"By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars." - T. E. Lawrence


a) The north of Tunisia is lush and green and in ancient times was considered the bread basket for the Roman empire. As you go south the weather becomes progressively warmer and drier and the vegetation less dense. Pretty soon you're among plantations of orange trees and after another few hours or so by car, the edge of the great Sahara desert. It is around this latitude that a string of oases cuts Tunisia from east to west, providing shelter and sanctuary to the numerous trading caravans as well as being cultivated for coconuts, pomegranates, and dates.

The indigenous people of North Africa are the Berbers, although this tag is a broad generalisation, as there are numerous tribes speaking different languages and dialects. The word "Berber" (and related names such as the "Barbary Coast") derives from "Barbarian", which in turn comes from the ancient Greek word for "non-Greek".


b) I wander towards the belvedere in Tozeur oasis, an outcrop of rock on the western edge of town overlooking the palms. Tozeur is in western Tunisia, close to the Algerian border, its old town buildings composed of thousands of mud bricks. On the winding dirt track I meet Amara, a short wizened man with a white turban and leading a beautiful sandy coloured camel. "Would you like camel ride? Good price." I shake my head. "What about trip to the desert, camp for a night, see the Sahara." This interests me more and we negotiate a fee. "Very nice dunes," he says. "Very big, in Star Wars!"

We go together to the local louage stand. Louages are intercity minivans which leave when full. We are lucky as we are the last passengers and don't have to wait. The van glides out of the oasis and into the flat, blinding desert and settles into a steady, monotonous rhythm. We don't speak, and I quickly enter into a stupor, broken when Amara suddenly tells the driver to stop. I look around: we are in the middle of the white expanse. Salt flats stretch to the left while yellow sands rise gently to the right. We alight into the heat, the louage speeds off down the straight tarmac, and Amara heads into the featureless yellow desert. I follow.


c) After maybe 15 minutes or so, we come across some scattered debris. A jerry can here, an old tyre there. Then, a low tent surrounded by a fence of driftwood. The sandy ground is burning, and the only relief comes under the canopy of the low tent, under which we crawl. A thin carpet covers the ground of the tent, which the owning family has vacated for us, the guests. "This is the Berber hospitality," says Amara. "Wherever I go in the desert, if I need a place to stay I can stay. We are all one big family."

Small shrubs dot the area, and innumerable flies hang in the air. "From the oases," says Amara, pointing to the two thin black smudges on the horizon: one in the east, Nefta, and one in the west, next to the Algerian border. We dump our bags in the shade of the driftwood fence and Amara takes me to see the other animals. A hobbled camel is chewing a nearby shrub and another is picking at some dates left out to dry. Some goats and a sheep are kept in a small pen, and a mangy looking yellow guard dog  skulks behind a bush. Some chickens are pecking at the ground: "They kill the scorpions," says Amara.


d) We walk over to another tent, also enclosed by driftwood sticking out of the soft sand. A shaven-headed pot-bellied man sits with his back to the fence, in the shade. He is the owner of the camp and the animals. He waves a greeting, it's too hot for any further exertion. His two wives potter about, sweeping perhaps, and smile at us. The mother beckons us over to a sand dune. She reaches underneath and behind and takes out some plastic bottles filled with sand. Vipers. Captured in Algeria and smuggled across, to be sold to medicine men.

I ask Amara if he has any palm wine and that if so I'd like to try some. He doesn't, but borrows a bicycle from a man who just happened to be cycling past us. Very mysterious. Amara heads off to Nefta oasis to fetch the palm wine, which is contraband in this Islamic country. The other man takes me for a walk into the desert. He shows me some beetles, birds, tracks, and plants which camels like to eat. We climb a dune and survey the unending desert. We keep walking and the man shows me a well, which consists of an old tyre covered by a piece of plastic. He lifts the plastic to show me the dark depths. "Only for camels, not for men," he says. The heat is exhausting. We trudge back to the tents and he leaves me. I crawl under the shade and fall asleep, oblivious of the flies.


e) Amara returns with 2 litres of palm wine, a glass, and 10 cans of beer. We start drinking. He sculls the beer while I sip the sour, milky wine. I ask for a story, but Amara ignores me. We start walking again into the desert. For the sunset. We drink as we walk, and occassionally stop to relieve our bladders. "Quatres ans sans boire de l'alcool." Amara has figured out that I understand a little French and it creeps into conversation. The sun is almost gone, drawing the warmth away with it. The desert colours changing: shades of blue with dashes of orange. Amara teaches me a few Berber words. Gemel.

I am tipsy, and I suspect Amara is getting there as well. We sit on a dune, watching the changing colours. Once again I ask for a story. "Une histoire." "Bonheur," says Amara, and he repeats it. "En ce moment, bonheur. Tomorrow is another day. Who knows what it will bring." Perhaps he has misunderstood me, and I ask again for a story. I am tipsy. "Pas de histoire. There is nothing to tell. There is just this moment. We are drinking. The sun is setting. We are happy. That's all. Tomorrow, a new day." And he drops it at that. I don't push him.


f) The sun is gone. The moon rises, as if a mirror opposite. We walk back in the moonlight and he keeps filling my cup. I pretend to piss whilst spilling the wine. The moon is a day past full, covering the ground with a chilling frost. Suddenly Amara speaks out and there's a reply. A herd of camels, and two women tending them. We follow them to their tent. Another Berber family: a man with his two wives. We are his guests. There is a fire. A big bowl of couscous which we share.

It is freezing cold. We reach our tent at last and I crawl under the single blanket. Amara lies next to me. It is so cold. Brilliant stars. Existence. I wake up later to puke in the dunes. Stumbling back, I lie next to Amara and hold him, shivering. He puts on more blankets but it's too cold. The stars and the cold. Still shivering uncontrollably. The smallness of life.


g) Next morning, I wake up to find Amara gone. He is at the other tent, and beckons me over. I pass the hobbled camel, eating at my puke, and enter the second tent where the family and Amara are waiting for me with tea and biscuits. The two wives show me a few things they made in their spare time, stuffed camels, necklaces and bracelets, carved camel teeth. They're eager to sell, and I don't resist. We thank them for the breakfast and hospitality and leave for the road. On the way I apologise to Amara and he hides the rubbish in an old tyre. We hitch-hike back to Tozeur.

Next to Tozeur train station I say goodbye to Amara. He doesn't even look at me, just slings his bag over his shoulder, says a quick "bye", and disappears into the crowd. The sun is already high this new day, and I go to look for a minivan for the coast.