With his pipe perched precariously between his lips, Suleyman lit another match, proclaiming that the Four Aces tobacco he had procured on the black market in Abangerit didn’t taste the same as it used to in the old days.
‘So who is this ‘specialist’?’ I asked.
‘He is a marabout, a cheurfa by birth, descended from the Prophet himself, E alla, kay yer mer, God bless him,’ he said.
‘And he is a tamadas, a bonesetter,’ added Samir, wide-eyed.
Palms around us were suddenly upturned in reverence.
‘A bonesetter?’ I echoed, slightly dreading to think what that entailed.
Heads nodded and bobbed. Suleyman took an extra large sip of brown water.
‘And where is he, exactly, this bonesetter?’
‘Oh, he is very close,’ said Samir casually.
In the desert, which takes up a quarter of Africa, ‘close’ was a little vague.
‘A hundred… give or take.’
‘Let us say, a hundred and fifty,’ piped up Samir.
Suleyman nodded. A baby goat wandered up, looked around with a lost expression, but its mother was nowhere to be seen.
‘Right.’ I was fanning with my hand. Flies buzzed distractedly.
‘Two hundred,’ countered Samir.
‘And could you not take her alone, Suleyman?’ I asked.
‘I’m too old.’
‘You’re not old,’ obliged Samir.
‘Well, you’re not exactly young,’ said Amina, Suleyman’s wife.
At this Suleyman looked even crosser.
‘We three will take her,’ he said. He lifted up his chèche in defiance.
I mentioned cost in passing. ‘Allah’s blessings are free,’ he said, marginally lowering it again.
Amid a sea of shaking heads Samir slipped in, ‘Almost.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘We ask a small contribution of a few dollars. Expenses only. Vegetables, water, flour…’
‘…bribes,’ added Samir quickly.
The elders were sitting very quietly, the smartphones having long lost their draw.
‘And would we drive?’
Suleyman shook his head at me. ‘There are no roads.’
‘We would have to go on foot,’ interjected Samir.
‘I am not sure I can make it,’ I said.
‘Of course you can.’
‘It is too hot.’
‘We will avoid the middle of the day.’
‘It is too cold.’
‘We will take blankets.’
‘And what of the red tape?’
‘The police will help.’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘We know everything in the desert.’
‘She is your camel!’
‘Hader-ak Messiner… Swear to God…’ uttered the elders one by one as a series of nods swept around the room.
Samir leaned over. ‘Hader-ak Messiner,’ he said. ‘I promise.’
There was that word again. And yet I couldn’t help but be swayed by his earnest expression. He did not flinch as I asked him straight out about the terrorists operating in Algeria. Either he was brave or he was in league with them. Who exactly were
Aqim? What precisely did they believe? Were they sympathetic towards Isil? Was al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb? If so, where were their camps? Crucially, how would they react to a single Western woman travelling with nomads?
One or two people lifted their chèches.
Yattu stood up. He cleared his throat. ‘Why would a foreign woman wish to travel alone in this region, only to discover there was nothing of interest beyond the horizon? Why would she want to meet faces that glowed with brown flesh?’
A mystified silence had descended. Looks were being exchanged.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘I’ll do it.’
At that point Gwazila began to pray.
Extracted from ‘The Sky is on Fire’