Sarmi said that men wore cheches to protect them from the blowingsand and sun. After a moment, he added that they started covering theirfaces and mouths at age twenty-five.
“And why is it important to cover your mouths?”
Sarmi hesitated and then replied. “Covering our mouths protects
us from evil spirits. We are not supposed to show our mouths to other
I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of this practice. “What about women?
And why isn’t your face covered?”
He thought for a moment. “Foreigners don’t want me to cover my
face, and women aren’t required to.”
I had read that despite the influence of Islam, Tuareg culture re-
mained matrilineal. Women could inherit property, initiate divorce, and
live independently, either with or without children. A fourth-century
Berber queen, Tin Hanan, whose tomb was in the oasis town of Abe-
lessa, was their most important historic leader. I wondered if knowledge
of this cultural history was widespread but said no more.
We continued our rambling conversation most of the day, with armslinked, and I forgot about my blisters as we talked and joked across thestark landscape, both unexpectedly pleased at our conjoined status. Mr.Sayed glanced at us from time to time but kept his distance, seeming toaccept my rebuke of his company in silence.
Sarmi and I talked about his lack of educational opportunities. Hehad never gone to school. Under French colonial rule, only 14 percent ofAlgerians had access to education at the start of the revolution. Sarmicouldn’t read or write French, and while he knew the alphabet of hismother tongue, Tamasheq, there was little opportunity to use it otherthan to decipher the words etched into rocks in the desert.
As we approached a narrow sandstone canyon, Sarmi announcedthat we were about to see the first of the cave paintings. From a distance,it was impossible to see anything except a sand-colored rock face, butas we advanced, the most remarkable images came into focus—finelydrawn shapes of antelope painted in red-orange pigment, lithe humanfigures of men with drawn bows, dancing and leaping around the animals. I was enchanted by the lyricism and artistry of these paintings,over eight thousand years old.
We continued our trek until we arrived at Tamrit, at the foot of a bastion of rock pillars that served as a base camp to the open-air museum ofrock paintings. Nearby was a famous stretch of cypress trees, the legacy