His bleary eyes cast a plaintive glance at the rearview mirror. They stood out from the sea of blue folds belonging to the litham he wore around his head. For a second, it was as if nothing else mattered in the entire world but for what was going on inside those eyes, which reproduced the sky. We were both sitting close to the front in order to show the driver the appropriate turn for the road that led to the Hoggar Mountains.
Time was already dragging, and our destination still lay a considerable distance ahead, at the end of the mostly unpaved track that twisted before us like a frazzled cord clumsily trying to encompass the landscape. Here in the boonies, there was sand as far as the eye could see. I zoomed in on the reflection of Azooz’s veiled face in the mirror in a botched attempt to explore the mystery that shrouded his mien. My attempt had been doomed to fail from the start, but I had to confirm my suspicions before I could lean back in my seat and let my eyes stray aimlessly. Azooz inserted a CD into the disc player and pressed play with his inimitable style and panache. The music had a magic feel to it.
“It’s imzad music. You are gonna love it,” said Azooz. His eyes narrowed as he smiled.
One of the tourists sitting behind us asked him what that meant: “imzad”. With his smile growing beatific he answered, “It’s the name of a musical instrument. It has just one string with a history that goes back into the dim and distant past. In those times, the Tuareg tribes were always at war with one another. At some point, the Tuareg women got fed up with the situation and assembled to hatch a plan for the sake of resolving the tribal conflicts. And that’s how they came up with the imzad. They built it and practiced it in secret, and when conflict began brewing once again, they started playing the imzad to the men in order to placate them. The men fell to their knees in awe at the sweet music that drifted from the instrument and voluntarily laid down their weapons.”
Azooz’s audience was clearly impressed by his storytelling skills. Then another tourist asked him why it was the Tuareg men and not the women who covered their faces.
“There was once a beautiful rose that grew in the desert,” he began narrating. “One day, however, it vanished into thin air. The Tuareg were oblivious to what had happened and clueless as to where it might have gone. For years they tried in vain to track it down. At long last, it was nosed out by a guy leading the way for his nomadic tribe. He hailed his tribe and trumpeted the good news from afar, and before long, everyone had mustered at the proper spot. But suddenly, the rose started reeking terribly, and the men had to bundle their heads up in cloth as to avoid being exposed to its horrid stench. The women were kept from approaching the rose in the first place. They saw it was good and so it has been ever since.”
While some tourists in the van applauded his gift of gab, others started aping his handclapping to the beat of the imzad music. I chose to immerse myself in vetting the good-vibes aura he exuded, which was giving me legit goosebumps to the point that I asked myself, “Is this even for real?”
“Here we are! Welcome to the Hoggar, everybody!” said Azooz. His reflection withdrew from the mirror, and the van jolted to a halt. Everybody made a beeline for the exit and I had to crane forward in order to avoid losing sight of him. People elbowed past one another to get to the door. Their excitement rivaled that of little children. As soon as they had planted their feet on solid ground, they deliberately squandered their opportunity to relish the moment by blocking their own views with the cameras they had brought with them to immortalize their experiences every step of the way.
The fact that everyone had pictured the lunar landscape that stretched before us differently didn’t conflict with the reality that each and every one of us felt absurdly empowered when we realized we were standing in the middle of nowhere. It was as if we had just landed on an uncharted planet or had discovered the secret of life. The tourists spread out to take more pictures. Some went as far as to adopt goofy poses in front of the rocks that had been towering over the world for centuries. If only those rocks could speak, what stories they would tell! There was evidence to substantiate the fact that some of their tales had been set down in hieroglyphs and committed to the rocks themselves for centuries to come by the natives’ ancestors. Other stories, I assumed, had just gone with the wind.
I turned around to locate Azooz and realized that he was nowhere to be found. This led me to deduce that he had likely dematerialized immediately after the van had made its stop, as if by magic. Knowing that the rocks had seen everything and would not report on my bewilderment at Azooz’s disappearance, I asked them about his whereabouts. Their reply came as a shock to me. Apparently, he had returned to the city to guide another group of tourists he had pledged to take to Assekrem, where we had spent the previous night. Knowing that I would lose the flight I had in the afternoon, I reflected on how I shouldn’t have let him convince me to join the excursion. Indeed, I was eager to return home and write my own stories down.
Written by Youcef Baaloudj.