As twilight fell, they wound their way out of the Atlas Mountains down to the desert floor, passing medieval villages built directly into the mountainside, waterfalls that plunged thousands of feet. They opened the windows wide and let the warm desert wind pour into the car. The air smelled of orange blossoms and dung. Simon welcomed the small grains of sand that collected in the corners of his eyes. He felt relaxed. Everything seemed different now that they were at the edge of the desert.
They stopped for gas, nuts and dates, a case of bottled water. They drove on in the darkness. Elisabeth curled up and laid her head in his lap. The pale green light of the dash lit her face.
“Ça va? So you are happy now?” she said.
“Bien.” She closed her eyes. Soon she was snoring softly.
The road was empty, the stars and headlights his only light. He pulled over to the side of the road and eased Elisabeth’s head off his lap onto the seat. He got out of the car, a bottle of J&B in hand. He stared out into the rich blackness. Far off, he could hear bells clanging—goats or cattle or maybe camels. The air was turning cold. The sense of being isolated and alone pressed in from all sides. Simon climbed up on the hood of the car and lay back with his hands behind his head, enjoying the warmth of the engine ticking beneath him. As he looked up into the desert sky, he had the sensation of looking down upon a buzzing, luminous metropolis—full of traffic jams, racing freeways, city blocks and skyscrapers with every window lit. The stars wheeled, darted, scintillated above him, each distinct, detonating over and over again in perfect silence. He felt far from everything, free to re-make himself.
He had no idea where his ex-wife was or with whom. He had shut his ears to the rumors, sold everything—the house, stocks, cars, business, then split it all down the middle. He would put it all behind him, start over again.
He took another sip of whiskey, relishing the slow burn, and turned to check on Elisabeth through the window. She was sleeping soundly, her hands thrust between her legs, eyes fluttering, lost in a dream. Roughly half his age, she was often mistaken for his daughter. She wore torn jeans, a T-shirt, had a tattoo of a scorpion on her shoulder. Her hair was thick and black and often hung in her face. Wherever they went men stared at her.
He remembered the first time he saw her in Paris, dancing with a girlfriend at Les Bains. In the subdued lighting, she looked vaguely like his ex-wife, only a younger version. He was bumbling and tongue-tied, but she seemed to find it endearing. They met the next day for lunch and the day after that. Soon they were spending whole afternoons together in his hotel room.
He stood, stretched and took a long, deep breath, reeling slightly from the whiskey, then got back into the car, gently lifting Elisabeth’s head and returning it to his lap. Tomorrow, he was sure, the desert would begin to transform him.
Simon continued south toward Ouarzazate. The guidebook advertised it as the location of “Lawrence of Arabia.” As he strained to recall the film, all he could picture was Peter O’Toole’s impassioned face—gaunt, fakely tan. As he came within a few kilometers of town, he could already see it, blazing with streetlights. The road abruptly changed from a bumpy, barely paved single lane into a sleek, ultra-modern four lane highway, though his was still the only car on the road. As he idled into town, Simon noticed clean, whitewashed buildings with strategically placed, dramatic lighting, as if he had entered a movie set. He sensed that everything had been groomed and modernized to impress tourists. Simon was disappointed. He had expected a sleepy desert outpost—not this.
He took another draught of whiskey and settled on a hotel in what looked to be the old part of town, near the souqs, then woke Elisabeth. As they entered the lobby, Simon immediately wanted to leave. It was altogether too much—the white marble, red carpeting, gold railings. He had hoped for something more modest and authentic, even a little squalid.
“Let’s go. We’ll find another hotel.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I don’t like it.”
“Mon amour, I need a bath. We need to eat. C’est bon.”
He relented, realizing at once he was too drunk and tired to do otherwise. They checked in and took dinner in their room. The tajine tasted rancid. He took a few bites and climbed into bed, not bothering to bathe. He drifted off to sleep, then woke some time later to Elisabeth climbing into bed with him, her hair still wet, smelling of watermelon and wildflowers. She kissed him gently, pressed herself naked against him. Soon she was above him, straddling him. As much as he tried to respond, there was nothing.
“Elisabeth . . . Elisabeth.”
Gradually, she came to a halt.
“Sorry, I can’t. I just can’t. It’s not in me tonight.”
“T’es chiant!” She swung off him in a fury, exhaling sharply, and retreated to the far side of the bed.
“I drank too much. It’s not you.”
She sat up, raging, hair wild. “Mais t’es pire qu’un vieux schnok! Pauvre minable, espèce de grand ‘Ricain débile, va!”
He had no idea what she said, but decided that was probably a good thing. She rolled away, snapping the sheet up and over her. He tried to stroke her hip to console her, but she swatted his hand away as if it were a mosquito.
The next morning, they set off early. Simon’s head ached and his mouth tasted vile. Still, hangover or no hangover, he wanted to leave Ouarzazate behind, find a place untarnished by tourism. The air-conditioning gave out after an hour on the road. As they opened the windows, a hellish wind filled the car. There was no where to look, no escape from the light. The sun filled every corner of the sky. The land was flat and featureless—nothing but sun-baked gravel and small, thorny trees. As Simon drank his whiskey, hoping it might improve his state, Elisabeth smoked steadily, avoiding looking him in the eye.
Up ahead they spotted a car on the side of the road and two young Moroccan men waving them down.
Elisabeth turned to him. “I hope you’re going to stop.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Oh, Simon, you must. What if it were us?”
“All right… but, for the record, I still think it’s a bad idea.”
He pulled up behind the other car and got out. The two Moroccans came toward him, smiling, talking excitedly in French. Their teeth appeared unnaturally white.
“Sorry, I don’t speak French.”
“Pas de français?” said the taller of the two. “Allemand?”
They looked to one another. Although he saw nothing in their expressions, Simon knew most Moroccans vilified Americans.
“Hold on.” He turned and waved to Elisabeth, motioning her forward. She got out of the car, dropped her cigarette to the pavement and ground it out with the heel of her shoe. As she made her way towards them, the Moroccans seemed to shift anxiously, speaking in soft, conspiratorial tones. The shorter of the two let out a brief, surprisingly high-pitched laugh, then stopped himself.
Elisabeth struck a pose of indifference, cocking her hip to one side, looking off into the distance, lifting the weight of her hair off the back of her neck then letting it fall again. The Moroccans looked mesmerized.
The taller one spoke: “Madame, notre voiture…”
“Mademoiselle,” she said, correcting him.
“Ah, oui, bien sûr…. ” He went on in rapid-fire French.
Elisabeth turned to Simon. “Their car is dead. He says he needs a ride to Zagora.”
“What about the other one?”
“He says his cousin will stay behind and watch the car.”
Briefly, the two Moroccans bickered in Arabic. Then the taller of the two handed the shorter one a small pile of dirham, at which point they both seemed satisfied.
There was roughly an hour to go still before they reached Zagora. It was ten in the morning though the heat was already devastating. The Moroccan, who had introduced himself as Belqassim, sat mutely in back. A sweet, musky odor emanated from him. Simon felt like having another shot of whiskey but didn’t want to offend the Muslim. He drank from the water bottle instead. Elisabeth inserted one of her French dance tapes into the tape player and turned up the volume. Here we go again, Simon thought, rolling his eyes. At once, the young Moroccan leaned forward, thrusting his head between them.
“C’est MC Solaar, non? J’adore MC Solaar!”
“Oui!” Elisabeth lit up with enthusiasm. “Vous connaissez MC Solaar?”
“Bien sûr,” he said, nodding and grinning.
She looked to Simon. “You see, Simon, I am not alone. Belqassim also likes my music. He has taste. He likes MC Solaar.”
“How wonderful,” Simon said.
They went on in this way, the Moroccan and Elisabeth, finding, like touchstones, common points of reference from pop culture. At one point, even with his rudimentary grasp of the language, Simon noticed a sudden, mutual shift in their conversation—a change from vous to tu. Turning, he briefly studied the side of the young man’s face. He looked to be about twenty-five with long eye-lashes, a sprinkling of pock marks, and long sideburns. The Moroccan turned to him and suddenly their faces were within inches of each other. Simon could smell lamb on his breath, see the delicate explosion of blood vessels in his eyes. His smile appeared, widening grotesquely, his teeth like tiny, polished headstones. Simon recoiled, grinning awkwardly, and returned his attention to the road.
In the distance, Simon spotted what looked to be an oasis—a refuge of lush palms in the middle of the desert.
“Voilà Zagora,” said the young Moroccan.
“That’s Zagora, Simon. C’est magique, non?”
Simon nodded, beginning to get excited. It did look magical, like something out of The Thousand and One Nights.
“C’est ma ville,” said the Moroccan.
“Vraiment?” she said. Then to Simon she said, “He’s from here. Maybe he can show us around.”
“Hmmm,” said Simon, realizing he desperately needed a drink.
They rolled slowly into the village, down a dusty single lane, the buildings stained red and built low to the ground. On either side, narrow alleys disappeared into the palmery. After a minute or two, they came to a small cul-de-sac, marking the end of the village. From this point on only camels ventured. As Simon began to turn around, he noticed a faded sign at the side of the road with an arrow pointing into the desert. He could hardly believe what he was seeing. He stopped the car and, squinting, read the sign over and over again, as if in a trance: “Tombouctou, 52 jours.”
Belqassim recommended a small guesthouse, belonging to his uncle, on the north side of the village. He guaranteed a special price. Their room was dark and bare with two single beds and a window the size of a shoebox. The bathroom consisted of a spigot, a hole in the ground for a toilet, and a bucket—everything spotless.
“It’s perfect,” said Simon.
Elisabeth shook her head in disbelief and laughed. “Simon, c’est tout un poème.”
The next morning Belqassim arrived early as arranged and led them through the maze of the palmery. Sparrows by the thousands wheeled overhead. They watched as small boys—pollinators—scrambled up the trunks as nimbly as rats. One of the boys brought them a sparrow cupped in his hands. Simon watched in horror as the boy then crushed it, carefully, flattening it like a butterfly, then offered it to Elisabeth.
“Ahh! C’est immonde.” She turned away in disgust.
Belqassim laughed, barked something in Arabic at the boy, then waved him away. The boy, clearly upset, no doubt expecting money, threw the bird to the ground and strode off.
They continued on to the market, the smells overpowering. Simon gagged as they passed the spice souq, while Elisabeth pointed her camera at the vibrant piles of cinnamon, mustard, paprika. Out of the corner of his eye, Simon spotted a European couple being led by Belqassim’s cousin, the same fellow they had seen the day before at the side of the road. Simon watched as Belqassim and his cousin made brief eye-contact, then quickly looked away. The cousin—though Simon doubted if he really was a cousin—immediately steered the European couple to another part of the souqs. Simon began to wonder if their breakdown yesterday wasn’t just a ploy to lure unsuspecting tourists. They seemed so clearly in cahoots.
“I think Belqassim’s up to no good.”
“Oh, Simon, please.”
“Simon, there’s no grand conspiracy here. He makes a little money, we get a tour. C’est tout.”
Later, Belqassim invited them for tea at the shop of one of his cousins.
“Another cousin,” Simon mumbled. “Is there anybody he’s not related to?”
“Sshhh,” said Elisabeth.
They were led through a network of alleys, passing goats, chickens, three half-naked children propelling a wheel down the lane with a stick. They stooped and passed through a low doorway. Inside, it was dark and smoky. Belqassim motioned for them to sit on the floor, then disappeared into a back room.
“What are we doing here?” said Simon.
“Having an adventure.”
A short, chubby, bearded man entered with a tray of sweets, a copper pot and a small stack of glasses, then placed it all on the floor before them. “Mohammed,” he said solemnly, offering his hand, which was as soft as putty. “You are American, yes?”
“At last,” said Simon, “someone who speaks English.”
“Only a little, I’m afraid. Please, some thé à la menthe?”
“Yes, thank you.”
He poured three glasses, placing a sprig of mint in each.
“Où est Belqassim?” asked Elisabeth.
“Attending to business,” he said, cryptically. “Please, help yourself. The pastries are very good.”
They both tried one. They were absurdly sweet.
“Mmmm,” said Simon.
“Ils sont divins,” said Elisabeth.
“My wife made them,” said Mohammed. “She will be very pleased. Please, take as many as you like.”
An awkward silence fell. Simon took a sip of tea, staring into his glass to have something to do.
“May I show you something, something you may find quite rare and beautiful?” He rose and left the room. In no time, he came back, carrying a large carpet, dropped it to the floor and unrolled it. It was brown with gold trim and smelled of urine. “A Berber prayer rug,” he said, regarding it with admiration.
Simon glanced at Elisabeth. She started to giggle.
“And I have numerous others.” One after another, he presented his carpets, rolling them out across the floor with a dramatic flourish of his arms and a “Voila!” Soon he was out of breath, his shirt stained with sweat. He collapsed before them, his mouth open, staring expectantly at Simon.
“Very nice,” said Simon. After everything the man had gone through, Simon felt obliged to buy something. “How about the small blue one.”
“A fine choice,” he said. “And because you are friends of Belqassim I will make a special price.”
Suddenly, Belqassim appeared, as if on cue, to advise them.
Their scheming was anything but transparent and yet Simon was impressed by their methods, how they corralled him in so efficiently. Without argument, Simon handed over the sum Belqassim suggested. He shook Mohammed’s soft hand again. Then he hefted the unwieldy carpet he would never have any use for into his arms, and followed Belqassim back the way they had come.
As they passed through the souqs again, Simon saw a man standing against a wall, shouting at people. His hair was long and matted, his djellaba filthy and torn. Children played near him, running up and touching him as if dared to do so. He stomped and growled and wielded his arms. Spittle flew from his lips. He pointed to the heavens and cried out as if in pain. Now and then people placed money in the dirt before him in a reverential way.
Simon stopped and set his carpet down. “Who is that?”
Elisabeth repeated the question to Belqassim.
“Un Mejdoub,” he said.
“Un Mejdoub—un halluciné bienheureux, un saint fou….” Belqassim continued in a solemn tone.
“What?” said Simon impatiently. “What did he say?”
“He says it’s a Mejdoub—a holy maniac.”
“A crazy saint. He says he only speaks words from the Koran. Makes prophesies, cures the sick, gives barren women children. Says he’s good luck.”
Simon watched in wonder as the Mejdoub took in great breaths of air before launching once more into his rant. Whether genuine or not, he was certainly impressive. He could never be confused with one of those dime-store derelicts in New York City. There was an intelligence about him, a mindfulness.
“Let’s go see him.”
“No, Simon… he looks dangerous.”
As he neared the Mejdoub, he was struck by the powerful scent of roses. He took out a few dirham and placed them at his feet. Free me of my past, he said silently. And transform me. He said the phrase twice more then looked up into the Mejdoub’s face, surprised by how serene and clear his eyes were. At once, the Mejdoub grabbed Simon by the wrist and pulled him close. Simon fell to his knees, stunned by the man’s strength, and began to tremble. The Mejdoub stroked his head, soothing him like a dog, and whispered long Arabic phrases into his ear. Then he took Simon by the chin and lifted his face, so that he couldn’t turn away. As the Mejdoub stared into his eyes, Simon felt levers being thrown, one after another, felt his mind seethe like dry ice and fall perfectly still. Finally, the Mejdoub let go of Simon and thrust his hands up into the air, calling out, “Allahu Akhbar.” Simon got to his feet, turned and, half-stumbling, fled without looking back.
That night a sand storm lay siege over the village. A steady mist of sand poured in through the small window, covering every surface of the room. The wind wailed like a wounded animal. Simon reclined on the gritty sheets, sipping from his last bottle of J&B. He felt strange, as if something were coming over him, dysentery or the flu. He drank more of the whiskey hoping to kill whatever it was that was ailing him. As he watched Elisabeth on the floor doing yoga in her underwear, the room began to spin. She tossed her legs up over her head and balanced on her shoulders, her breathing exaggerated. Her neck seemed unnaturally bent. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
“Non, ça fait du bien!”
He found it absurd that the moment she finished, she would light up another cigarette. She stood and began performing what she called her warrior poses—legs spread, arms reaching outward, then bending a knee and sinking to one side. She looked coiled and deadly as if she were about to thrust a sword into some imaginary foe.
The next thing Simon knew it was the middle of the night. The wind continued to howl. He could hear the date-palms thrashing wildly. A thin layer of sand coated his face. Sweat poured from his body, the sheets wrapped around his legs soaking wet. He stared up at the dark ceiling. The room seemed to throb with a bug-like presence. He drifted in and out of sleep, expecting at any moment to be devoured like a small grub. Dreams and brief glimpses of what might or might not have been reality overlapped and became indistinguishable. As much as he struggled to decipher the true strain, he could never be certain. One moment he was talking to Elisabeth, the next she was his ex-wife. Belqassim appeared with the head of a goat, smoking a kif pipe. The ceiling was dark then light then dark again. A doctor came, prodded his belly, stuck a thermometer in his mouth. Simon opened his eyes. “I am being transformed, Monsieur. There is nothing you can do.” Now and then, Elisabeth and Belqassim hovered over him, whispering in French. He realized at one point he had been left alone for a very long time.
In one dream, he was having drinks with his ex-wife, Helen, and his old friend and real estate partner, Marc, when suddenly he realized with a shock that they were a couple now—that Helen had left him for Marc. Of course, why hadn’t he seen it before? They kissed and nuzzled one another like newlyweds. They smiled at Simon and said how they hoped that they could all be friends now. They raised their glasses in a toast. Simon excused himself, nauseated, unable to stand being in his own skin. He understood he was in their home, a magnificent home, which had been bought and paid for, it dawned on him, with his money. He had to flee at once. He ran to the first door he spotted and flung it open. Suddenly, there before him stood the Sahara—like salvation—nothing but sand and blinding light.
He woke. He could now say he was definitively awake. He sat up and looked around. He felt good, though his body looked gaunt. He felt different somehow, as if he weren’t fully present, but floating, indifferent. On shaky legs, he made his way to the bathroom and, barely able to lift the bucket, doused himself with cold water. He had no idea how many days he had been gone. He found a pair of pants and a T-shirt but little else. He noticed all of Elisabeth’s things were gone. He dressed and left the room. It was good to breathe fresh air again. It was still early in the morning, the light low, the first birds just beginning to sing. He noticed the door to the adjacent room was open a crack and recognized one of Elisabeth’s bras on the floor. He nudged the door open and saw Elisabeth and Belqassim lying naked in a tangle of sheets. The room was thick with kif smoke and the smell of sex. He could not bring himself to wake them. They were like children. It was almost beautiful, the two of them, limbs draped over one another, breasts and penis languishing like warm fruit. He was not surprised, he decided. It would all be lumped together into his past. On the bedside table, he saw his wallet and car keys. He grabbed the keys, then, out of curiosity, looked inside his wallet. It was empty. He placed it back on the table and glanced one last time at Elisabeth, astounded by his dispassion. As he started to leave, he grabbed two bottles of water he found at the foot of the bed, then gently pulled the door shut behind him.
He drove the Peugeot to the end of the village then continued on toward the border outpost of M’Hamid. There was no road to follow, only thin camel trails, gently undulating. Finally, the car could go no further, the sand so deep the wheels only spun in place. He grabbed the water bottles and set out in the direction he assumed was south. After several hours, he began to see the dunes of Algeria. He must have crossed the border already, he thought, passing wide of M’Hamid. He continued on, weakly, relishing the emptiness, the cleansing heat, the gradual quieting of his mind. This is what he had dreamed of all along.
At one point he realized he had been climbing the same dune for hours, taking one step then losing two. By the time he reached the crest of the dune, the sun was setting. He sat down and emptied the first bottle of water. For miles, all he could see were dunes, one after another. Soon, he thought. Then he collapsed to one side and fell deeply to sleep.
He woke shivering. It was dark. He got to his feet and started walking again to stay warm. By midday, he finished the second bottle of water. He touched his face tentatively, feeling his nose, lips, cheeks and ears—crinkly with scabs. Now that the water was gone, he was surprised to find he didn’t have any desires. He slumped to the sand, deciding to stay put for a while. After all, where was he going? He was already there. Sometime later, a scorpion scurried up his arm, circled his neck, then crawled down his back. He closed his eyes, then opened them again, thinking it was only a moment later, though now it was night. Then he rolled over onto his back and returned to his dreamless sleep.
At some point—hours or days later—Simon sat up and realized he could no longer remember who he was, not even his name. It came, surprisingly, as a relief.
He lay back in the sand, which had risen up around him to form a sunken bed. Like a child, he let the sand sift through his fingers, enjoying the sensation. A pocketful of dust, he said to himself, imagining what the desert would make of him. He repeated it out loud, liking the sound of it: A pocketful of dust. He found it soothing. He began to sing it softly like a lullaby, over and over again, until he passed out.
There were voices, a nasal, rattling bark. He strained to open his eyes and lift his head. In the distance, he saw tall, gangly creatures with blue heads moving towards him. As they drew near, he understood what he was seeing: Berber nomads, their heads wrapped in indigo turbans, riding camels. Unable to remain conscious, Simon closed his eyes and drifted off again. When he came to, he was sitting on the back of a camel in a long line of camels walking across the desert. A small sack covered with fur hung sloshing around his neck. He opened it and drank some. It tasted sweet, slightly fermented. He guzzled the entire contents and immediately threw up. Behind him, one of the blue-headed nomads laughed.
They set up camp in the evening and led him to a place near the fire. One by one the nomads came up to him and looked searchingly into his eyes. They seemed pleased by him, even excited. Simon kept hearing the word Mejdoub being passed around. He knew that word from somewhere, but couldn’t quite place it. Perhaps it was his name. Two of the nomads lifted him to his feet and began walking him around the fire. Everyone started singing and clapping. Simon could barely walk but soon found himself moving on his own. The wind picked up and the flames leapt high into the air. Simon could remember nothing, although his body seemed to know what to do. Instinctively, he took one of the nomads into his arms and began to perform the rudiments of a waltz, spinning around the fire, faster and faster, while the nomads cried out “Allahu Akhbar!” Simon realized that at any moment he might collapse, but somehow he hung on to the grinning nomad and, rearing back his head, shouted “Allahu Akhbar” into the night sky.