Aoulef, an island in the sand, is situated in the heart of the desert and once was a flourishing outpost for Trans-Saharan caravans. Like all deserts, Aoulef has a dry air, little rain, high day time temperatures and lots of wind. People live a simple life in the old traditional ways. An oasis in the middle of an immense and severe arid desert called the Sahara desert. Wind and sand burns the skin during the day.
Every year, we had crossed the Tanezrouft Desert, one of the most desolate parts of the Sahara desert on a Land Rover crammed with jerry cans to spend the summer holidays with my grandparents. This desert within a desert which Bedouins called the “Land of thirst” is situated on the border between Algeria and Mali. This desert crossing was my summer nightmare. The journey seemed endless; we would get lost, we would get stuck, we would chase mirages. Sand would get everywhere; into our mouths and eyes, into our ears and into our skin. To travel from Niamey to Aoulef, via the desert of Tanezrouft was not my piece of cake.
On the oasis, the women's world is completely separated of the men's world. It is completely different from Niamey, Niger where I attend a mixed school. Men earn money and women rear the children and keep the house. You would never see a man in Aoulef who will perform women's tasks.
The court walls are made of mud-brick and around the inside of the court are six rooms of mud brick. The walls are made of a mixture of salt, straw, rock and clay. Behind the walls are the irrigated garden and their lush palmeraieses of dattiers. My grand-father had dates. His palm groves consisted of many date palms.
My grandfather had mud irrigation canals that wind like arteries through the desert field. Clear water runs briskly down the gently sloping conduit in his date field. Metal sluice gates allow the farmers to direct water toward the fields. Cleaning and maintaining these canals were an arduous chore because they tend to clog up with garbage and vegetation. I used to watch my grand-father workers do the work with a lot of admiration. But we would not get the water from there because these canals were for watering the date palms. We had to walk three kilometers to the main seguia(open canals made of clays) to get water.
He was very proud of his date palm. He would tell me with a lot emotion in his voice the story of how his ancestors have brought into south Algeria from Arabia Hejaz the date palm. My grand-father traveled the Sahara in all directions on camel back. But most of the time he was on foot. He had a great endurance and he was known for his self-reliance and frugality. He was still in robust health compared to my grand-mother who was tiny and fragile. I always wondered how she carried and raised seven children.
My grand-father used to wear a heavily white turban twisted up on his head and a gandoura with wide trousers underneath it. The gandoura made of white woolen cloak is the men traditional garb. My 'Bouya Hnini' ( which means my tender grandad) wore a burnous on top of his gandoura. The burnous was draped over his shoulders and it was made of linen with fancy embroidery. The turban-liked head covering which protects his head from the heat and dust of the desert climate was always white. My grand-mother wore a long white cloak which covers most of her body. If she went out, the white cloak would cover also the right eye. The cloak’s name is haik and it drapes the women from head to foot. The haik is worn over loose pants.
One day, we were sitting cross-legged on the flat mats. The mats were placed on a rectangle shape over a big wool carpet and in the centre was a round, low table made of wood. We were all singing arabic popular songs, ululating and wooing because one my mother’s niece was getting married a week later. We could see the clapping hands swinging high and low. The palms of our hands were all decorated with beautiful geometrical patterns made of henna.
My younger cousin had already passed around with a watering can and a recipient next to the elders. The child poured water for the elders to wash their hands. The main dish was couscous. This dish was made of steamed semolina wheat served with lamb, vegetables and gravy.
We had no water tap and no electricity in our small oasis. It was us, the girls who had to carry water from the seguia five times a day. I always used to complain about the fact that boys never go to the seguias. My grand-mother was shocked about my big mouth and she had always complained about how Western culture is influencing my behavior. The fact that my parents were sending me to a French school was going against the traditions. She would point to my Mum and shout at her in an angry voice:
“You are sending your daughter to a French school but you will regret it. She'll never be happy with too much Western education.”
After the end of the meal, we all sat around the table to drink the hot sugary mint tea in little glasses. We were singing and belly dancing with our scarf head around our waist to support the rotations of our hips. The only music we could produce was made of our voices, the clapping of our hands and the derbouka since we had no electricity, no television, no tape recorder and no radio. We were swirling and taping our feet to follow the rhythm when suddenly my grand-mother stood up. We all stopped and still wondering what was going on. When I saw a long shadow behind her, I understood it was my grand-father in the entrance of the court. He was standing still with a telegram in his hand. We all sat quietly back on the mats and we lowered our gaze in sign of respect.
And he said in a low and grave voice...
To be continued...