“How do you know where the wells are? Do you have a map?
“In here” he taps on his temple.
Hassan’s English is broken but we understand each other just fine. I ask if he prefers English or French to which he replies “it’s the same”. I am lucky, really, sitting proud at the front of the caravan, effectively interviewing the real version of my main character. Pinch me, I must be dreaming.
“But how do you really know where to go?”
“GPS” he chuckles, pulling my camel – the leader – along the side of a dune and away from an old set of camel tracks. We are not alone in the vast land of the ochre. The realisation strikes me as absurd. How can something so vast ever be explored?
“I know every dune” he says, reading my mind. “I walk with my brother a lot.” He points to a faraway plateau. “See that mountain over there? That’s the border between Algeria and Morocco. I worked there, collecting fossils with him. We found dead men every week, buried under fallen rocks. I wanted to live. So I left to work here, in Merzouga.”
Hassan has been a desert guide for 5 years but when I ask him how old he was when he started, he falls silent.
“I don’t know my age.”
“Wow” is all I can mutter in response. I had heard of such stories but, for some obscure reason, never believed them until today. “Were you born in the desert?”
“Yes. I was a shepherd.”
He is wearing flip-flops that get caught in the sand and I watch as he tosses little clouds of sand outwards and upwards every time he lifts his feet. He is unaware of course, but I am soaking in every little detail like a dehydrated sponge. Under his jellaba, I notice a pair of jeans – interesting metaphor of modern Morocco holding on to its heritage – and on his head, he has tied a white scarf which is strewn with a multitude of black flies.
As we advance further into the desert, the wind grows stronger and I watch the sand being blown off of the peak of a dune, like an ochre tulle dress billowing in the wind. It looks like a trick of the mind and I squint to make the best of it.
“Do you not get sand in your eyes all the time?” I ask, longing for a splash of water on my face.
“I do. It cleans my eyes” he chuckles again.
“Yes. When we reach the top, we see who can see better. You or me.”
His sense of humour is striking and for a split second, I wish I spoke Berber. We could talk at length and become best friends and I could tell him all about my novel and thank him for everything he’s taught me without even knowing. But language doesn’t matter. Nothing matters and at the same time, everything matters. What a strange feeling.