Merzouga (Sahara), Morocco, December 1998. Légende en français tout en bas.
“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless”.
For me, it is the most intense lesson of Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, the New York-born writer and composer who spent the second part of his life in Morocco and whose characters take a road not far from here on the way to Niger, crossing the whole Sahara at the beginning of which we stand …
Marrakech, Morocco, December 1998. In the back alleys, and in the houses. Dans les ruelles et chez l’habitant.
Marrakech, Morocco, December 1998. Khalid, guest worker in Libya, and his father. Khalid, travailleur émigré en Libye, et son père.
We met Khalid on the Tripoli-Casablanca boat. The stampede just to get inside the terminal was nerve-breaking, hundreds of people, half sitting, half standing, with double the quantity of luggage, and the rest, one-meter-wide stewpans, blankets, carpets, and the suitcases. But worse was the way the Libyan police treated their “guest”-workers, pushing them back from the entrance, yelling obscenities at them, kicking their belongings. “They are jealous because we earn more than them”, explains Khalid.
They have too much luggage and shopping — and too little money — to get on a plane, and with a closed land border between Algeria and Morocco the tens of thousands of Moroccans working in Libya do not have much choice to return to their country. “Now, my contract is finished, but when they neeed us, they pay for our plane ticket”, corrects our new friend — a plane, anyway, they would have to get in neighboring Tunisia due to the international embargo against colonel al-Qaddafi. (Again, on whom fall the hardships ?!) Because of all that and because he needs these foreigners, the Libyan government chartered a boat from a Greek shipping company.
Casablanca, Morocco, December 1998. Tripoli-Casablanca in three days by boat, en trois jours de bateau.
So, the next surprise was when we boarded, I mean the surprise for the 50-odd Greek and Filipino crew. “What are you doing here?!”, we alone among 1,000 or so Moroccan workers, “Write down these two telephone numbers, in case you need help” ! Our cabin was automatically upgraded to luxury and our menu doubled. For three days on the Western Mediterranean, we shamelessly sailed at 18 miles an hour. A little dully too, for, with a Libyan escort (purser, security, physician, nurses), alcohol and card playing were forbidden, and in winter you cannot really get on the deck. When I peered out, a crew was painting the large pool, “Are you going to open it in the spring?”, “No”, “Then, why do you paint it?”, “To pass the time”.
Merzouga (Sahara), Morocco, December 1998.
18-year old Bari comes from a nomad family and, at the end of the second millennium, has never been to school, but his parents sent him to Koranic teaching. Islam is on the rise. “What can we offer them as an alternative?”, had wondered the last Greek businessman of Ouarzazate, a large town further west, whose father had left his island of Limnos for the U.S. in 1928 but had jumped boat in Casablanca. “Communism fell, christianity has been conquered, this is the time of the dollar-king”.
By day, Bari drives camels and by night, he plays the tambourine. “I love the desert”, he says softly. He better; the simple house is alone and surrounded but by sand dunes which extend till very nearby Algeria. His partner went to school in Rissani, the closest town. So, he brings us tea and pitas, on his own. But this is not hospitality, he charges us, and at an exorbitant price at that. The educated one is the robber.
El-Kalaa, Morocco, December 1998. Going to the weekly animal market in the next town on the slope of the High Atlas. On va vendre ses animaux au marché hebdomadaire dans la prochaine bourgade sur le versant oriental du Haut-Atlas.
MOR98-LAN1. Merzouga (Sahara), Maroc, décembre 1998. “La mort est toujours en chemin, mais le fait qu’on ne sait pas quand elle arrivera semble entamer le caractère limité de la vie. C’est cette terrible précision que nous haïssons tellement. Mais parce que nous ne savons pas, nous pensons la vie comme une source intarissable. Et pourtant tout n’arrive qu’un certain nombre de fois, et un très petit nombre de fois en vérité. Combien de fois encore nous rappelerons-nous une certaine après-midi de notre enfance, une après-midi qui fait si profondément partie de notre être qu’on ne peut même pas concevoir la vie sans elle? Peut-être quatre ou cinq fois encore. Peut-être même pas cela. Combien de fois encore regarderons-nous la pleine lune se lever? Peut-être vingt fois. Et pourtant tout semble sans limites”.
Pour moi, c’est la plus intense leçon de Sheltering Sky, par Paul Bowles, l’écrivain et compositeur new-yorkais qui a passé la deuxième moitié de sa vie au Maroc et dont les personnages suivent une route pas très loin d’ici, en direction du Niger à travers le Sahara au bord duquel nous nous trouvons …