The Dream of the Desert

By Agnieszka Herman

The rock shelter is very small. It has a wide, lens-shaped entrance and an uneven bottom sloping towards one of the side walls. Outside, bizarrely-shaped towers of weathered lava loom in the flickering air, dark and sullen under the merciless, white-hot desert sky. No life. No sounds. Inside the heat is less cruel, but it is not the shade for which we’ve come here. We’ve come for the antelopes, giraffes, for men with bows in their raised arms and women holding hands, for camels, cattle, for hard-to-identify objects used for long-forgotten activities, for overlapping, interpenetrating signs and figures covering the walls, so numerous that many of them will become visible only much later, at home, in enhanced photographs processed with specialized software. Some of the images are sophisticated, ingenious, other schematic, misshapen, some are faded, other so sharp that they seem fresh. The most mysterious ones bring to mind wide-eyed ghosts with outstretched arms and boats with strangely shaped sails. In this surreal, dead landscape devoid of humidity the association with boats seems absurd. It’s what our modern European minds see, the minds of strangers. And yet, all those animals, women and men, long time ago, here, exactly at this spot – they must have had water.

Long time ago.

Time.

A very illusory concept in a forgotten cave at the foot of the Emi Koussi volcano, in the middle of the Sahara desert. And it is not just a subjective perception of someone who’ve lost their sense of time while trying to reach this place. Of someone who has spent a week in a hot car incessantly getting stuck in the sand, who’s experienced an overdose of the stunning diversity of monotonous desert landscapes, countless rows of elegantly shaped barchans, rolling plains of perfectly sorted stones, impossible human shelters braving the sand in the middle of endless, flat expanses of nothingness. On a way to Tibesti time disintegrates gradually among the dunes of treacherous ergs, along stony pistas winding through mine fields and between rugged rocks dotting the bottoms of paleo-lakes.

At the back of the cave there’s a small opening in the ceiling. A beam of light falls on a twine net bag stuffed with rags, hanging from a stick plugged into a fissure in the wall. Who left it here and when? Impossible to tell. In the hyper-arid desert environment things discarded or forgotten yesterday and years ago look exactly the same. Potsherds, bones, cartridge cases, wrecked tanks and cars, stone tools, they all lie covered with sand or exposed to the burning sun, indifferent to the passage of time. Eternal.   

The night before, after a supper of pasta with nauseatingly smelling meat you wouldn’t dare to eat under other circumstances, we lie on our backs and watch the rocky towers surrounding our camp cut out black geometric shapes from the starry sky over our heads. Mahdi, our guide and guardian, tells us the story of this place. A story full of trees, villages teeming with life, animals hiding in the thicket.

“Right over there, see?”

“When was is, Mahdi?”

“I told you. When my father was a child.”

“And how old are you now?”

“56.”

It might be just a random number, a careless answer to one of those annoying questions we keep asking him: how many? when? how much? Mahdi might be older. But still, is it possible that all those things have disappeared, that the whole landscape has transformed so drastically within just two generations? No, not even here, in the part of the Sahara where climate change is occurring faster than elsewhere in the world. But then – is this story a metaphor? Does “my father” mean “my ancestors”? Or is it all just fiction?

Now, stuck at home by the pandemic, I’m reading that the rock closest to our camp is called Koubou Dougouli. Inhabited place. Site with water. On the map I have it is the only peak in the whole area which has a name and an altitude, although it doesn’t differ from countless similar peaks around it. Does the name reveal the history of this place?

If the relatively recent past is so inscrutable, so elusive, how can we say anything about the time when the rock paintings were created? They cannot be dated, all we have is presumptive evidence. And stories. Stories that hook you with their simplicity. In the minimalistic world of the desert small details grow and demand your attention with an intensity you don’t experience anywhere else. They remain etched in your memory like engravings on a rock face. You don’t leave this world unchanged. You want to come back.  

I bet my wooden necklace I hid in a fissure in the painted cave still looks the same when I’m there next time.