After several hours of trudging through a rocky canyon, we stoppedat the base of a high ridge, and Kande and Kader started unloading thegear to make camp below a cliff. As the sun was about to drop belowthe horizon, all three men scattered to separate places, facing east toperform their ritual Muslim prayers. I looked at their peach-tinted silhouettes and wondered what they were thinking as they connected totheir god, first standing, then kneeling to prostrate themselves, touchingtheir foreheads to the ground. Against the stark, rocky plateau, prayerand religion made simple sense to me, much more than they had yearsbefore when I’d left behind organized religion and even faith.
The Tuareg people had adopted Islam when it spread through NorthAfrica starting in the seventh century, but they’d also retained elementsand customs of their indigenous beliefs, including a belief in the continuous presence of various spirits. I had read that men wore facial coverings, a rite of passage, and carried amulets containing sacred objectsto ward off evil spirits. Tuareg women, unlike Arab women, didn’t veiltheir faces, a refreshing contrast to the familiar sight of women in thenorth clutching white veils over their faces and bodies.
After prayers, Kader began preparing dinner. He made a fire withwood hauled by the donkeys and opened several cans containing an unidentified stew that he warmed over a fire. Bread was cut, and all of usexcept Kande circled around the fire to eat. Kande made his own fireand prepared a dough-like substance that he buried in the sand underthe heat of the fire.
As I ate, I watched Kande take the bread from the sand, dust it off,and break it into small pieces in a bowl. He saw me watching and offered me a piece to taste. I accepted it with guilt since I didn’t wantto take even these few calories from his modest meal. The bread wasbland, but its warm interior dissolved in my mouth. He poured somesort of soup he had heated up over his bowl and ate silently, apart fromour circle.
The air turned cold with the advancing night. Sarmi told me that wewould make beds under the overhangs eroded in the cliffs and pointedto a good spot for my bedroll. Unexpectedly, Mr. Sayed, who hadn’ttalked much, asked me in French if I wanted to install myself in his tent,referring to the small tent he had brought from Algiers. I laughed to myself, both at the French usage of the reflexive verb s’installer and at hispreposterous suggestion, which was heard by our Tuareg guides. I wasamused but not astonished that Mr. Sayed must have thought a Western