Last Stop Merzouga
Deep within the Ksour Mountains, there exist caves that hold humanity’s secrets. These were the words the Algerian man spoke to my son that afterwards, I would remember.
He’d been studying Arabic in Morocco for six months, my younger son, when at the end of his program we went to meet him for a trip to the Sahara. We took the train from Rabat to Meknes, and got on a super tour bus for an overnight ride south over the High Atlas Mountains. I spent the entire night praying as the bus driver sped around hairpin turns without guardrails. The moon was full and lit the cavernous drops from a height of 2260 meters. My two boys, young men really, slept peacefully behind me with no knowledge of the danger. I knew I wasn’t overreacting when a young mother holding two small children vomited into a balled up blanket from nausea over the ride.
We arrived safely just before dawn in the town of Merzouga and my legs wobbled from residual fear as I got off the bus and announced to my crew that I was the self- appointed guard dog. They laughed, needling me. If I was such a guard dog why hadn’t I anticipated the rough journey and done something to guard against it? It turned out they had each taken a sleeping pill to avoid a sleepless night on the bus. After that, each time a decision needed to be made, or some wrinkle arose in plans, they wanted to know why the guard dog hadn’t done her job better.
A Berber man, dressed in jeans rather than the colorful traditional robes of the other tour guides, met us. He held up a paper with our names so we would know him and he led us on foot, pushing his bicycle along side. He wound his way along the dirt main street and then cut through a dirt alley through the more private buildings to the hostel/camp situated right at the edge of the desert.
The camp was a beautiful structure with a flowing fountain in an open courtyard and bedrooms with cobalt blue doors and elaborate decorative metal work. The guide directed us up a set of steps at the side of the building to the rooftop.
“Go watch the sun rise,” he said. “I must go meet another party.” That party, it turned out, was the Algerian man who spoke words of poetry and mystery about humanity’s secrets. He was traveling with his German wife and their son. The three were to become our companions in the trip to the desert.
But as we waited for the sun to rise, we hadn’t yet met them. Up on the rooftop, there was absolute silence. None of the busy city sounds of Rabat, the capitol city, or the murmuring voices and diesel engines whining on the ride through the Atlas Mountains, or the calls from merchants and guides trying to get tourists’ attention. We watched the sun pour light onto the tufts of desert grass; it was like a curtain rising on a stage, illuminating the dunes and shifting blobs of brown that in a moment revealed themselves as camels, the very camels we would climb onto the backs of for our journey.
I watched the sun rise off the backs of the camels and remembered the last time I had been in Morocco, sixteen years earlier, with my Aunt who had lived there for decades. I felt my aunt’s spirit with us on the roof but didn’t say it to the others for fear they would laugh at me.
After we watched the sun rise, we went to our rooms, napped and then walked back into the little town for lunch. We returned to our camp late afternoon, as our guide had instructed. He and two others had brought the camels to the edge of the desert sand and they beckoned us over.
The other family waited their turn as the Berber guides helped our family one by one onto the camels’ backs. When all seven—we four and they three were mounted, the three guides led on foot, at the front, middle and rear of the line. The camels walked, connected by pieces of rope tied from the tail of one camel to the next camel’s mouth.
The other family spoke only amongst themselves and after Alex’s six months of intense language immersion and rigorous academics, our family made no effort to be social either; we were happy to reunite and enjoy the vista of endless dunes as the guides led us further and further into the Sahara.
We stopped just before the sun set. The party disembarked in exactly the reverse fashion as we’d mounted, one at a time with each camel folding itself to the ground to make dismounting easier. The guides led us away from the camels to the top of the nearest dune and offered to take pictures as the sky lit on fire. Our family stood together, a little apart from the German family as the guides took our pictures.
Then the father of the other family handed his camera to the Berber guide and asked for a photo of the seven of us together. He threw his arm over Alex’s shoulder as if we were all connected and that was how he and Alex struck up a conversation. When Alex told the man he had been living in Morocco to learn Arabic, the man began speaking Arabic to him, patiently repeating and searching for understanding between them because although they both were speaking Arabic, his was the Arabic of his native Algeria and Alex, while fluent, was speaking standard Arabic.
The man told Alex that he had studied geology. He’d left Algeria and now did something with water and engineering in Germany. But he said his life had started in Algeria. Alex translated for us and the man waited for him to finish translating, then went on speaking. The Sahara desert covered more than four fifths of his land, a land he loved. This is what he told Alex, as they looked over the three miles of Sahara desert separating us from Algeria, the two of them standing shoulder to shoulder in the desert. He told Alex that he reminded him of an earlier version of himself.
After a few moments, seeing the rest of us left on the periphery of the conversation, awaiting more translation, the two of them turned back to the group.
The Algerian man pointed across the desert and said, “Deep within the Ksour Mountains, there exist caves which hold humanity’s secrets. If you have ever the chance you must go. But not here,” he pointed across the desert. “This border is closed.”
One of the Berber guides heard him, and spoke firmly, “Yes. Very important. Not here. You must not cross.” He pointed to the Atlas Mountains in the near distance to our left. “Military rangers are posted there. If you try to cross, they will shoot you.”
I looked out over the desert. The mountains rose jagged and dark, snow glowing on the peaks. I couldn’t imagine snipers crouched with rifles trained on the border, or on us.
The Algerian man spoke to the guide. “I remember when the desert was the desert. There were no boundaries, and anyone could cross.”
The air became charged with tension, but the guide said nothing and the moment passed. The Algerian man went on speaking to Alex.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty,” Alex replied. “How long have you been gone from Algeria?”
“Twenty three years,” the man replied. “I am forty-five.” His eyes were full of light and his face unlined. His body was spry and lean.
Someone in the group expressed surprise at his age and he said proudly, “I run to keep myself in shape.” He looked back to Algeria in the distance just beyond the point of the horizon where darkness had fallen.
“1.5 million people died,” he shrugged. “That’s life. I left with my parents and my grandmother.”
“Why Germany?” Alex asked.
“My grandmother hated France,” the man said. “What the French did,” he shook his head. “No good. She would not let us go to France.” His wife stepped close to him then as if to keep him from slipping into dark memories. He took her hand and smiled. “My wife.”
We walked together down the dune to the Berber camp where we would spend the night. A series of rooms had been created with Berber carpets strung on the poles and as flooring over the sand itself. Inside each room, cots set up –for the four of our family in one tent, and three cots in another tent for the German Algerian family. Some native Moroccan college students on holiday shared another tent and came late to the dinner tent, just as the Berber hosts were carrying in huge bowls of couscous and meats that they’d prepared in another makeshift cooking tent. They placed the food on a low table before us and we ate for a few minutes in silence.
The Algerian man, who never gave us his name, waited for us to serve a second helping and then he spoke again. “My brother stayed. He married a woman.” He pointed to himself, “But for me, freedom was the most important thing.”
He must have seen the puzzled looks on our faces because he went on to explain: France had seized his country back in 1830 and during WW I, Algeria had hoped for independence and after World War II, when France’s promise for greater independence went unfulfilled, this became the Algerian war of 1954-62. Then, Algeria won its independence, but from 1991 to 1999 civil war pitted Islamists against the government.
“My older brother married during that time and stayed in Algeria because of his wife and her family. I was always afraid: afraid to sleep alone, to walk to school, even to talk too loud. 6000 civilians disappeared in the night. One of them was my uncle. My uncle had often talked too loud,” he said.
The Berber guide stepped back in then and announced a bonfire. He stared hard at the Algerian man as he shepherded everyone out to the fire. “We will sing you a song and then you may sing one for us,” he said.
We sat crosslegged around the fire, forming a circle. At the end of a traditional Berber song completed with instruments, the guides handed the rattles and drums to Alex for him to distribute. “Your turn to sing,” they said.
We conferred. Strangely, only one song came to mind that we all knew the words of. Off key, we sang John Denver’s “Country Roads take me home, to the place I belong…”
The Algerian man seemed pleased with the song. Every time we sang the chorus, he sang along, encouraging us. He had a good voice. When the song ended, he continued to hum the chorus to himself. A few Moroccan university students came out from the food preparation tent to join. They rolled a joint and started passing it just between themselves. The group broke apart then and headed back to the sleeping tents.
But I could see Alex wasn’t ready for sleep. He walked a bit past the tents, out into the dunes and I followed him.
Fearful of snakes and now the snipers in the mountains, I paused on a lower ridge while he made his way higher, holding his Iphone flashlight out before him. A billion stars lit the night, but still I lost sight of him with the rise and dip of the dunes.
“Alex, come back,” I tried to keep the fear out of my voice. “There might be poisonous snakes.”
He laughed. “It’s fine, Mom.”
I thought of the Algerian man holding his hand to his heart, saying “Freedom. The most important thing.” The snipers in the mountains somehow made the cost of that freedom so clear.
I knew where this was all going even if I didn’t really. I felt the ghostly presence of my Aunt, lecturing me to let Alex go. But, at least for the moment, I climbed the dunes to be closer to him. He was looking in the space between the camp and the border between the countries, not with fear though. He leaned forward, almost as if getting ready to sprint toward it.
As I saw the flaring forth of his passion there in the desert, I knew my time of being his guard dog, if I had ever been, truly, a guard dog, was almost over. Did the Ksour Mountains hold in those caves with their prehistoric pictures of horses and elephants a secret to humanity’s freedom etched into the stone? I wanted to believe so and I prayed that it be a freedom of peace.
At that moment, a shooting star fell across the sky, falling toward the Ksour Mountains.
“Did you see that?” I whispered.
“Beautiful,” Alex said, to let me know he had.
Susanne Davis is the author of The Appointed Hour, a short story collection published by Cornerstone Press (in 2nd printing) and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Hope College. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Individual short stories have been published in American Short Fiction, Notre Dame Review, descant, St. Petersburg Review, Zone 3, Carve and numerous others and have won awards and recognition. Nonfiction has been published and in 2019 named best personal essay by Connecticut Press Club.