Mohamedou Ould Slahi: The actual true story of Ahmed & Zarga (2021)
Published in the excellent Modern African writing series of the Ohio UP, Ahmed and Zarga tells the story of a Mauritanian Bedouin camel herder who, with the aid of his trusted, loyal camel, Laamesh, more friend than beast or mount, goes in search of a particularly treasured young female camel called Zarga – intended as the eventual steed of Ahmed and his wife Jamila’s young son, named Abdallahi – for Zarga has gone astray from the herd.
Published in the excellent Modern African writing series of the Ohio UP, Ahmed and Zarga tells the story of a Mauritanian Bedouin camel herder who, with the aid of his trusted, loyal camel, Laamesh, more friend than beast or mount, goes in search of a particularly treasured young female camel called Zarga – intended as the eventual steed of Ahmed and his wife Jamila’s young son, named Abdallahi – for Zarga has gone astray from the herd. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (the author) qualified as an electrical engineer in Germany and has a wife and baby son there (though he is at present banned from Germany for political reasons); he himself is of Mauritanian Bedouin stock and is, in fact, the son of a camel herder. He shot to literary fame with his entirely different first work, a memoir titled Guantanamo diary, written in 2005 during a 14-year incarceration period (2002 to 2016), with neither charge nor trial, in that notorious facility. Born in 1972 in Mauritania, Slahi went abroad for his tertiary studies in 1988, but travelled to Afghanistan with idealistic intentions which, in the minds of CIA investigators, made him a suspect and got him arrested in Mauritania three months after 9/11 for association with Al-Qaeda. In Guantanamo Bay, he was subjected initially to months of severe torture and relentless interrogation. The US government allowed a severely “redacted” edition of Slahi’s prison memoir to be published in 2012; the “fully restored” text appeared in 2017. Slahi’s memoir was made into a film titled “The Mauritanian” in 2021; filming (with top stars) was done in South Africa. Given this highly traumatic background, Ahmed and Zarga can possibly be seen as a “return to roots” and as a type of self-healing exercise: imaginative re-immersion by the author in his paternal and ancestral sphere – far removed from the horrors he lived through in the West, though, of course, with the dangers, stresses and fears of its Northeast African pastoral desert setting fully depicted.
Ahmed and Zarga educates its readers concerning the reverence in which camels are held in this context, as it does in making clear the basis of this Bedouin attitude towards their beasts. Slahi’s novel’s natural, informal style and the impression of oral narrative that it establishes are extremely appealing, as well as elegant and aesthetically admirable.
Ahmed and Zarga educates its readers concerning the reverence in which camels are held in this context, as it does in making clear the basis of this Bedouin attitude towards their beasts. Slahi’s novel’s natural, informal style and the impression of oral narrative that it establishes are extremely appealing, as well as elegant and aesthetically admirable. The narrative context which is maintained throughout is of a sphere of life mostly far removed from modern technologies – though not entirely unaware of or untouched by the beginnings of an “outside world” that is slowly, inexorably, starting to encroach upon it. Ahmed – full name Ahmed Ould Abdallahi – is the main character. The narrator opens the story by saying that “wise and righteous men through the years related to [him and all his people] the story of Ahmed and Zarga”, but that he is the one who knows “the real and complete” version, since he heard it from his sister, who in turn heard it from their neighbour, “old Aunt Aicha … who knows all the stories of the Bedouins” (1). From her he learnt that “for Ahmed, love for the nobility of camels was in his blood” (3). We are also informed that “Ahmed knew too well that the day would come when the camels would disappear”, referring to it as “that sad and dark day when all the family’s camels [are] gone, and that day would be the end of time” (4). The signs are already there, Ahmed knows, for a terrible drought is ravaging their area. He believes that “people can only live when camels live”, so if these noble creatures become extinct, “humans would soon follow” (3–4). Ahmed – like the other Bedouins – is “subject to two traditions and two systems”, ie his people’s mores and traditions, and the rules and laws (including taxation) of the French colonisers. But, like most other Bedouins, “he accepted both as they presented themselves, as he knew to do in order to live and die a happy man” (5). Ahmed is evidently a mature man of calm good sense and balanced emotions. Bedouin life is not easy; they are a people who spend their “entire life in survival mode” (8). The year in which the story is set is especially dry and finding enough food for one’s camel herd increasingly difficult for the Bedouin herders, requiring them to take their beasts far away to graze.
The narrator’s respectful if somewhat anthropomorphic-seeming attitude towards camels is both charming and amusing, but evidently based on generations of experience and careful observation:
Camels need both freedom and company. They enjoy their time with the herder, but constant company is the negation of their freedom. They get sick and die of depression when the herder fails to understand that they need time alone, when they can discuss in their own language the things they cannot discuss in front of humans. (14)
Ahmed understands them, so once they have been taken to a place where they can feed, he leaves the herd for the day, going out to guide them home only in the late afternoons. On this occasion, he finds that something is amiss: Zarga has gone missing! Zarga is a beautiful beast: known as a “blue” camel (her colouring of a type rarely seen), because her fur is mainly dark, but with white patches. Ahmed is so taken aback by her inexplicable absence, that his blood runs cold; then he feels “a current of great sadness” overwhelming him, mind and body (18). He is agonised at the thought of having to tell his young son that the special camel intended to be his personal mount has now disappeared. Zarga is the granddaughter of Ahmed’s revered grandfather’s personal camel, a creature of such nobility that, when the man to whom she had devoted her life passed away, she refused to go out to graze with other camels, “remain[ing] in the camp, circling the tents and crying loudly in a heartbreaking voice”. When her late master was being carried to his grave, “the animal followed the procession solemnly”. She refused to leave the burial place when the humans returned to their homes, instead remaining “kneel[ed] between the man’s remains and the kiblah for days”. She would neither eat nor drink, and the deceased’s “family allowed her to rest in peace beside the man”. Because Zarga is the offspring of such legendary origins, bringing her home “meant more [to Ahmed] than restoring a camel to his herd” (22) – deep ancestral memories are involved.
Ahmed and his personal camel, Laamesh, have a comparably excellent relationship and great trust in each other. With several shared journeys behind them, “they knew and respected each other”. Laamesh is five years old, a mature and intelligent creature (a castrated male, hence tractable) compared with the two-year-old she-camel, Zarga. Laamesh never needed to be chased or compelled to do anything – when Ahmed “needed to put the tether in Laamesh’s snout piercing, he just gestured and the camel came”. Ahmed, because he knows what good companionship Laamesh will provide, is not so much anxious as excited about the possibly lengthy and arduous search that they will have to undertake to try and recover Zarga in the “treacherous, endless desert”. He knows many “hidas, songs sung for camels during long trips” (24) for the benefit of both mount and human rider. And although he will have to set out and journey further on mostly by night, he is used to this – it is a simple and practical way to avoid the unendurably hot desert daylight hours. Ahmed sets out quietly (he has not informed his wife or son that he is going off on this quest, to avoid burdening them with anxieties concerning the “disappearance” of Zarga or the dangers he himself might have to cope with). And the deep night is serene: “nature’s magnificence manifested itself in a clear sky and an infinite ocean of sand dunes in every direction. Everything everywhere looked exactly the same, … the shining moon and the bright stars reflecting off the clean white dunes” (30). Ahmed, like all Bedouins, also knows how to read the stars as his night-time map in the trackless desert wastes.
Lost in a dream-like haze, Ahmed has a disquieting vision – a portent of disaster that has broken through the spiritual defensive web which Ahmed attempted to establish around himself and Laamesh prior to setting out, including the protective talismans both man and beast wear permanently around their necks. In the vision, a witch-like old woman from his camp appears, flying towards him and the camel, enwrapped in malicious intent. She grabs one of his fingers so viciously that it feels as though it has been bitten off; when Ahmed jerks away, he nearly falls out of the saddle. He wakes in a fright, at once “mumbl[ing] some prayers to ward off the bad spirit” (33), for Ahmed is a deeply devout Muslim, though not demonstrative in his piety. But the frightening vision is fulfilled in the early hours of the day when Ahmed, having lightly tethered Laamesh to allow the beast to graze while he himself catches up some sleep, lying beneath a bush in the absence of proper shelter, is awakened by a sudden pain in his left index finger. He jumps to his feet in terror and, still half asleep, spots an especially dangerous snake – a desert viper – slithering off. Had he not been woken by the pinch of the snake’s bite, he would never have risen alive. “Ahmed knew that he had to act and act fast; it was simply a matter of life and death.” Knowing that there is only one (albeit drastic) remedy for his predicament, Ahmed prepares for the act with a fervent supplicatory prayer to “God of a burning flame! God of the living and the dead! God of the heat and the cold!” (39). The beautiful, moving prayer is too long to be quoted in full, but other parts of it go as follows:
I take refuge in God from the evil of all evil men, from Satan and the magician. … By God, I take refuge from all animals and people that are under your control. My God is on the righteous path. Their evil plans shall not hurt me for God knows everything they plan, say, and do. In the name of God, who is enough as my protector. In the name of God, who cures me. (40)
After concluding his prayer, Ahmed slowly removes his prized “Swiss knife, one of the … expensive ones known as a 108” from his satchel (40). The knife is essential equipment for any Bedouin, since its powers of cutting cleanly and efficiently when necessary are highly treasured.
What Ahmed has to do is, of course, to perform an emergency amputation of the snake-bitten finger, otherwise the poison will spread to the rest of his body and kill him – and he has to do this immediately. He begins by binding a painfully tight tourniquet on his left arm, tightening it as much as he can bear. Next, Ahmed lays the injured hand on his left foot, with the bitten finger sticking out. Lifting the knife high in the air, but aiming carefully, he plunges it downwards, severing the finger with a blow so hard that it is flung away in a high arc into the surrounding darkness. Ahmed will have to retrieve it later, but for now he has to deal with the pain and shock. Removing the tourniquet, Ahmed, after allowing the finger to bleed a bit more to make sure he is rid of all the poison, ties it tightly around the wound. After this, he allows himself a wee while to lie down on the sand to regain his physical and emotional equilibrium. Then he searches for the severed finger in order to give it a decent burial later, since people must honour their body’s parts. Next, Ahmed applies a little of the Chinese ointment he always has in his satchel, to the wound, aware that over the coming days the follow-up treatment is a further daily application of his camel’s “high-quality urine” (43). His blood has now clotted, the bleeding stopped and the pain begun to ease. After a small sip from his limited water supply, Ahmed lies down to sleep a little more. However, his dreams are fevered, disturbing and horrifying. He sees a pack of huge dogs attacking him. The dogs then get mixed up with (as well as transformed into) naked people, who – along with the baying dogs – shout at him that he must leave; he is a trespasser. He looks around wildly for his camel, but cannot spot Laamesh anywhere. At last, he wakes up, bathed in the pleasant early morning sunlight. As he in a near-reflex takes out his pipe to have a smoke, he beats out the old tobacco and applies a little bit of tobacco oil to his wound. Ahmed cleanses his body with the still cool desert sand, in lieu of water, after smoking, and performs the morning prayer. He hears “Laamesh grumbling not far away, and beyond that human voices” (49) – he is within reach of a human settlement, he realises with great relief.
Ahmed had learned to take everything life threw at him with grace and acceptance, but he didn’t deal well with the headache that came when he didn’t get his cup of tea. It was his weak point, he would admit, but he would never apologize for it. A man needs his cup of tea. (49)
He soon finds Laamesh, who “looked at his owner with the side of his eye and smiled’’ – a delightful detail. He seems to anticipate Ahmed’s every move and mood! Ahmed is anxious to get to the nearby settlement, knowing that “in the desert, three days in a strange tent is your right”. Without such a rule of required hospitality, survival in the desert would be impossible. The host is considered “merely proxy between the guest and Allah” (50). Hence Ahmed is well received at the tent he has chosen, with the host (a man named Omar) soon handing him a steaming cup of tea – the first of the ritualistic three cups the Bedouins drink in succession. Omar provides Ahmed with the information that the previous day a “renowned Moroccan tribe” (57) that sometimes spends time in Mauritania with their “sea of camels” in search of fresh grazing, was seen hurriedly driving their beasts towards their home. He is suggesting, of course, that Ahmed’s camel Zarga might accidentally, inexperienced as she is, have been caught up among these foreign camels, and swept along with them. Omar thinks the Moroccans aren’t above a bit of camel-snatching either; Zarga is a beauty, after all. Disquieting as the thought is, Ahmed will at least have little difficulty in tracking the Moroccan herds. Without saying a word to the men, Fatima, Omar’s gracious wife, goes off and returns with a tall woman who is a direct descendant of the Prophet. She is a healer and exorcist, and Fatima brings her in order to examine and treat Ahmed’s snakebite finger wound. She performs a complex curative ritual that will also endow Ahmed with further protection. The ritual is described in full, respectful detail as it is observed by Ahmed. Though slightly bemused and a little overwhelmed, he submits to the great woman’s ministrations with suitable humility. “Healing, he reminded himself, is to be received blindly, unquestioningly” (63). With Ahmed being evidently unable to provide the healer with a suitable token of appreciation (nothing as vulgar as payment), Fatima provides “some dehydrated meat, a handful of Medina dates, and a between-two-fingers measure of tea leaves in a small wooden bowl” (65). The given items all have appropriate spiritual significance. However meagre their material resources, we see, Bedouin people conduct personal encounters and exchanges with recognisably refined generosity and grace.
Following Omar’s helpful directions, when Ahmed sets off early the next day, he easily follows the tracks of the Moroccan camels. He does not overtire Laamesh, dismounting at the bottom of steep sand dunes so that the camel does not have to struggle to the top with him in the saddle as added burden. He does need to seek shelter before the dangerous worst of the day’s heat begins to strike down; however, he soon spots a small settlement of about twelve tents, choosing the most modest of them to request hospitality. Ahmed feels uncomfortable amid wealth and ostentation, and hates having to watch his Ps and Qs in pretentiously “refined” company, preferring the easygoing manners and earthy talk of poorer people. He has chosen his temporary hosts wisely, as usual, for “in the tent he found a lone, slender, athletic-looking woman. She had a hardworking, self-confident look to her, and when he greeted her he could see the honest welcome on her face” (69). Her husband is named Mohamed, she informs him, but she is quite at ease to be alone in a small space with a strange man, since Bedouin life conditions do not allow for or require full purdah for womenfolk, and trustworthy, cooperative conduct is both a deeply ingrained ethos and a practical necessity among them. Sensing his need for rest, she simply tosses Ahmed a worn cushion, on which he lays down his head. He is asleep within minutes of doing so, while the woman continues her preparations for the coming meal.
Ahmed dreams of Zarga being beaten by the stick of a foreign herder – a stick that has assumed a life and identity (and a scolding voice) of its own, while he can only watch from afar in helpless fury. He himself transforms into a huge camel-like creature, but in that shape remains unable to aid Zarga, who (crying) sometimes changes into Ahmed’s son Abdallahi, and then back into herself. Then Ahmed starts imagining the strange herder approaching him to sear his hand with a burning rod, but he is helpless as he struggles, terrified, to try and get out of harm’s way. The next moment, he wakes up in the stifling tent. The woman of the tent is gently touching his hand with a hot teacup to bring him out of his dream’s distress; it is her child that is crying. As Ahmed wakes fully, the woman pronounces that he was protected in his nightmare by Jatma. Considered “everyone’s grandmother”, she is a spirit in whom the Bedouins put their trust for her guardianship against nightmarish threats that can cause spiritual harm. Mbarka is the name of Ahmed’s gentle but practical hostess. Certain details make him suspect that she is a former slave, especially her way of assessing him as an individual and not in terms of his family connections and antecedents. The meal that she serves is offered on a single plate set in the middle of the small circle formed by Ahmed and the host family, which includes a young son; the meal, unusually lavish for such clearly poor people, contains some meat – probably provided by a neighbour to allow the family to feed the unexpected guest.
Another neighbour probably sent over the beautiful and costly tea service on which Mbarka next offers her expertly brewed tea. While they drink the rich, strong brew, the two men discuss the most appropriate ways in which Ahmed might retrieve his camel and manage the feat – or ordeal! – of driving a single, skittish young camel home without the usual aid of the entire rest of the herd to help guide her. It is now time for Ahmed to resume his journey, since the day has started cooling down. His hosts send him on his way with blessings, but Ahmed is in a hopeful frame of mind, for “being around good people made his heart joyous and satisfied” (80). Mbarka recites a famous poem appropriate to the occasion: “I’m going out to Allah as his guest,/ truly the guests of Allah will find comfort and face no hardship,/ I’m the guest of the only one,/ O Allah, guide the travellers on the righteous path!” (81). Ahmed loves singing, so as soon as he has mounted Laamesh, some way beyond the settlement, he launches into another hida. As the sun sets, soon after, Ahmed dismounts to perform the evening prayer. Then they are off again and, to ease the journey, Ahmed takes out his pipe, tobacco and utensils and has a smoke, as he loves to do as often as his supplies permit. And he resumes singing into the quiet night. He savours the fresh breeze from the Atlantic side. “Around them, the vast desert was silent and the sky was clear. The bright moon bathed the dunes, and the dunes recycled the moonlight, so Ahmed could see everything as far as the horizon: a rolling ocean of sand with only a few scattered trees to break the monotony” (83). When both man and camel reach a point of exhaustion, Ahmed halts the camel, tethering Laamesh for safety after dismounting and lying down for sleep in some meagre shelter of bushes. Sleep comes in an instant.
Yet again, however, his dreams are terrifying, involving the necessity of a life-threatening leap down a huge, steep cliff only to land among hostile, creepy persons and creatures. In the dream, he resorts to another prayer, part of which reads: “O Allah, I am under your care and protection so protect me from the trial of the grave and torment of [the] Fire. Indeed you are faithful and truthful. Forgive and have mercy upon me, [for] surely You are The Oft-Forgiving, The Most-Merciful” (86). The dream continues, however, with even more awful twists and turns and truly dreadful threats to the dream-Ahmed, so that he eventually resorts to the most drastic remedy at his disposal, waking (and hence rescuing) himself from the dream threats by bellowing out the name of his mother: “ZAHRA!”. This reversion to childhood was brought about, he knows, because “in all the great many times Ahmed’s heart and mind had been subjected to trials and tribulations, he had never felt sadder or lonelier. … He woke up scared and shaking, soaked in his own sweat” (89–90). After performing the dawn prayer and as the sky lightens, Ahmed makes a horrifying discovery: he has been sleeping close beside “a telltale mound of human bones” (92), inadvertently breaking a strong taboo. Immediately, he starts reciting a prayer for the dead person buried here, to appease him, her or them and ask for forgiveness. Although he afterwards begins planning his next stop and the route to it, Ahmed “felt a wave of goose-bumps washing over his dry body. The place was eerily quiet, with no sign of life, not one single sound.” Yet Ahmed knows there is a nomadic camp nearby, and if so, strangely “it was as silent as in the midday heat or dead of night” (95), which greatly troubles him. His reliable instincts are warning him to be careful of some great and unknown danger that will soon be upon him.
It is already dark when Ahmed inadvertently stumbles upon a strangely constructed, lone black tent of a type he has never seen before. “Have I crossed the border into Morocco?” Ahmed wonders to himself. The place has a sinister aura and resembles the kind of demon settlement that was described to him in childhood scare stories. He mutters some customary prayers, but he is in dire need of a drink (preferably tea) and some solid sustenance, so he starts tethering Laamesh; but as he begins to lift the heavy saddle off the camel’s back, some deep warning instinct makes him stop and leave it on his mount’s back. Resolutely, Ahmed decides that his wisest course (on meeting whoever is or are the tent’s occupants) is to “show neither fear nor wonderment” (97). This is a bit difficult as he catches his first sight of the tent’s occupant:
a very tall and extraordinarily fat woman …. If it weren’t for her old veil and the lack of facial hair, he would have greeted her as the man of the tent. Her face was wrinkled, with strong jaws and a long pointing nose. … [T]his woman looked nothing like the kinds of delicate women Ahmed grew up around. Her hands were big and rough, likely from doing men’s work. (102)
She greets Ahmed with the customary blessing, but it is spoken “impatiently in a deep, hoarse voice” – no social refinements or warmth of welcome here! She extends her large hand in greeting, and as she does so “the veins of her well-defined arm popped out like the roots of an old desert tree” (102). The woman has “sparkling” and extraordinarily “sharp” eyes capable of seeing far beyond the usual reach of sight, as Ahmed somehow discerns, and he sees and smells that she has been chewing the strong Moroccan tobacco that is popular in this area (104).
Morocco (where Ahmed now finds himself) was to him a fabled land in his childhood, when his saintly grandfather told him many accounts of this country’s famously learned and pious sheikhs, and of its alchemists able to turn stones into gold. His grandfather even told him that half of their own tribe lived there, but that “these distant cousins had lost their ways to the French and the Germans”. This might be a clue to this strange woman, though definitely not of their tribe, who “had shaken his hand”; for “the only people Ahmed knew who dared to shake hands with the opposite sex were the French” or those who had spent much time in their company, like his own cousin, “the translator Sidi Mohamed”. The observation contained in the next sentence indicates how very uneasy Ahmed feels here, for as the woman invites him to enter the tent, he mentions her smiling “dishonestly” at him. The feeling that this is a sinister place only increases when “the smell of rotten meat hit him, making his eyes water”. Ahmed concludes that “someone must have died here recently” and describes the “darkness and macabre serenity” inside the tent (108). Is his strange and clearly not too willing hostess mourning the recent death of someone close to her? She does at least hand him a cup of tea, but the woman seems to be keeping a “close watch on him with the side of her eyes, never saying a word” but only “sticking her tongue in and out in a quick, uncontrollable motion”. He takes a first sip – apprehensively. The tea is very bitter and thick in texture, and Ahmed soon starts feeling very odd, his lips “heavy and numb like two big bricks hanging from his mouth”, and he has lost his sense of touch. His sight, too, is affected: he sees everything “moving in fuzzy colors, with small, bright dots”. The small cup of tea feels heavier and heavier, and Ahmed is unable to raise the cup to his lips – nor can he throw it down. Although readers soon understand that Ahmed has been given tea with some powerful drug in it, he sees his situation as having “fall[en] victim to a bewitched cup of tea” (110–1).
Ahmed wakes up from the stupor into which he has been plunged, feeling “heavy and tired” and profoundly disoriented, still unable to control his muscles. He cannot even change from lying on one side to another, as he wishes to do. Even “his quest to bring back Zarga was gone from his memory”, which retains only a single point of reference: “that he was Ahmed, a proud nomad” (113). Now he makes out that his hands have been tied to his feet; he is trussed like a captured beast. The large woman is nearby, still keeping her huge eyes fixed on him. He next spots “a muscular man wearing only a pair of baggy, dirty black nomad trousers” – the garment emanating a strong, unpleasant odour, while he adds another strong smell from the strange, large bone pipe (still with bits of meat on it!) that he is smoking (114). Hygiene is definitely not a major concern in this small establishment. The woman is harshly scolding her husband, although Ahmed cannot easily follow the dialect they are speaking (not that the man says much). Ahmed understands Arabic and Zenaga and can partially understand “French, Wolof, Fulani, Soninke, and Bambara” (115), the dominant languages of the region, but his unpleasant “hosts’” tongue is beyond him. Ahmed is regaining his senses and now recognises that he was drugged, but is still bewildered by the questions whirling through his head, such as, “Why did they shackle him like a crazy bull?” (116). He wonders whether he has been captured in order to be sold into slavery by members of one of the notorious “raiding tribes” (117) of the region.
The woman of the tent has been “cutting and arranging” meat on a platter, and as she walks past the still tied-up Ahmed, she trips, sending the meat flying. One of the pieces is a human head, which rolls close to where Ahmed is lying! The horrifying sight can mean only one thing: he has fallen into the hands of a cannibal couple, who probably have similar plans for him as for their recent victim. Ahmed “wanted to cry”, but “a bitter taste filled his mouth [and] his stomach cramped, in an agony worse than he’d ever imagined” (121). The couple aren’t only cannibals, but probably also traders in human body parts sold for exorbitant prices in foreign areas, where the sold flesh is used to brew powerful, destructive potions. Ahmed has no one with whom he can share the terror of the death fear that is now upon him; he cannot even speak or pray aloud. In a semi-stupor of anxiety, he calms his mind by spontaneously composing a meditation on the serenity and significance of the desert moon he saw a few nights ago. It contains lines like the following: “O moon! … Give me comfort and show me light. You sing the praise of Allah in all majesty and silence. … Tell my wife and my [son] that I love them …. Tell the universe I love it …. My family shouldn’t worry about me,/ I’ll be waiting for them in heaven until they join me …” (123–4). This poem and the “devotional prayer” it contains, revives Ahmed somewhat. He knows that if he cannot begin to fight back by conquering his own fear, he is lost. His grandmother taught him that one’s own fear is “the biggest ally of the enemy” (125). He forces himself to address the man as the more reasonable member of the household, holding out the bait of a supposedly very wealthy family paying a huge ransom in camels in exchange for letting him live. He also appeals to the man as a fellow pipe smoker desperately longing for a smoke, for his “host” is still puffing away. If he can persuade this man to give him a few puffs on his pipe, disgusting as the thought is, he will have succeeded in establishing something of a human bond between them.
Soon after, an argument ensues between the man and his wife, and even though Ahmed cannot understand their actual words, it is clear that the husband is wavering in his murderous resolve (for which he has been sharpening his knife), but that the wife, with her domineering and ruthless personality, is successfully insisting that they carry out their plan. She grabs Ahmed around the neck in a powerful grip, and, as she does so, a charm that he always wears around his neck on a string – the hajab that his mother gave to him when he was little – nearly falls to the floor, since the woman’s rough grip has snapped the string holding it. Determined to keep it on his body somehow, Ahmed clutches it under his chin, but the man is suddenly stunned at the sight of the charm. As he points to it to draw his wife’s attention, she grabs it and throws it across to him. The man, in shock, utters the worst [European] swear word Ahmed has ever heard, for he immediately recognises the charm, having probably been conventionally brought up in a non-cannibal family before his awful wife lured him into marriage. The charm is one that was blessed by one of the most revered of holy men in Bedouin culture, Sheikh Ibrahima. He and anything or any person associated with him is either feared or revered. The revelation that Ahmed is protected by the sheikh’s aura makes the husband terrified of the consequences of harming him. The wife, undeterred, lunges over towards Ahmed. She is salivating at the sight of this “fresh meat” and begins to bite into Ahmed’s neck when her husband, determined to stop her, leaps upon her, the knife getting knocked to the floor in the ensuing scuffle. Ahmed seizes his chance. The precious, powerful charm is flying through the air, and he catches it and slams it onto the woman’s leg, the charm cutting deep into her leg and wounding her, momentarily disabling the threat she poses. Ahmed scoops up the knife in the couple’s shocked pause, and in a moment is dashing from the tent with the man in hot pursuit.
“Ahmed needed to find his friend Laamesh as soon as possible, jump on, and ride wherever the camel found it easiest to run” (132). As Ahmed glances back towards the tent from where he is running, he sees that the cannibal woman, initially stunned, has recovered and is now the closer and more powerful pursuer – having easily overtaken her husband. The woman is an astonishingly fast runner, in view of her immense bulk, and quickly catches up with Ahmed, to the point where he can feel her hot breath between his lean shoulder blades, but since he is now at last next to Laamesh, he slashes the rope tether of his camel and leaps into the saddle after giving the woman an elbow to the chin that momentarily sends her reeling backwards. But even as Laamesh launches into a quick trot, the cannibal woman grabs his tail and hangs on relentlessly. This is a method used to tame recalcitrant camels, by tiring them out – a terrible excess burden for the camel, but for the woman, a type of “sand skiing” (134). Thinking fast, Ahmed devises an emergency plan: he pulls the camel up short, the woman’s momentum forcing her to crash full tilt into Laamesh’s hindquarters, so stunning her and making her fall backwards, where she now remains prone in the sand. Laamesh, with Ahmed still safely on his back, can now proceed at his usual steady, speedy pace, putting increasing distance between them and the awful couple. Ahmed kneels down to thank Allah, after which he kisses his mount’s back in gratitude, whispering: “May Allah give you a long and blessed life!” (135) into the camel’s ear. He has made his escape from a dire, life-threatening situation, but feels that he needs to put at least a day’s journey between himself and the cannibals. However, he is unsure of where he should be heading, and can spot no guiding landmarks or signs of human settlement. All he knows is that it makes sense to head south. At last, exhausted by the battering sun and aware that he needs to give Laamesh a chance to rest and feed, Ahmed stops at a “suitable acacia”, tethering the camel to the tree. “He lay down on the shade-cooled sand, using his stick and the end of his turban as a pillow and the rest of the turban to cover his head,” partly shutting out the glare and heat of the day and falling into a dream world (136).
“When he woke up, the day had begun to cool down” (137). He is not yet as hungry as he will soon become, but dreadfully thirsty, and has very little water left in his guirbah (water bag). Ahmed has to share this water with his camel, for if Laamesh collapses, he is lost, whereas if he himself does, the beast might still carry him to safety. After praying, now that the sand has begun to cool off, Ahmed and Laamesh set off once more. As evening begins to fall, Ahmed forces a little urine from his body, which he catches and (half gagging) forces himself to drink. Among desert travellers, this is a known emergency measure, but can only be resorted to thrice – after this, the urine will poison one. Next, Ahmed simply throws himself down on the sand, face down, in exhaustion. At least he can feel “a gracious ocean breeze”, and the desert dew further cools the by now feverish man. The next morning, Ahmed is hardly in any better shape. Fortunately, his camel is profoundly loyal: “if it had been up to Laamesh, he would have found his way by now to where he needed to be, but he was ready to die in pain and dignity to try to save his master. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time a camel made this sacrifice” (141). The passage continues:
Ahmed crawled toward the camel like the weak and vulnerable baby he’d become. He tried to climb onto the saddle, failed, and tried again. Each try left him weaker and farther from his goal. At last the camel lay on one side, allowing Ahmed to hug the saddle with his arms and legs. As soon as he settled, Laamesh tilted his head slightly and stood up gently. (141)
As the weary day wears on, Ahmed begins to hallucinate; he is in a dangerously dehydrated state of extreme exhaustion. “He saw the sun now as a big tent providing him shade and shelter.” Ominously – but without Ahmed apparently registering it as a bad portent – “the freshly stripped cadaver of a nomad who had been claimed by the desert”, an earlier traveller’s corpse, lies on a dune nearby, vultures having feasted on it. Ahmed even “enjoy[s]” the smell of the victim’s decomposed flesh! It “remind[s] him, ironically, of life” (144), of his having escaped the cannibals. But soon the predatory birds start attacking Ahmed, too, to strange effect. He fends them off, but when one of them nips off his ear, he gets a taste of his own blood and is by some crude, deep instinct reminded that if he does not take sustenance of whatever kind is available, he will die. He chases off the foul birds, and then himself takes a bite of the dead man’s flesh! He takes three quick bites before a strong sense of guilt strikes him. Although this is a mortal sin under normal circumstances, Islamic law is flexible when life is at stake – as it undoubtedly is here. The small amount of unusual food gives Ahmed at least sufficient strength to stand up again. He knows the end is drawing near, but he wants to be as far as possible from the corpse when death strikes him, too. He cannot burden Laamesh with his weight, as the camel is itself weak with hunger and thirst, so Ahmed ties the camel’s tether to his own body, setting off and walking on for several hours until he can go no further. He accepts death’s coming to him, but does not want to be awake when it overtakes him. When he spots a lone tree ahead, he stumbles towards it. The tree provides a small spot of shade, in which Ahmed lies down, using his turban as a makeshift cushion for his head and drawing the end of the cloth over his face. He does not so much fall asleep as pass out, losing consciousness. Laamesh at least gets to feed on some of the tree’s minimal foliage, remaining by his master’s side.
In the dream that floats through the unconscious Ahmed’s head, he is reduced to babyhood, and is in the presence of his (actually long since dead) grandfather. He is terrifically thirsty, and the old man understands this, but knows that it would be dangerous to allow the apparently dehydrated child to drink a great deal at once; what he does is to put the tip of his leather belt into his water container, inserting it subsequently into the child’s mouth to release only a few drops at a time. Gradually, Ahmed’s sensations return to him; he can hear a number of people conversing nearby, but does not understand their language. Nevertheless, “the music and pace of their speech was the same as back home, and he could pick up one word and then another”. Ahmed can hear tea being poured, cries of children playing, the call to prayer, as well as “the grumbling of camels and mooing of cows” (151) – all indicators of civilised pastoral society as he knows it. A little girl brings him tea, which so revives him that he feels fully recovered from his ordeal and sees that he is in a lush canyon, with the signs of prosperous life all about him. He sees that a muscular man wearing a blue turban is sitting next to him, but he has to try several languages before he can make the man understand that he is asking him about his camel’s whereabouts; “a version of Tuareg closely related to Zenaga” (152) eventually seems to work, for the little girl is called to be his guide and she leads him to Laamesh – contentedly grazing on an acacia with fresh green leaves. Next, the girl takes him to the shack inhabited by the small seminomadic settlement’s leader. “The imam didn’t smile, but he had a very friendly face” and is reading from a holy book while softly singing; Ahmed is glad to be in his company (155). As this man introduces himself, Ahmed deduces by the name that he is in a Tuareg settlement – in his own Bedouin culture, it is his middle name, “Ould”, that signifies his Bedouin heritage. The imam next tells Ahmed the story of how he was found, and so saved.
The settlement’s people had sent out a salt caravan, when they came across an apparently dead man “under a tree in far Morocco, half-buried by the wind”. They dug a grave for him, washed his body and said the appropriate prayers, but as Ahmed was being lowered into the grave, one man thought he heard him faintly breathing. They decided to put the question to the test by untethering Laamesh (evidently the “dead” man’s camel), but instead of going off, the camel “knelt by the grave with his head toward Mecca” – taken as a clear sign that Ahmed was still alive. They sprinkled water over his face and so revived him. The sheikh adds: “that was not the only way your camel saved your life” – he explains to Ahmed that the men of the caravan found him in the first place only because they had heard Laamesh’s “growls”, and saw the prone man when they went to investigate (156). Although Ahmed requests a meeting with the man who found him, the imam says he is someone so spiritual that he is unwilling to accept grateful praise. He does, however, ask what the point of Ahmed’s quest is, and when Ahmed tells him about Zarga, he invites him to walk with him to the settlement’s own herd, where he asks Ahmed teasingly, pointing to her: “Do you know that blessed camel?” (160) – for he knows something of her noble ancestry and about Ahmed’s honourable tribe. The Tuareg salt expedition’s members bought her when a man at Beer Sahel (where they loaded their salt) offered her to them “for a good price”. They intended to slaughter the camel as sustenance for the group’s arduous return journey, before deciding that she was too fine a creature to be used in this way. Ahmed expresses heartfelt thanks and, of course, offers to buy Zarga back, even though their allowing him to do so would itself be another favour to him. However, the imam refuses; they will simply let Ahmed have his camel back. For, the gracious man explains, Allah “bestowed upon us a great blessing in our small oasis, and Allah forbid we indulge ourselves in the sin of greed by asking [payment for] what is not ours” (160). He insists that Ahmed spend the night with him in his hut. The next day, he is given an ample but simple breakfast, and “for his trip home, the imam gave him a small sack of dates, a sack of salt, and a kilo of the finest grade of tobacco leaves” (161). What a feast this must seem to Ahmed after all his sufferings and deprivations!
Ahmed headed home, equipped with the navigational information he had been given by his host and the now-restored wiring of his nomadic brain. … The trip between Timbuktu and his people’s region of Laaguil passed safely and easily. He spent seven nights between the Tuareg camp and his home, each night with a different tribe. He was welcomed and well tended every night, and never even touched the provisions the imam had given him. (162)
Eventually, just before he at last enters his own people’s settlement, he makes a brief detour to visit his father’s grave in their family’s wind-battered graveyard. He tends the grave and, as he is about to leave, he spots a new grave nearby. The gravestone inscription indicates that it is “his” grave! When he failed to return from his quest, his grieving family assumed that he had perished in the desert. He is now one of two people in his community who have seen their own burial places – but he must rush to comfort and reassure his beloved wife and son of his survival and well-being. Unbeknown to him, someone has spotted Ahmed at the graveyard with the two camels and forewarned the family, so that, as he enters the home environment, he is saluted with a famous welcoming song performed in his honour by the settlement’s female singer. “And so Ahmed arrived home a hero.” For some time, a few people are awkward around him and even a little suspicious of Ahmed, but before long it all settles back into the old rhythms. His innate modesty takes the sting from others’ envy of his fame. Ahmed and his wife even (initially) feel “strange before one another …. But love is love,” and they soon overcome this. As Ahmed steps outside the tent on his first night home, “the clear sky seemed bluer and wider than ever, except in the east, where the setting sun was painting beautiful colors on an ominous bank of clouds”, while “across the camp, another round of singing was slowly dying” (165). Thus the saga is fittingly concluded. Slahi’s engrossing and beautifully wrought narrative treats his characters – human and animal – with moving empathy, profound respect and deep insight.