Arouane

It was two weeks by camel to get to Arouane and back to Timbuktu; Robin and Ken had to leave Africa before then. Azima, a Tuareg of 25, arranged for a vehicle. Azima was born in Arouane; his family live there. Unschooled, he speaks fluent French and very good English, and, like most people in Mali, four native languages. The driver, Izzah, arrived with the Land Cruiser the next morning—dressed also in a Tuareg blue boubou with a pale blue turban of gossamer-thin fabric on his head, a stout middle-aged guy with perfect teeth and excellent French, energetic and jovial. He had a lad, Mohammed, with him identified as his mechanic; during the trip Mohammed also did the cooking. We picked up a middle-aged, lean, always sober, serious, and silent Arab-looking guy, Amadou, who was to be the guide.

two boys next to two sitting camels

We drove through the sand roads of Timbuktu and into desert, scattered with thorn trees and tufts of a grass inedible for camels and goats. The men covered their faces, save for the eyes, with the ends of their turbans, to filter the sandy air. Under the vacant sky, the vehicle growled across dunes and hollows, sometimes white with salt. Now and again there were blackened depression where water had stood. On a crest the vehicle got stuck; Mohammed got out and let some air out of the tires, to increase the area of their traction.

After a few hours, we stopped at a small tree, laid out blankets and prepared lunch. We had mangos and dates and dark flat breads. The men cooked lamb and rice over a fire of sticks. I strolled off into the distances. The sands were very fin, yellow beach sand, rippled like the patterns in watered silk. A white mist of salt swirled over the surfaces. Here and there were small fields of black basalt pebbles. The sands too were drifting in sheets, eastward to Niger, Chad, Ethiopia, to eventually silt in the Arabian Sea.

We reached whole stretches where not a blade of vegetation was visible. Walking over the sand gave me a hitherto unknown sensation of walking on the very surface. In the waves of the Sahara that extended for three and a half million square miles, big as the whole of the United States. I was a water bug held to glide across the surface of a pond. Everywhere else I have walked on this earth, I had been shadowed and enveloped by buildings and trees higher than myself. The presence of a dark depth beneath, that elsewhere the trees sunk their taproots into and in which the dead are buried, was also missing. One is on sand, and below there is sand. Here I could only be buried in sand and disinterred by the winds.

The time of human concerns, and that of our own journey, faded out before the presence of geological time, which extended across the crests and hollows drifting under the featureless sky. The horizons that opened unendingly upon flowing desert, the presence of deep water into which occasional desert wells descended, the blackened basins where water still stood during the rains took one back across centuries indistinguishable from one another. We stopped, the men got out, spread blankets across the sand and once again prostrated themselves in homage to Allah. Over them the empty silences of the sky opened upon cosmic time.

Amadou is directing Izzah across a path which the azalaï, the camel caravans of the Tuareg, have taken for a thousand years, bringing the great slabs of brown salt from the mines at Taoudenni. Yesterday, an hour ago, camels have left their hoofprints somewhere in these spaces, but the winds have erased them already. The great dunes that loom up are as ephemeral as the crests of waves in the oceans. Everything is ephemeral in this immemorial cosmic time. The tufts of grass visible here and there will be gone in another hour when another camel caravan passes.

Amadou indicates the way with small turns of his hand. Azima and Izzah know the way, but not this well. Izzah says that Amadou has the map in his head, and the invisible paths to Mauritania and Lybia and Niger too. The camel caravans travel by night guided by the stars—celestial navigators. When the sky is overcast, a Tuareg verifies the way by tasting the sand.

In the late afternoon we have a flat tire. I see a man with a child coming across the emptiness. He asks for aspirin for his children, sick with fever. Which I had.

At the end of the day we stop to gather some sticks; Izzah tells us there will be no more to be found from now on. He does not seem to care about the approaching dark. Indeed soon it was upon us. For hours I had watched Amadou signal the way across utterly trackless desert; now its dimensions are reduced to a band the headlights extend into the night. He directs Izzah with precise movements of his hand, peering into the cone of light ahead. He had literally memorized the shapes and spacing of tufts of grass over hundreds of kilometers. I tried to project what his mind was doing into my head—in vain. I though that no scholar reading Heidegger has so exacting an attentiveness to so vast a mental space. Perhaps Ravi Shankar improvising a six-hour raga on the sitar could give an idea of his mind.

About 10 o'clock, suddenly we are in Arouane. I can barely make out a few walls in the dark. The people warmly welcome Izzah; they exchange the long litanies of greeting. They lay out blankets and pillows for us, and we were surrounded by some 20 young men and kids, noisily joking and laughing over us. Then suddenly they all rush off: the imam is there. He sits on the blanket with a small charcoal brazier and tea kettle and at length offers us the ritual three glasses of mint tea: the first bitter as death, the second mild like life, the third sweet as love. There is no moon; the stars are dim in the sandy haze of the night. The heat is gone, but the sands envelop us in their balmy warmth, and the wind sifts fine sand continually over us.

I woke as the black of the sky was thinning into an amethyst haze. Great dunes surge about us, and, in the hollows, the ten flat banco buildings of Arouane half buried in the sand. The sun rose a pewter disk in the ocre mists. Azima brought a kettle of water for us to rinse our faces, crusted with sand. A little girl came to offer us necklaces, one with a piece of amber, the other with five small shells, formerly used as money in the desert. We had tea in the house of the imam, whom the light showed to be a small old man with pale skin—perhaps of Berber ancestry? The room was small; high in the corner there was a shelf with a few books. Sand was deep on the floor. Breakfast was balls of rice and millet—and sand. Outside a dozen small children were learning Koranic texts written on wood paddles.

village surrounded by sand

Arouane is older than Timbuktu, many old banco buildings are buried deep under our feet. Now Arouane, half-way between Timbuktu and the salt mines of Taoudenni, is an overnight camp for the azalaï, each camel bearing four slabs of salt weighting 30 kilos across the dunes where the sands float light as mist. But it is also a holy place; imams come to study with the resident holy man. The present imam had done his studies here with the prior resident. Here was still the primitive, original Islam. Islam as if first appeared in this place, Islam reduced to the Koran, the prayers, the fasts, in the simplicity, the emptiness, the eternity of the sands and the skies. The sacredness is tangible, in the complete absence of anything trivial.

Izzah proposed to take us to Dar-Taleg. This is a nearby ancient town which had been covered by the sands, then revealed by the winds, and explored by an archaeological team in 1962. They dated it from the third century A.D., collected a lot of pottery and artifacts, and left. The sands had covered over their work, but left visible on the surface the white ridges of walls of a dozen rather big houses and a mosque, like the diagram for a future city. There is no vegetation; Dar-Taleg's water source had long ago been buried.

We headed back. I marveled to see now how rare was the salt grass and how featureless the hundred kilometers that Amadou had conducted us across last night.

We stopped twice to get water at wells, where herds of camels, goats, and sheep were being watered. A leather bag is dropped into the well, a camel pulls it out on a long rope, a man hoists the heavy bag of water over to the trough. I admired the flocks of goats and sheep, who stick together in groups, waiting their turn like so many Catholic boarding school classes.

At the second well we bought a sheep; Amadou cut its throat with the knife every Tuareg carries at his waist. I was sickened to see its body long thrash spasmodically, like a decapitated chicken does. When finally it was still, we tied it to the front of the car and set out.

Suddenly the back window shattered—the spare tire had done it. Izzah looked around, grinned, drove on!

In mid-afternoon, we stopped and Mohammed and Amadou skinned the sheep, and cut up a potfull of meat, boiling it over a fire of sticks.

Then abruptly, crossing a dune indistinguishable from any other, there was Timbuktu, upon which a peaceful desert haze muses.

At Arouane, the imam had a tablet, like those purchased in towns for school children, in which a few dozen visitors had written their impressions. Soldiers and civil servants wrote florid lines of awe and gratitude for having been able to come here; some tourists had also written their impressions, less eloquent but equally intense. All said that Arouane is a holy place. The sacred is manifest in the decomposition of the arenas of work and reason. The sacred is manifest in the dunes that shift and engulf the banco houses of Arouane, the winds that spread into them granules of rocks and mountains from far away, carrying off the dust of the banco houses to the trackless distances. The sacred is manifest in the desolation of boundless surfaces spread out under the abysses of the sky.

In fact Arouane had already been a place of power in ancient times of "animism." The sacred is not only the outer spaces, where the world of work and reason dies away. the sacred is also in the past, definitively beyond the designs of work and reason. Before Timbuktu, Arouane was the capital of the Tuareg federation in this region. It is also its great antiquity that make Arouane a place of pilgrimage today. Like Angkor in Cambodia, Ayuttaya in Thailand, this ancient capital now reduced to a few houses has become a holy place.

Great camel caravans from Taoudenni, Marrakesh, and Gao once paused here, rested, and traded. Until quite recently Arouane was a market especially for slaves. Even today the Tuareg keep slaves, bella, normally emancipated in Mali. The market has closed down two decades ago, the great populations of camels and goats radically depleted by the drought of the '80s and the continued expansion of the Sahara. Trucks are relentlessly replacing the camel caravans that Azima still joins, on 32-day journeys each way to bring merchandise from Algeria and Lybia to Timbuktu.

The Tuareg, the blue men of the desert, are the great warriors who for ten centuries have been masters of the length and breadth of the Sahara. They became legendary for Europeans, the last and most ferocious resistance to the French, Spanish, and Italian colonial encroachment. During the drought that devastated the Sahel in the '80s, international humanitarian aid was pillaged by the military government, and did not reach the Tuareg, who was most affected by the famine. They entered into rebellion in 1990, and the military government of Mali struck back, destroying nomad camps, poisoning the wells, shooting down the camel herds. The people of Arouane fled, the women into tunnels dug in and stabilized under the sands, the men to fight with the rebels. The nameless dunes covered their abandoned houses.

Around the fire while the sheep was being roasted, Izzah spoke to us of the depopulation of the region. the great drought of the '80s and the civil war which ended in 1996 destroyed enormous numbers of camels, sheep, and goats. Everybody can see that each year the Sahara is covering with its sands another band of the Sahel denuded of its grasses by the goats. Our government does nothing! he said. But you Americans, he said to me, you know what to do! He said an American prospecting team had recently come and had begun to search for oil. Surely, with all the riches Lybia derives from oil, there are vast resources here! I know what he was thinking: his expenses would be greater than what he had agreed with us as the price of this trip. He turned back to me and ruefully smiled: The first thing the Americans will do is lay down a paved road here!

I was jolted out of my sacred revery: Arouane would become an oil workers' town, with shacks where tires are vulcanized, stands where trucked-in food is cooked under the blare of television sets; there would be shops. Truck carcasses and garbage would accumulate along its roads, the dunes will be littered, like all around Timbuktu, with plastic bags. The profane world of work and reason extends only by desecration.

Izzah had stopped five times that day to spread out his blanket over the sands and fervently make his prayer. He has no sense that inviting the American oil men here is sacrilege. In fact the profane world extends its work and reason without ever acknowledging its violent compulsion to desecrate. But the compulsion to desecrate is in religion itself. Religion does not create but acknowledges the zone of the sacred, and religion desecrates. Already when Islam came here in the eighth century, the animist gods were driven out of Arouane and the desert left empty for an Allah to dwell in a transcendent realm above.

Is not sacrilege a religious act? It was men serving religion that massacred and burnt the ancient gods of Arouane, as of Babylon, Egypt, Constantinople, Tenochtitlán, Qosqo. Temples are built on the ruins of and with the plunder of temples of other religions.

Work and reason are calculation, of benefit and loss. War enlists all the resources of work, reason, and life in a cause of unlimited destruction, where the conquerors are equally delivered over to death and destruction. For it is not only in contemporary war, it was also in the Hundred Years War and the Crusades, it was in every war, that there are no victors. It is through their thirst for war and conquest that civilizations that perished were destroyed. Religion sends men off to war; every religion blesses and sacralizes war. Religion opens the dimension of the absolute, it absolutizes the always only relative wrongs a people have suffered from another people. Today the Tuareg rebellion continues in Mauritania, Algeria, and Niger.

There is a contemporary horror of desecration, that of postmodern minds in rich postindustrial and multicultural nations. We have come to understand that our future, our wealth, is not in blackened industrial centers, but in high-tech miniaturized electronic and information industries. We seek to protect whatever our multiple cultures, and cultures wherever we encounter them has set aside as sanctuaries. We turn them into information, and cultural enrichment. A higher level of desacralization.

I did not hire Izzah to drive me in his Land Cruiser the four days over the sands to reach Mopti. There is an airstrip in Timbuktu. In four hours I was in Bamako, another five hours in Paris, another six hours to New York. Below there was the trackless ocean, a Sahara of water. I looked out the porthole of the plane into the transparent sky. Our eyes are relayed by the eyes of astronauts in outer space. We see our own planet from beyond, a blue and green marble in the immensity of cosmic voids. The Hubble telescope shows us photographs of the swirling spirals of incandescent gases exploding billions of light-years ago. Astronomers measure the number of years yet ahead before the incineration of our planet, the extinction of our sun, the burning out of all the stars of the Milky Way galaxy. Our cosmological and astronomical science has extended the time of the universe beyond the time of our own tasks, of our civilization, of our species. It has reduced to infinitesimal proportions whatever significance we can assign to ourselves in the universe. It opens us upon a cosmic space and time where the end of our species, of our planet, of our sun are marked. To our pragmatic perception of the practicable field about us our science superimposes a de-anthropomorphized and apocalyptic cosmic vision.

Four and a half Billion years ago the sun hurled out of itself a molten rock, flaming in the dark spaces like torch heralding destiny. As the surface of the rock cooled, bacteria, fungi, and algae entered into symbiotic lichens, which proceeded to crumble that rock into sand. We humans continue to decompose the surface of the planet. In the voids of outer space, we can now see the end of the time of work and reason, the end of time. The sacred is manifest in the comets and meteors that crash into planets, in the solar storms, in the extinction of stars grown old and cold. The sacred is manifest in the emptiness of the desert surfaces spread out under an empty sky.

Al Lingis, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy in the College of the Liberal Arts, 240 Sparks Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-1652. He specializes in phenomenology, modern philosophy, and ethics. In April, he was keynote speaker at the United Nations' International Conference, Dialogue Among Civilizations. His Latest book is Dangerous Emotions (University of California Press, 2000)

Last Updated September 01, 2001