Mohamed's Sack

MOHAMED has waited for us all day. Each time we return from an expedition, Mohamed is there. When we go on our camel ride to the Tuareg encampment, Mohamed walks alongside. When we go to see the mosques, leaving our shoes at the door and climbing into the silent turrets, Mohamed is there, waiting. When he finds out we are from California, he tells us about his American friend in California. He pulls out a much-fingered business card from his friend. The card says, ``Seattle, Washington.'' When we return from watching the sun set over the vastness of the Sahara, Mohamed is still waiting.

Mohamed is seven years old. He lives in Timbuktu. He is a Tuareg, the tribe of nomads who have shaped the history of the Sahara for 2,000 years. The last 10 years have been very lean. Mohamed's father works as a night guardian at the only hotel. He has not been paid for over two months, but there is nowhere else to go. Sometimes Mohamed sleeps in the entryway of the hotel; sometimes he sleeps with his family in the encampment outside of town. He is small and wiry with intense brown eyes. He wears a green Italian soccer shirt.

After dinner, Mohamed comes and taps me on the shoulder. He gestures, ``come with me.'' I follow the boy into the darkness. In between great shadows and a wall, Mohamed has set up the tea fire. Mohamed's father, the guardian, materializes with a chair. I am to sit. Just as abruptly, he disappears. ``Dad'' is fiercely contained and awesome, angular and anxious. His face pierces the folds in his turban, his traditional robe hangs inelegantly short of thin ankles, his feet are clad in the perennial plastic flip flops of the tropics. And in the brief moment he is near me, I feel his heat, his anger, the unnamed thing that is pushing him.

Mohamed hands me a tiny glass of bitter tea. ``The first cup is for love,'' he says in his thin seven-going-on-40 voice. ``The second cup for health, and the third cup,'' he continues without the hint of a smile, ``is for knowing the secrets of love.'' Sitting in the near-dark watching red coals under the teapot, smelling the strong drink and the dust, feeling the heavy hawklike presence of ``Dad'' in the shadows, I realize once again how little I know. Except that there is need here, urgent need, from a seven-year-old boy.

Mohamed picks up a flashlight and shines it on something square and bulky at our feet. It is a battered, well-used wooden box. Inside the box, there is a leather sack. That is all. ``My father is getting married tomorrow,'' Mohamed tells me. ``It is his second wife.'' He is silent. I am silent. ``He would like to sell you something.'' Pause. ``So he can have money for the wedding.''

Everywhere I have been in the last 10 days, people have materialized to sell me something. More than once, I am sure they were offering the family jewels for cash. More than once they were offering junk disguised as antiquities. Tonight, I am offered a chance to do something concrete for Mohamed. I will buy something. It will not be charity, it will be an exchange. Mohamed is not the kind of boy to ask for a handout.

I pick up the sack. In the dim light, I can see that it is a small pouch made of camel hide, aged soft as an old, favorite dress. The designs of red, yellow, and green are crinkled and faded. The carrying strap is broken. It has been carefully mended many times by the first wife. In my hands, it feels old and weary, ready to retire. A good time to sell it to tourists who will display it on a shelf. Put out to pasture when its work life is over. I don't mind. I don't enjoy seeing poor people selling off what they still need.

``How much would you like?'' I ask Mohamed. He pats me on the knee. ``No,'' he says kindly, ``now we discuss. I will give you my first price, then you will give me your first price. Then I will give you my second price, you will give me your second price. The third price will be the final offer.'' I hope he is an excellent bargainer. I hope I am sensing strong survival skills. I wonder how long it's been since he's cried.

He starts at 8,000 cfa (about $18). That means the final price should be half that. I start at 2,000. Mohamed bows his head solemnly. I have made an appropriate entry. His second price is 6,500. My second price is 3,500, much too high but it is hard to stand tough against a seven-year-old. I am sure his father understands this well. ``Now my final price,'' says Mohamed. ``6,000.'' He has stayed high, sensing I am not in the mood for the Big Discussion which can take hours. ``My final price is 5,000,'' I answer. He pauses. ``Fifty-five hundred and it is yours.''

I shake his hand and place the sack gently on my lap. I hand Mohamed the money. Before I complete my next inhalation, Mohamed's father appears in the circle of light. The boy hands over the money. His young face is a study in pride and fear. The father disappears into the darkness without a word. Mohamed looks down at the red coals. I can hear his airless sigh. Then he looks up at me again, quiet and unbearably serious, and asks ``Would you like now to discuss the box?''

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