An Unforgettable Azalaï

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Translated by Wendy Cross

In the Niger River region, there is a town whose name is the stuff of dreams: the mysterious Timbuktu. They say that, a very long time ago, the nomads entrusted the care of a well there to an old woman named Buktu.

Coming from the south, laden with gold, and from the north, bearing slabs of salt, the caravans exchanged their goods there. And eventually the town became a renowned trading location, attracting visitors beyond the frontiers of the Sahara. Now, since those far off days, twice a year, on the outskirts of that fabled city, the azalaï is organized: 500 miles to reach Taoudeni, a village the color of the earth, where in the ancient dried-up lake, miners have replaced the slaves of former times. In that hostile environment, they extract the white gold renowned as the best salt in the world.

Ali, the father and chief of the clan, an old man with a rugged face, has made numerous journeys. It is time for him to pass the command to his eldest son. Sofiane is in the prime of life, he wears the turban of the tribe with pride.

The dromedaries, here called camels, wear pack saddles. Early in the morning, the expedition is ready to leave. They must cover some distance before the rays of the sun slow the pace of their progress. Twenty days to cross the hamada, a rocky plateau, and the vast sandy expanses of the Tanezrouft. Wind, heat, exhaustion and fear all lie in wait for the nomads.

At night, in the bivouac, a few twigs pulled from the stumpy bushes will light the fire to make the water sing in the tea kettle. The young man helps with the work, fatigue has not yet set in, he grinds millet to make cakes known as dokhns. He is happy, this expedition is essential for the survival of the group.
On the second day, the dunes rise up before them; crossing is not always easy. The young man dreams of the ancient epic journeys and the risks they ran. A strange atmosphere settles over the group, an ochre-colored cloud appears on the horizon. In a few hours the sirocco will be blowing. The hot wind from the east that scorches everything in its path will not spare them. They must readjust their scarves, wrap themselves in their djellabas and, perched atop their camels, they must hold tightly to the reins.

Already dust is swirling over the surface of the ground, the animals are nervous and slow down. There is no rocky shelter nearby to protect them, so the caravan must advance against the scourge and reach the next stopping-place as quickly as possible. Sofiane knows the dangers of the wind: it erases all tracks, you can't find your bearings anymore. Ali comes up to encourage him, "Don't be afraid, behind the line of the dunes we will be able to find shelter and set up the bivouac."

After walking for a few hours, they arrive at last at the place they have chosen for the night. They tether the animals so they don't run away in fear of the storm. Then they grind the millet and make the cakes, light the fire... The men are fully occupied with the tasks at hand.

That evening, all the chores are accomplished slowly, the men's faces marked by weariness and fatigue. They must rest, they ought to sleep, yet Sofiane, rolled up in his blanket, is observing the sky. The wind has calmed, high up, the star that acts as their guide at night is shining. Will he also, in his turn, be able to trust it to take the tribe to the mine?
Close by him stood an old woman.
"Who are you?"
"I am Buktu, the guardian of the well, and for many moons I have been your clan's protector. Your people protected me in the old days, now it is my turn to help you. Tomorrow, when the storm starts blowing again, when the tracks you use as landmarks have disappeared, keep your courage up. Put your trust in me, I will guide you."
"But how?"
Sofiane rubs his eyes in astonishment.
There was nobody, the old lady had vanished...
Had he been dreaming? A ray of moonlight glints on a white pebble on the ground. The young man takes it in his hands, caresses it for a long time and sinks into a deep, restorative sleep.

By the first light of dawn, the caravan sets off again.
"Aw! Aw! Get along!" shouts the camel-driver in his guttural voice.
The dust is already flying, faces are stung by grains of sand, the day looms with danger. Sofiane has gone up to Ali, sensing him to be tense and tired, now an old man, a chibani, as the nomads say with respect. For many years he led the azalaï, as did his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him, but today he is worried, seeing the elements out of control.
"Akaaba!" shouts the lead man. "I can't see the tracks anymore!"
Sofiane, worried, presses the stone he has slid into his pocket. He is filled with incredible bravery.
In the distance, on the horizon, he glimpses the dip between the dunes which, like a pass, will let them cross the erg. This is the passage they were looking for. Will his companions believe him? Is he not the victim of a mirage, the danger lurking for an inexperienced traveler?
"Father! Father! Look!"
He stretches out his arm, the stone in his hand glints in the sun.
The old man has understood, the time has come for him to rest, this will be his last journey and his son will continue the tradition.
"Take courage, put your trust in me," Buktu had said to him. Sofiane knows she is near him; he must convince the others. It is a hard job, the discussion gets heated. Opinions vary.
He strides forward and in a firm voice that he himself does not recognize, he indicates the path to follow.
"Straight ahead! Quickly, we must cross before the wind grows stronger again!"
In silence, the column moves off. Sofiane seeks strength in the talisman Buktu gave him.
"Take courage, put your trust in me," she had said.
The caravan makes its way without hindrance, the dunes seem to move aside, and the storm abates.

At the camp that evening, Ali says to his son: "Remember, you must never doubt."

Soon they will exchange the millet for heavy slabs of salt. On the long road home, fraught with hazards, the caravan advances. Bent with fatigue, their eyes reddened by the sun, the men follow the brave young chief. He has earned his role as leader.

In a few weeks, at the legendary city of Timbuktu, the men and animals who have crossed the arid desert will be feted with dancing and cries of joy. They will bow before Sofiane, praising his courage and composure.

"Put your trust in me."

And in his hand the white pebble gleams.

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