It was past midnight, and the bench I sat on in the small mud-brickairport in Ouargla was hard. It kept me from sleeping. I was in transitin this remote oasis town, waiting until just before sunrise to board theflight to Djanet in the southeastern Algerian Sahara. It was here that Isaw Tuareg men for the first time.
Two large draped forms filled the bench across from me—mendressed in their traditional indigo caftans with white turbans calledcheches wrapped around their heads and draped across their faces soonly dark eyes were visible. Tuareg men are sometimes referred to as“blue men” because the indigo dye can stain their skin. The picturesI had seen of Tuareg people didn’t do justice to these two imposingfigures, and I watched them doze off. The Berber-speaking Tuaregs ofNorth Africa were known for their camel-caravan journeys across theSahara. Now they take planes when they need to, and drought has forcedthem to sell off their herds and crowd into tented camps and oasis towns.
As the long shadows of morning stretched across the stark landscape,we landed on a sandy airstrip on the outskirts of Djanet, the small townthat served as the gateway to the Tassili n’Ajjer. Near the Libyan borderto the east, the Tassili n’Ajjer, which means “plateau of rivers” in thelocal Berber language, was named when water, trees, and grass werepart of an ecosystem far different from the arid, rocky landscape it hasbecome.
The Tassili is home to more than fifteen thousand Neolithic paintings and engravings depicting the vanished savannah, where herds ofcattle and other large animals foraged for grass and crocodiles swamin streams and swamps. This open-air museum was well known to theTuareg people but was “discovered” by French archaeologists only in1933. It has since brought a slow stream of adventurers and scientists tosee the record of people who lived in this high desert nine or ten thousand years ago. I’d decided that before I left Algeria, I too needed tosee this remarkable landscape and its treasures. It was the 1974 winterbreak from my job teaching English at the University of Oran, the majorhigher education institution in western Algeria.
I was living in Algeria because I couldn’t bear to be an Americananymore. By the early 1970s, after years of street protests against theVietnam War, after being tear-gased and arrested and demoralized, Ineeded to go away. The Watergate scandal had just erupted. PresidentNixon had ordered the mining of Haiphong Harbor, North Vietnam’s