vice. He hoped my brother in Maroc was doing well. That he thoughtmy brother was in Morocco puzzled me exceedingly until I realized thatwhen I talked about my brother in New York, he heard Maroc. This wasapparently the farthest geographic reference point he knew in his worldof North Africa.
This made me reflect on Sarmi’s comments about my knowledge ofthe moon and my being an American. What did he really think of me?How did he see me—an odd, ill-clad woman from another place? Hadhe ever gotten to know a foreigner on his tours as well as I thought heknew me?
I was anxious to reply to his letter, but there was no return address.Instead, I wrote a response and addressed it to Sarmi, care of the Algerian Tourist Agency in Djanet, but I never received a reply. I wroteanother letter and asked my friend from Djanet to carry it with him thenext time he visited his family. But he wasn’t due to travel south untillate the following summer, when I was scheduled to leave the countryfor good.
Since I had no photographs of the journey, this strange letter wasthe only memento I had of our unlikely friendship, like a message fromanother world.
After forty-five years—returning to the US only to go into self-imposedexile again during the Iraq War and finally return again—I have wondered about Sarmi Moussa. Is he even alive? People don’t live much beyond their sixties in Algeria. I knew that our unexpected friendship inthe Tassili must have been far more significant to me than to him. I wasone of hundreds of foreigners he led through the high plateau in thedesert. But he was unique in my life.
I had planned to visit Algeria several times for reunions with friends,with the hope of returning to the Tassili. But a postcolonial civil warof the 1980s and ’90s made travel dangerous. The seeds of that conflictwere being planted even during the time I lived in Algeria. A populationexplosion, urbanization, and underemployment of young people unableto fill higher-paying technical or professional jobs contributed to grievances the government was unable to address.
The one-party state couldn’t hold. In 1988, thousands of disaffectedyouth took control of the streets, launching a cycle of violence that eventually killed as many as 200,000 people. The Islamist party that had gathered strength was banned and its leaders exiled to the Sahara. A decade