Friday, November 25, 2016

A modern-day Odysseus?

Crunching tyres and parched rock, nothing but an anonymous horizon for mile after prodigious mile. We're at the head of a convoy of half a dozen beaten-up, beefed-up Land Rovers cruising south into the Sahara, far beyond the Tuareg outpost of Tamanrassetand south, always southwards, towards Niger and beyond.  I'm in the backseat, my head lolling from side-to-side, tottering into sleep, barely able to resist the feverish heat, when Beni does something stupid.

He cuts the engine. And winds up the window.
Close all the windows. Now!
For the first time in six hours of rocking across the desert, Beni punches the pause button on his favourite Khaled tape. And for the first time in six years of knowing him, Beni smells of fear.
Shoeless, hatless, everythingless, a man of twenty, maybe twenty-five, with the roundest, deepest, most beautiful - and most desperate - eyes I have ever seen is shuffling towards us across the sand. We haven’t glimpsed anyone or anything, no life, no nothing, since we abandoned the highway two days ago. And now there's a man standing in front of our jeep.
I rub my eyes in astonishment. The man falls over.
The man levers himself up off the desert floor, stumbles closer to the jeep and leans his head against the window. He pulls his neck back an inch or two.
Tap, tap, tap - his dusty forehead against the window.
The jeep explodes into a blabber of Arabic and Tuareg followed by pigeon French and Italian. There is fierce, wild gesturing but one knows what to do, except clutch the dusty metal of their rifles ever more tightly.
Then the man whispers something. He whispers something in the clearest cut-glass English – it is like coming face-to-face with a BBC announcer from the 1960s.
Sorry to ask, but do you have some water to spare by any chance?
The man - we never asked his name - was Nigerian. He had already walked half-way across his homeland, then over the entirety of Niger and into Algeria.  His goal? Algiers, then a boat to Marseilles and a new life, quite possibly in London.  But he had cut his foot - we cleaned and dressed the bleeding wound - and his friend, a fellow Nigerian, had jettisoned him two days back.
He just left you? How could he just leave you?
I told him to. I only have one good foot, as you can see.
Is he going to come back for you?
We made a promise when we left home: we would only ever go in one direction. North.
We gave him enough food to kill a hungry man and enough water to kill a thirsty man. 
And then, we too, we left him.  
First, though, we found the man the semi-shade of a mean bush. Beni entreated me:
Tell him, tell him this: If you move in the next three hours, before the sun sets, you will die. Tell him to keep that ridge to his left, always to his left and in two, three days, he will meet people on the path to Tamanrasset. May he always be in Allah’s loving hand.
And then we got back into our Land Rovers and drove deeper into the desert.
Beni, who has spent half his life in the desert and half in London, asks me why I'm so sad. "You think he's a modern-day Odysseus wandering over land and sea, don't you? But if he gets to London he'll just be another bloody immigrant. I know what you English are like: you read your sad stories about these people but you don’t like them living next door to you".


  1. Why do you write so much about the desert? I think we should be told! Do you work there? Are you a spy? Do you take tours there?

  2. EXCELLENT writing as ever, David, and much "enjoyed", if that's the right word.