Part 4: الصحراء (The Desert)

We lounge on cushioned patio furniture under a bamboo awning in the middle of the Agafay Desert. The plush couch cushions are wrapped in an embroidered blue fabric with strands of silver thread. In front of us is a tray with a silver teapot, three glasses of mint tea, and a dish of roasted almonds. To our right, there are five white canvas tents connected to a dirt path outlined with pebbles. To our left, a larger tent houses the bathrooms, which, to my surprise, have flushing toilets and showers.

Toufik approaches from where he had been standing and chatting with the three men who run the campsite.

“Goodbye ladies, enjoy your stay at the camp. I will pick you up by 9:30 tomorrow morning.” Then he adds, “You will be very safe here.” He turns to walk toward his van, then spins back around and says, “Oh, and Miller, I have already told my friends here to make your dinner without meat. They will start preparing the food soon.”

“Thank you,” Miller says, “See you in the morning.”

I take another sip of tea and refill everyone’s glasses. One of the men who runs the campsite walks over to us and greets us in English. Then, he asks,

“À quelle heure est-ce que vous voulez manger le dîner?”

Vivian gives me a look that asks, what is he saying?

“What time do you guys want to eat dinner?” I repeat for Vivian.

“Maybe seven or seven-thirty?” Miller says to us.

“Seven would be good,” Vivian says.

Miller turns to him and says, “Sept heurs, est-ce que c’est bon?”

“Oui, c’est bon.” He turns and walks toward the main tent behind us. After a few minutes, another man walks over, dressed in a long blue cotton gown, a headscarf, and Nike sneakers.

“Voulez-vous manger à sept heurs?” He asks.

“Oui, sept heurs,” I respond. He nods and returns to the main tent, which is meant to serve as a dining room and gathering place.

“Do you think my accent was hard to understand?” Miller asks Vivian and I.

“No, I think they just wanted to double-check that they heard us correctly,” I respond. Although our native languages differ, we’re finding a way to communicate with the Moroccan men through our common language.

With time to spare before dinner, we decide to wander away from the campsite and explore. The earth is sandy like you would expect a desert to be, but there is green grass growing as well, which I did not expect. All is quiet except for the sound of the wind. We are the only visitors at the campsite, and the only other signs of life I see are the occasional travelers passing by in cars on the road just on the other side of the campsite.

As we walk along the sandy path that leads away from the camp, I think of one of the opening chapters in The Little Prince, when the narrator meets the golden-haired little prince in the middle of the Sahara. We’re only an hour away from the edge of Marrakech, but the lack of sound and artificial light makes me feel as though we’re worlds away from the city. Like how the little prince must have felt being so far from his home planet, asteroid B-612—yet not feeling at all lost or alone.

When we return from our walk, we are greeted again by one of our hosts.

“Où est-ce que vous voulez manger? Ici, ou là?” He gestures to a set of couches in the center of the camp, then points to the main tent, where there is a large dining table.

“Can we eat right here?” Miller asks, pointing to the couches.

“Ici?” He asks.

“Yes, here,” she says. We settle in onto the couches, and the man disappears into the tent. A minute later, all three men emerge from the tent carrying trays, place settings, and bottles of water. On one of the trays is a dish of chicken tagine that could easily feed four, as well as a second dish of vegetarian tagine for Miller.

“Merci beaucoup,” I say as the men set down the food.

“Shokran,” one of the men responds. He tells us that this is the word for ‘thank you’ in Arabic, his native language.

After dinner, we all move to a set of chairs around a campfire. The three men each bring a handmade drum to their seats around the fire and start playing. One of the men sings in Arabic while gently hitting the drum to keep the beat. I can’t tell whether he’s making the song up as he goes, or if it’s one he knows by heart.

When the song is over, they hand the drums over to Vivian, Miller, and I.

“No, it’s okay, you should keep playing,” Vivian says, trying to hand the drum back. “I don’t know how to play anyway.” The man smiles encouragingly and pushes the instrument back to her.

The three of us tap on the drums, knowing we’re supposed to create some sort of rhythm but not knowing exactly how to do so. We spend the next two hours disrupting the peace in the silent desert and enjoying the company of friends and strangers.

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