair with a pair of scissors until he almost couldn't recognize himself. Finally he went to the sea and washed himself with a bar of perfumed soap, and was surprised by the bitter taste of the water, by the salt it left on his body and by the slight froth he made as he washed. He returned to his hideout, put on a white shirt and a pair of tight trousers, and felt ridiculous. He looked regretfully at his gandurahs, his turban and his veil, and almost put them back on again; but he realized he mustn't as his clothes had drawn attention to him even in the kasbah. He had threatened the most important man in the whole country, and right now the police would be searching for a Targui wearing a veil that covered his face except his eyes. He had to take advantage, therefore, of the fact that nobody even remotely knew what he looked like, and he was afraid that with his new appearance not even Laila herself would be able to recognize him. He hated the idea of strangers being able to see his face, and felt as embarrassed by the prospect as he would have been if he had to go out and walk among the crowd stark naked. Many years ago, when he stopped being a child, his mother had given him his first gandurah, and later, when he became a man, and a warrior, it was the litham that had shown that he had done everything in order to be worthy of other people's respect. Now, to take off both garments was like reverting to childhood, to the time when he could go out naked without shocking anyone. He paced up and down the room, and then walked up and down the wide, uncovered nave in an attempt to get used to the new clothes. But the trousers were too tight and prevented him from squatting down as he was used to for hours on end; and the shirt rubbed, causing an irritation and making him itch, but he didn't know whether that was due to the material or the sea salt. Finally, he undressed again, wrapped himself in the blanket and spent the day huddled up there, without eating or drinking, immersed in his thoughts. 212

He closed his eyes as darkness fell and opened them again as the sun came up. He got dressed, overcoming his loathing of the new clothes, and as the city was just coming to life he found himself in front of the gray ministry building. Nobody took the least notice of his appearance, nor looked at him as if he were naked; but he immediately noticed the strong presence of policemen armed with tommy guns placed in seemingly strategic positions, and although the fat man was still there waving his arms, he looked even more nervous than usual and kept throwing furtive glances all around him. 'He's looking for me...' he said to himself. 'But he'll never recognize me in these clothes.' Later, at the stroke of eight o’ clock, like clockwork, the minister appeared with his entourage and when he arrived at the ministry Gazel saw how he ran straight up the steps without waiting to greet anyone. He sat on one of the benches along the esplanade, looking like just one more of the idle people who already abounded in the city, confident that at any moment Laila and the children would come out of that same door. But deep down inside a voice told him, despite his efforts not to listen, that he was wasting his time. At midday Madani left, accompanied by a roar or motorcycles, not to return again that day. And in the evening, when it was clear that they weren't going to release his family, Gazel wandered off, realizing that as much as he tried it would be impossible for him to find the people he loved in the hubbub of the city. His threat against the President had made no impression whatsoever, and he asked himself -without expecting a reply- why they still needed to hold on to his family if Abdul-el-Kebir was already free? It couldn't be anything but a stupid, cowardly revenge, for how else could they get any pleasure out of hurting defenseless people who had never done anyone any harm. 'Maybe they didn't believe me,' he reasoned with himself. 'Maybe they think that a poor ignorant Targui couldn't get near the President.' And maybe they were right, for in those few days Gazel had learned how little his knowledge, experience and judgment were worth, and how small he was, in the busy, complex world of a capital city. 213

A forest of houses washed by an enormous salt sea, with plenty of fountains gushing more sweet water in one day than a Bedouin drank in a whole lifetime; and built on a stony ground that only served as a nest for thousands of rats... It was logical that in such a place even the bravest, cleverest and most noble Imohag of the blessed KelTalgimus people, should feel as impotent in the fight as the most humble Akli slave. 'Could you tell me how to get to the President's palace...?' He had to ask five times and listen carefully to the answers, because the labyrinth of streets that all looked the same as one another was totally unfathomable for him. But finally, after persisting until it was almost dark, he came across the most splendid building he'd ever seen, which was surrounded on all sides by high railings and which faced a spacious park. A guard of honor, dressed in red tunics and showy feathered helmets, paraded up and down, obeying commands automatically; and when it went away, tall sentries looking more like stone than flesh and blood- were left at every corner. He studied the park closely, and found a cluster of tall date palms that looked down over everything for at least two hundred meters inside the gates. In the distant desert Gazel often spent days perched at the top of a palm tree, sleeping tied to one of the thick leaves, as he laid in wait for a herd of onix that otherwise would have sensed the presence of a human being. He estimated the distance between the palm trees and the iron railings and decided that if he could get up of the trees at night without being seen, he had a good chance of taking a shot at the President as he tried to enter or leave the Palace. It would just be a question of patience. And a Targui was never short of patience!

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As soon as the telephone rang he knew who was calling, because it was the hot line straight from the President. 'Yes, sir?' 'Ali...? I've just had a call from General Al Humaid...' the voice was trying to sound calm, but he noticed it sounded distinctly different. 'He asked me "respectfully" to call an election as soon as possible so as to avoid bloodshed.' 'Al Humaid!' Ali Madani found his own voice equally changed and also tried to feign calmness. 'But Al Humaid owes everything to you... He used to be just an obscure commandant that...' 'I know, Ali, I know,' the President interrupted him impatiently. 'But now he's where he is, military governor of a key province and with our biggest tank corps under his command...' 'Dismiss him...!' 'That would only precipitate things... If he revolts, the province will follow him. And a whole province in rebellion is all the French need to rush in and recognize a "provisional government". Those cabilenos from the mountains have never had much affection for us Ali and you know it, better than I do...' 'But you can't accept his demands...' he retorted. 'The country isn't ready for an election.' 'I know... That's why I called you. What news is there of Abdul?' he asked. 'I think we've located him... They're keeping him in a small chateau in the Saint Germain wood, near Maison Lafitte...' 'I know the place. We once hid for three days in that wood, getting ready for an assault. So what's your plan?' 'Colonel Turki left for Paris yesterday, via Geneva. By this time he should be making contact with his people. I'm expecting a call from him anytime now.' 'Make him move as soon as he can.' 'I don't want him to do anything until he's completely sure of success,' he replied. 'If we fail, the French won't give us a second chance.' 'OK...' Keep me informed' The President hung up. Ali Madani replaced the receiver slowly and sat quietly in his armchair for a long time lost in thought; he wondered what would happen if Turki 215

failed in his mission and Abdul continued to rouse the people. General Al Humaid was only the first, and knowing him as he did, Ali was sure he wouldn't have had the courage to take the initiative and address himself to the President if he hadn't been sure that other garrisons would join him immediately. He thought about all the provinces and guessed that at least seven -that meant a third of the armed forces- would be on Abdul's side from the word go. From then on civil war was just a short step away- especially if the French were intent on it breaking out. They still hadn't forgiven them for the humiliation inflicted on them twenty years ago, and in Paris they still dreamed of returning to claim the wealth that for over a century they had considered to be theirs. He lit one of his exquisite Turkish cigarettes and went to the window to gaze peacefully at the sea, the beach which was deserted at that time of the year, and the wide esplanade, and asked himself if the time had come to say good-bye to that office he loved so much. It had been a long road to get there -a road which had meant imprisoning one man who, deep down, he had admired, and subjecting himself to another who, also deep down, he had despised. It had been a difficult road but in the end it had led to most of the power in the country being concentrated in his hands, and no one -no one except maybe that damned Targui- could make a single move unless he permitted it. But now he saw that power starting to collapse, he saw it slipping through his fingers like dry, crumbling clay, and the more he tightened his fist so as not to lose it, the faster it crumbled. He refused to accept that the monolithic state they'd built with so much sweat and other people's blood could really be so fragile, and that the simple sound of one name, Abdul-el-Kebir, was enough to shake it to its foundations. But events were intent on proving it so and maybe the time had come, he thought, to face facts and admit defeat. 'Darling, you'd better start packing... I want you to take the children to Tunis for a few days... I'll let you know when you can come back.' 'Are things that bad?' 'I don't know yet,' he said honestly. 'It all depends on how Turki gets on in Paris.' He hung up and gazed at the portrait of the President on the back wall. If Turki failed, or went over to the enemy, then all was lost. He had always trusted Turki's efficiency and loyalty, but now he was worried 216

whether that trust was wholly justified.

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He spent most of the day running through the route between the Presidential Palace and the kasbah. He had got to know the kasbah and now was confident that he could get there from his hideout and back again without once getting lost. But he couldn't get used to the streets in the modern quarter, all so straight and similar, differentiated only by the shops or by signs he couldn't decipher. Later he bought a large quantity of figs, walnuts, dates and almonds, for he didn't know how long he'd have to wait at the top of the palm tree. He also bought a large canteen which he filled with water at the nearest fountain, and finally went back to the ruined church, checked his guns again and waited patiently, leaning against the wall and trying to think of nothing else but the way he had to go to get to the palace. The dark kasbah was empty as he crossed it in silence, startling the cats, and a clock gave three loud, slow chimes as he reached the first of the asphalt roads. He raised his head to look at the luminous dial, which looked back at him with its large Cyclops’s eye; the darkness didn't even enable him to see the outline of the tower so the clock seemed like an enormous full moon hanging freely on the horizon. The roads were deserted; not even a night bus or a garbage truck passed him and even though he realized it was very late, the unusual silence made him uneasy. The silence was soon broken by the appearance of a black police car with a revolving light passing in front of him; then in the distance -by the beach, he guessedhe heard a siren wail. He hurried on, more and more nervous, and had to flatten himself in a doorway as another black car came up and stopped at the edge of the kerb, two hundred meters away, and turned off its lights. He waited patiently, but the occupants of the car seemed to have chosen that as a strategic point, controlling the junction of two streets, and maybe they were going to watch there all night. After a few minutes' thought he decided to go down the next intersection and try to go round the obstacle. But he realized, however, that on being forced to abandon the route he'd memorized so painfully he was getting lost. All the streets looked the same to him and in the sad half-light of the street lamps they looked exactly identical and he could find no sign of any of the tiny details he'd noticed during the day. He began to get anxious as the further he went the more he got lost, and there was 218

no wind to face or stars to orientate himself by. Another police car crossed in front of him and he threw himself under a stone bench; when it had passed he sat down on the bench in an attempt to order his thoughts and try to decide on which side of that giant, stinking city lay the Presidential Palace, and on which side lay the kasbah and the other places which had become, to a certain extent, familiar to him. Finally he realized that the game was up and that it would be wiser to go back and try again the next night. He retraced his steps but the way back was just as complicated as the way forward, and he continued to be lost for a long time until he heard the rumbling of the sea; he came out onto the wide esplanade and found himself in front of the now familiar Ministry of the Interior. He sighed with relief. From there he knew the way back to his hideout; he quickened his step, but just as he was about to go up the winding alleyway step that led to the native quarter, the headlights of a car parked at the kerb went on, spotlighting him, and an authoritative voice shouted: 'Hey you...! Come here!' His first impulse was to run up the street, but he checked himself and went to the front window, getting out of the light beam that hurt his eyes. Three uniformed men locked at him severely from the dark interior of the car. 'What are you doing in the street at this time of the night?' asked the one who had shouted and who sat next to the driver. 'Didn't anyone tell you there'd a curfew on?' 'A few what...?' he repeated stupidly. 'Curfew, fool. They announced it on the radio and TV Where have you come from?' Gazel pointed vaguely behind him. 'From the port...' 'And where are you going?' He nodded towards the alleyway. 'Home.' 'Good. Now let's see your papers.' 'I haven't got any.' 219

The man in the back seat got out with a submachine gun, though with apparently little spirit for using it. He went towards Gazel with a weary step and said in a peevish tone: 'Now, let's see. How come you haven't got any papers? Everyone's got an identity card.' He was a tall, strong man with a big mustache and an air of being sure of himself, but suddenly he doubled up and gave a howl of pain because of the tremendous blow Gazel had dealt him in the stomach with the butt of his rifle. In that same instant, the Targui threw the carpets over the windscreen and ran round the corner and up the alley steps. Seconds later a siren wailed, alarming the neighborhood, and when the fugitive was nearly half way up the steps one of the policemen reached the corner and opened fire -a short burst with apparently no aim whatsoever. The impact of the bullet knocked Gazel forward, headlong onto the wide steps, but he rolled over like a cat, fired and got the policeman in the chest, knocking him backwards. He loaded the gun again quickly, hid behind a corner and waited, gasping even though he felt no pain; the bullet had gone right through him and his shirt was already soaked in blood. A head jutted round the corner and fired without aim. The bullets were lost in the night or ricocheted off the walls and broke several windows. He started to climb the steps again, very slowly and hugging the wall. But just one shot had been enough to make his pursuers realize that they were up against a deadshot, and that it wasn't worth running the risk of getting their heads blown off. Seconds later he melted into the darkness of the nooks and crannies of the kasbah; the two policemen who were still uninjured exchanged a momentary glance and then lifted their wounded comrade into the back seat and drove off to the hospital. Both knew that it needed an army to find a man in the dark and intricate little world of the native quarter.

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It looked like the old negress, Khaltoum, had been right again in one of her predictions, and that he would die there in the filthy corner of a ruined Rumi temple, in the heart of a teeming city and listening to the roar of the sea -about the furthest place imaginable from the open solitude of the desert where the wind ran freely over the open plain. He tried to dress the two clean holes he had as wounds; then he bandaged his chest tightly with his long turban. Finally he wrapped himself, shivering with cold and fever, in his blanket and leaning in one corner fell into an uneasy doze with only his memories, the pain and the gri-gri of death for company. Now there was no release of turning himself into a stone, or of trying to make his blood thicker to the point of stopping it soaking this filthy turban; nor did it depend this time on his will power or strength of spirit -for his will had broken under the impact of a lead bullet and his spirit hadn't been the same since he'd lost hope of seeing his family again. '... see how wars and fighting lead to nothing, because the deaths on one side are paid for by deaths on the other...' Always the teachings of old Suilem; always the harping on the same story, because although the centuries and even the landscape might be different, men were still essentially the same and in the end became the sole protagonists of a tragedy that was repeated a thousand times over, whatever the time or place. A war began because a camel squashed a sheep belonging to another tribe. Another war began because someone didn't respect an ancient tradition. It could involve the confrontation of two families of equal strength or, as in his case, one man against a whole army. But the result was always the same: the death gri-gri took hold of a new victim and slowly pushed him towards the abyss. And now there he was, on the edge of the abyss and resigned to falling into it, though sad because whoever found his corpse would see that the bullet had entered his back whereas be, Gazel Sayah, had always faced the enemy. He asked himself whether or not his deeds had earned him entry into eternal paradise, or if, not, would he be condemned to wander through the 'empty land' for eternity; and he felt a deep sorrow and the thought of his soul joining the members of the 'great caravan'. Later he dreamed he saw the mummified camels and the skeletons in their rags 221

get up and resume their journey; then they arrived at the railwaystation and entered the sleeping city and he started to shake his head, banging himself against the wall for he was certain they had come for him, and that they would come and camp in the nave, waiting until he decided to go with them. He didn't want to go back with them to the desert, he didn't want to wander for centuries through the Tikdabra empty land and he whispered to them feebly -he didn't have the strength left to shout- to go away and leave him alone.

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Finally he fell asleep and slept for three days. On waking, the blanket was soaked with sweat and blood, but he had stopped bleeding and the bandage was a hard crust stuck to his skin. He tried to move but the pain was so unbearable he had to remain motionless for several hours before he even ventured to touch the wound. Later he managed to drag himself painfully to the tin flask; he drank as much water as he needed, and then fell asleep again. How long he spent between life and death, between lucidity and unconsciousness, between dream and reality, nobody -and least of all he himself- could know. Days, maybe weeks... But finally he woke one morning to find he could breathe normally without it hurting, and then it seemed to him that half his life had gone by while he'd been there within these four walls and that it was years – centuries - since he had arrived in the city. He ate the walnuts, dates and almonds hungrily and finished the rest of the water. Then he stood up with difficulty and, leaning against the wall, took a few steps; but he felt sick and had to lie down again. Then he looked all around him, called out in a loud voice and thus assured himself that the gri-gri of death wasn't at his side. 'Maybe old Khaltoum was wrong...!' he said to himself, happy after his discovery. 'Maybe in her dreams she saw me wounded and defeated but she didn't know that I would be able to overcome it.' On the following night, half walking and half crawling, he managed to reach the nearby fountain, where he gave himself a quick wash and got off the bandage that seemed to have become one with his skin. Four days later, anyone who might have ventured into the blackened ruins of the old church would have been horrified by the sight of a tall, ghostly, tottering skeleton, dragging his feet up and down the empty nave; overcoming fatigue and nausea he was determined to make a superhuman effort and return to the land of the living. Gazel knew that every one of those steps took him further from death and a tiny bit closer to the desert he loved. He let another long week go by, recuperating his strength, until there was nothing left to eat and he realized that the time had come to leave his hideout for ever. He washed himself and his clothes in the fountain, taking advantage or the 223

darkness and the solitude of that quarter; and on the following morning he put captain Kaleb-el-Fasi's heavy revolver into his bag and left behind, with great sorrow, his rifle, sword and now ragged gandurahs, and he walked slowly back into town. He stopped in the kashah where he ate till he was full, drank a strong, sweet scalding tea which made his blood pound through his veins, and bought himself a new electric-blue shirt which cheered him up for a brief moment. Strengthened, he resumed his walk, stopping for a moment on the steps where he had been shot, to look at the bullet marks on the old walls. He turned into the wide avenue and was surprised to find crowds of people on both sides of the road, and when he tried to cross over, in the direction of the station, a policeman in uniform prevented him, saying: 'You can't cross yet... Wait!' 'Why?' 'The President is about to go by.' He didn't need to see it to know that the death gri-gri was with him again. Where he had sprung from, or where he had been hiding all this time, he didn't know, but there he was, clinging to his new shirt and laughing softly at him, for stupidly thinking that he had gotten free. He had forgotten all about the President. He had forgotten his oath to kill him if they didn't release his family, but now, with the railway station right in front of him, just a hundred meters’ separation him and a return to the desert, fate seemed to want to make a mockery of his fine intentions and the death gri-gri decided to play him a tragic trick, for the man who had been the beginning and end of all his sufferings and misfortunes was about to cross in front of him. Insh-Allah! It was His will, so he had to keep his promise and kill the President; nothing and no one, not even a noble imogah of the Kel-Talgimus, could go against the will of the heavens. If He had arranged it so that on that very day at that very time his enemy should stand once again between him and the life he had chosen, it must be because the High One himself had decided that this enemy should be destroyed and that he, Gazel Sayah, was the instrument chosen to destroy him. 224

Insh-Allah! Two motorcyclists passed with their sirens and almost immediately the crowd began to clap and cheer at the top of the avenue. Oblivious of everything but his mission, the Targui put his hand in the leather bag and found the butt of the gun. More motorcyclists -this time in formation- appeared round the corner and ten meters behind them came a big, black, slow saloon car, which almost hid another, open car, in the back seat of which a man sat waving to the crowd. The police fought to contain the clapping, cheering crowd and from the windows of the buildings women and children threw down flowers and confetti. He grabbed the gun tightly and waited. The station clock struck twice, as if inviting him for the last time to forget it all; but its echo was lost among the sirens, the shouting and the applauding. The Targui's eyes clouded, he felt like crying, he cursed the death gri-gri out loud and the policeman in front of him, who had his arms stretched out, turned to look at him, surprised by hearing a phrase whose meaning he didn't know. The squad of motorcyclists passed, drowning everything with the roar of their engines; then came the black car and at that moment Gazel dropped the bag, pushed the policeman aside and leaped forward. In two strides he was just three meters away from the open car, with the revolver raised and ready to fire. The man who was acknowledging the cheering and applauding, with his hands hold high, saw him immediately. Terror appeared in his eyes as he put his hands in front of his face to protect himself and cried out in fear. Gazel fired three times. He was sure the second bullet had hit the man's heart, but he looked at his face to make sure and at that moment it was as if he had been struck by a divine lightening. There was a burst of machine gun fire and Gazel Sayah, the inmouchar better known by his nickname of 'The Hunter', fell backwards. Dead and with chaos written in his eyes. The open car accelerated and the sirens wailed, opening the way to a hospital in the vain attempt to save the life of President Abdul-el-Kebir, on that most glorious day of his triumphal return to power. 225

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