Salt of the earth and stars

It has been said that when a stranger sets out into the Sahara, it is like plunging into a sea without knowing how to swim, yet even blind Tuareg nomads have been known to guide caravans across that desert. To them, a dune, a rock, or a few tufts of grass at the feet, or the position of the sun on one's cheek, are infallible signposts. The crooked hands of thorn trees may catch at the stranger, but those who know and see, with or without eyes, move freely in the Bright Country.

For centuries, the Tuareg, a graceful, haughty and patient people, maintained the trans-Saharan salt caravan routes from Tunis to Gao, Tlemcen to Timbuktu. Suspended in the middle of austerity, these people learned to rely as much on their indomitable spirit as on the sparse gifts of the soil or the meager material goods of the oases. Their world bred in them extremes of stoicism, harshness, kindness. More than that, it taught them to see. For as they struggled to survive within that resonating note of space, these herding people were urged to read the subtle signs, the details of life: to identify a person by the mark of a single toe in the sand; to know one's camel from afar by the way he ascends a dune; to recognize a veiled Tuareg by his eyes alone; to see sustenance in the burr-coated fruit of the cram cramm bush; and to perceive the security of home in what appears to be a vast wasteland of sand.

Once, for a brief time, I lived in a nomad village built upon the sand. Mat houses were surrounded by slope upon slope of yellow-white Sahara. When I looked out beyond the grass fence of my small courtyard, barren dunes and sparse groves of coughing acacia offered only varying degrees of hopelessness. Still a stranger, I didn't know how to read the desert or her people, and I missed my comfortable home. Here the houses felt temporary, like afterthoughts. Yet curiously, the sense of home within those who built them seemed so solid. It was as if these nomads were literally homebodiesm, carrying all the stuff that home is made of within themselves, able to set it up wherever a bit of grass and water came together for their animals. They seemed to move through the desert not as owners of it, but as travelers ever on a journey to someplace within themselves. It was not an easy journey. But it breathed a graceful perception - for, born of aridity and silence, the nomads survived by responding to their environment, by listening to it and taking great note of what it had to say.

As my days in their land continued, I noticed that in the stark and simple forever of that space, each living thing pierced by a ray of sunlight took on a significance and wholeness before unfathomed. And at night each cry of delight or sadness resounded from star to star within an enormous arch of darkness.

One evening, the night this photo was taken, the brilliant Pleiades circled overhead like bright-eyed maidens in velvet gowns, while the Milky Way was as the gray halo of age upon the head of that deep blue night. Somewhere in the darkness a pair of hands began to slap a tam-tam insistently. Tongues twirled high-pitched screams. Voices chanted. Following the pulse, I came upon a circle of nomads, a sea of billowing blue and black robes clustered in the sand. Children, bundles of indigo cloth from which pairs of brown feet and tufts of black hair peeked out, stood shoulder to shoulder singing, swaying. Drawn by the music, I joined the circle, watching the nomads as they sang and danced in the palm of infinity. All around me the eyes of the robed ones brightly pierced the small unveiled space between brow and cheek, as if a handful of stars had been tossed at those faces. That community of Tuareg, that small celeste of star-studded robes, echoed the night sky. And I saw a people who were pliant partners to their surroundings, not strangers or enemies to it. They knew something of how to dance with the stars.

Sitting there in the desert night, I looked from eye to sky to eye, and suddenly the pole stars seemed within reach. My own feet began to tap. There in the middle of nowhere was everywhere, and at that moment I was home.

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