HOW TO BUILD A ROAD IN THE DESERT by Cyril Bennouna
IT WAS JUST PAST NOON in the Sahara, and our pastel blue rental car was hustle-packed with two suitcases, a bag of roadside tangerines, knock-off Nutella, two baguettes, two bottles of water, and three types of cheese, all of which kept shuffling back and forth while I hung out the window with my camera, snapping away at the emptiness around us.
My father, whom I’ve always called Baqi against his pleas (and in spite of the fact that it’s not even his name) was a fine driver. I did not blame him for the shuffling back and forth of the suitcases and tangerines. No, I knitted my brow at the “Minister of Concrete,” or whichever absurdly named government entity was responsible for laying a pin-narrow road without any discernible lanes, shoulders, or lights. Although I spited this authority every time I almost dropped my camera out the window, I was also appreciative of this one lonely road between our two destinations. Baqi told me that when he was a little Moroccan boy, people used to camelback for endless hours through the tyranny of Saharan sun to get from Merzouga to Zagora. We’d do it in a relatively comfortable, A/C-blasting three hours, Baqi figured. He told me he remembered the first time he had driven that road.
“Right after it opened, about 20 years ago. It was great, but they probably haven’t bothered to rework it since.”
I had been living in Marrakesh for four months by then, and the frequency with which commoners shook their fists halfheartedly at the sloth, or selfishness, of the people in charge –– someone once described this to me as the would-be-revolutionary’s air guitar –– made it woefully obvious that They hadn’t planned out a horrendous road (nor had They been too poor to pay for one). No, They just didn’t feel like making it any less horrendous. Why bother?
I was making a mental note to always blame the government when we rolled over the mirage at the top of the hill that always makes it look like the road is melting into the sky. The whole desert has a sense of that.
It’s not that there is nothing in the Sahara. We didn’t go so deep that everything was sand and a fear of stumbling onto al-Qaeda training camps. Instead of dunes, we saw sun-bleached mountains and rocky hills, all outlined in whirling dust. But we also saw families and sheep and reassuring stretches of jade-green farm. What alarmed me about these fringes was that, not so long ago, they wouldn’t have been considered the desert at all. There was an overwhelming sense that the green bits of life jutting out here and there weren’t growing out of the Sahara; the Sahara was growing out of them, sprawling outward like the crackling skin on a dehydrated mouth. Everything felt like it was evaporating in fast-forward so that we felt we could trace the transition from the things all around us into nothingness. Like the road, for example, which I pictured decaying into dunes beneath our wheels.
I had moved to Morocco out of a sense of duty to my heritage, or maybe it was because of how terrified I was of what New York City might look like outside of college. Whatever the real reason, the official one was because I wanted to apply my education to the task of revamping the family travel agency. Baqi had joined me for a vacation trip through the south of the country, which would also double as a business trip to test our product. This was day five of our trip, and we were now rolling over the hill, two hours out from Zagora. That’s when we spotted the parade blocking the road in the distance.
As we approached the crowd, Baqi rolled down his window and asked, in Arabic, what the trouble was. Everyone on the outside was screaming and chanting, and the only thing that came through was something that Baqi translated to me as, “it’s fine, come this way.”
A man started leading us, like a crossing guard, waving his arm in big, window-washer motions, off the road. We figured there would be a detour around the parade, but in hindsight, considering we were on a single road cutting across fields of saw-toothed rock, an easy detour was an embarrassingly naïve hope. As it turns out, we were being led into a trap, where we would be held as ransom for the next ten and a half hours.
If the past four months of business training hadn’t taught me to be shrewd in the face of a probable swindle, it had taught me to look for the market potential in everything that crossed my path, novel or banal. This is how it occurred to me that the phrase “kidnapped in the Sahara Desert” has a very marketable romance to it. Sometime within the ten-plus hours of being held for ransom, and especially after recounting this story to a few people, I comico-seriously considered starting a series of arranged kidnapping tours for my company, to offer customers a sense of raw, veritable adventure. I pictured, and briefly considered pitching to Baqi, a broader “Crisis Tourism” category my kidnapping tours could ultimately fit into.
“People are so outrageously bored with spas and Club Meds,” I would begin my pitch. “They don’t want swimming pools and minibar bottles of expensive booze they probably have adult-size versions of at home. Not to mention you can buy a really huge HDTV for the price of an airline ticket and tour to Morocco, and then catch the history lessons and panoramic views in better, more regal quality from your couch than by actually going to the other side of the world.” I pictured him being inexpressibly proud of my new businessman persuasiveness. “So when people trade TVs for Africa, we should give them a sense of real, true authenticity in return, something more dazzling for their digital photo albums than mosques and eroding mountains.” The only trouble is, if kidnapping tours sold, people would hate actually going on them. Being held for ransom, as it turns out, is not fun at all.
We realized we were being led into a trap when we found ourselves in an impromptu parking lot on a patch of roadside that had been roughly cleared of large rocks. Besides this patch, and the road we had just been led away from, everything around us in any direction was jagged terrain that could have easily taken out all four tires on our rickety old sedan at any speed above 15 kilometers per hour. And there was no hope of just turning back the way we had come. Not only was the road now cut off on either end by lines of stones and bark, but we were also crammed in among 30 or so other hostages and guards, which were often difficult to tell apart.
I was at once relieved and alarmed to learn that Baqi and I had not been the first suckers to fall prey to this pack of desert guerrillas. The place was cramped with the rent-o-cars and RVs of fellow tourists, the small European cars of Moroccan city dwellers, and a line of anonymous white vans, manned by stoical figures that seemed ready to ram anyone who tried to escape. Despite differences in vehicular style and cultural origin, each of the three groups seemed to share a common air of frustrated boredom, except for a few of the tourists, who appeared, at least to me, to be valuing this discomfort as a worthy investment in a life story.
From the band of obvious aggressors huddled in the road with sticks and bandanas (what we had mistaken for a parade), to the line of white van guards, it was tough to figure out who could’ve been in charge. There were also clusters of men pacing about the lot, who could just have easily been guards as careless villagers. Little dirt-caked children kept snooping into the car windows; were they kidnapping us too?
The whole thing felt chaotic, but not decidedly violent. No one had any guns we could see, or machetes. I had learned that Moroccans could be quite forceful when inviting you to dine with them, making you eat beyond physical pain. So for a moment, as Baqi left me by the car to go question some of the clustered men, it occurred to me that maybe we had just been ham-handedly guested to a local celebration of sorts, and that due to technical difficulties, the show hadn’t started yet.
But when Baqi came back, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to make it to Zagora anytime soon. They’ve already been here three hours, and won’t say how long it’ll last. They don’t really speak Arabic much either. We’re in Berber territory.”
The Berbers were Moroccans before the Arabs, and before Jesus was Jesus.
My Berber colleague had recently given me a crash course on the history: The Berber kingdoms had once stretched across North Africa, from the Siwa Oasis in the east, all the way to the Barbary Coast in the west. But for the past few centuries, they have been relegated to virtual second-class citizens by the Arabic ruling class. A few months before we were kidnapped, the Berbers had won a huge concession when the King officially recognized their language in the new constitution. Lots of people considered this a preemptive political move to defuse the tensions of the Arab Spring (an ironic misnomer in this case). But Berber groups around the country still considered it a significant gain in their cause, and used it as a rallying call to continue demanding egalitarian treatment from their government.
“So what do they want?” I asked.
“But they have a road.”
“This is the only road in the entire area. Plus, they’re not from here. They come from a village about 50 kilometers away. The leaders rounded up the whole village and walked here together to set this trap. They don’t even have electricity.”
“They walked that far in those crappy sandals? What about the vans, did they steal them?”
“The kids apparently walk 20 kilometers just to get to school every morning. The parents want to set up a bus system; I think that’s why they have the vans. But, I mean, even if me and you had a van right now, how far do you think we’d get on this moon crater?”
“So what, they think someone’s just gonna hand them a road in exchange for us?”
“Kind of, I guess. They’re hoping that keeping us here long enough will attract the regional Governor, who won’t want it getting out that a bunch of tourists have been kidnapped in his area.”
In the action fantasies that often follow movie watching, I always pictured my abductor demanding unimaginably unreasonable sums for my release, along with a private jet to escape by. I had never imagined that my life (at least one-third of one day of it) would be valued at something as plain as a road. I thought about all the roads in my small, suburban hometown in New York, the bumper car tracks and golf court roads, the towering parking garages, the four-lane drive-thrus. At the same time, it occurred to me how powerful my identity was, potentially: by the virtue of my being an American, or at the very least, not being a Saharan, I could possibly be integral to getting a million-dollar infrastructure project built for these people.
Then I reversed the scenario and considered a few of its horrible implications. What if my government valued foreigners over my family and me, and in fact thought so little of my people that in order to get a small amenity in my hometown, I needed to rally my neighbors and children to steal a pack of foreigners as bargaining chips?
“I’m happy to be their prisoner then,“ I told Baqi, regretting it no less quickly than if I had involuntarily spat while speaking. But, after learning about the Berber struggle, and trying to picture what it would be like not to live on or near a road, I also felt like I’d be a bigger idiot to get angry that these people had upset my vacation.
“Yeah, we’ll see,” said Baqi with the same exact combination of doubtful timbre and bottom lip scratch that he used when I was little and would ask him to buy noisy musical instruments for Christmas.
Meanwhile, none of the hostages seemed afraid at all. Most people just looked hot and like they were waiting for AAA. Some looked constipated. There were no restrooms in sight, and only a few small shrubs to be halfway decent behind. I thought about the one tourist who must’ve had food poisoning. I thought about the fact that nobody once approached any of the people in RVs to ask to borrow a toilet, and how if we couldn’t organize ourselves over this small hurdle in potty politics, we definitely could never orchestrate a daring escape. Three or four of the groups never even once left their cars, which just seemed absurdly antisocial, all things considered.
There were no places to get any food or water, either. In fact, the village children who kept eying the insides of our car also kept begging us to give them our bottles of water. In those moments, it was difficult to believe I was the one being kidnapped. I wanted to give the kids my water, like I would have if asked in almost any other situation. But in that clearing, where our credit cards, American dollars, and even Moroccan dirhams could purchase nothing, where our car couldn’t drive, that water, my camera, and the few other snacks we had in the car, were all of our material wealth. So I hid everything and aimed all of my stray looks above the children’s heads.
Five Frenchmen had set up lawn chairs in a circle outside their RV, as if in a normal campsite, and were passing around a few flasks of what was obviously Pastis, judging by the thick waft of anise. They were a haggard pack of middle-aged men who seemed to have picked up an early translation of On the Road, decided to put their hometowns in their rearview mirrors, and never found their way back. Besides Gaspar, overweight and garrulous, I never learned any of their names.
Gaspar had pulled the oldest-looking local into the pastis ring, assuming he was a village elder, and started enumerating countless protest clichés to him in a manner that was somehow both suggestive of sympathy to the local cause, and embarrassingly condescending, as if the Great Gaspar had been cut from the cloth of La Révolution. He would say things like, “You people have a great operation going on here, but you need pride. You people are not proud enough.” And, “What do you really want? Figure that out and you have yourself more than a mere protest.” The whole thing made me feel like I had stumbled into a French Confederacy of Dunces. The Moroccan man, who may or may not have been a protester, smiled to show he was above Gaspar’s advice, and then displayed his apparently abundant pride by trying to frighten the Frenchman and his cronies.
“We’ve done this before,” the Moroccan man said, “all over the country.” It was unclear if he was referring to the village as “we” or to the Berbers, or to the entire Arab Spring movement. “A couple times people tried to get away.”
“Did you ever get what you wanted?” Gaspar challenged.
“They got stoned by the crowd.”
I looked at Baqi, who was straining to not look at me, to not appear at all concerned.
“Have you ever gotten anything from this?” Baqi tried to rephrase Gaspar’s question in Arabic. Since he was paler than most Moroccans, and dressed in upper-middle class American garb, he always enjoyed the surprised looks he got when suddenly lapsing into Arabic.
“The Governor came here once,” he responded in French, seeming unimpressed.
“And did you ever get what you wanted?” Gaspar repeated.
“I have nothing to do with it. This time they will build a road, inshallah [god willing].”
As Gaspar overtook the conversation again with his arrogant revolutionary rhetoric, Baqi and I retreated to our car, a little despondent. Even if the government did promise to build the village a road, was it expected to drop it off that same day? And were we going to be held there by threat of stoning until the cement trucks rolled in? Baqi and I discussed this briefly, but then agreed not to be negative. We could be stuck there for a pretty long time; we wanted to believe it wouldn’t be a complete waste of everyone’s time. So we made secret cheese sandwiches under cover of the back seat, stealing bites and water sips when we couldn’t feel the children at the windows.
For the next two or so hours I alternated between reading a book about hunting zoo animals in West Africa and listening to the rumors Baqi picked up from walking around the site restlessly. It was hard to tell if he was anxious or excited, frustrated or invigorated. Given his pacing and darting, I imagined it was some nuanced, in between emotion that parents get when they can accept their own endangerment but not that of their children. Or it could have had nothing to do with me. Baqi hadn’t been to his home country in so many years that perhaps he was anxious and frustrated about seeing his people treated so poorly by the government; maybe he was excited and invigorated by his renewed chance to take part in his country’s politics.
He told me he had heard that the Spanish man in the car next to us had diabetes but no insulin, which is why he and his wife looked so actively concerned. He said a Moroccan man had convinced the villagers to let him go, probably by slipping them some baksheesh. Some guys in the distance started dousing scattered bushes in gasoline, and lighting them on fire. There was a team of firefighters up the block, in case the fires should spread. Also, the Governor, or his people, or the military, was supposedly on the way. We didn’t know what to believe, but that was part of the fun––crediting some rumor with flimsy logic because it made our powerless boredom sound more like heroic plight.
We heard the synchronized revs of an engine fleet, and felt the collective alertness of our kidnappers rise quickly to hysterics. Then I saw the black Mercedes with a police escort pull up to the western checkpoint.
Moroccans from every corner of the site raced to the center of the road, where they circled up around the Governor’s people, while the foreigners hung back and looked on from a cautious distance. For a moment, Baqi and I debated which group to join. I thought the spectacle provided a perfect distraction by which to speed off through the roadblock. But Baqi argued it would be more prudent to wait and see––maybe the government would give in, and we would be released before too long.
“How embarrassing would it be if we tried to run away right now, stole the entire crowd’s attention, and then blew our tires on the stones? Then, even if they did release us, we wouldn’t be able to drive away.”
As much as I itched to burst out of there in engine revs, dodging the onslaught of stones and chanting the National Anthem triumphantly, Baqi had a point. True wisdom is learning to recognize when not to act like you are in a movie.
We joined the circle of locals in the middle of the road, as the government officials made their way to the center. Of the four, only one wasn’t wearing a full black suit. He was shorter than the rest, and had that sort of over-casual walk that said, I’m just like you, but powerful. He rolled up his sleeves as he prepared to speak, letting us know he was ready to get dirty, or kick some ass if necessary.
“Do you want to speak Arabic or Tamazight?” Baqi translated to me. Tamazight was the local Berber language, and everyone indicated they wanted the man to speak it. This made it so that we had to find a translator in the crowd––a young, riled up local, as it turned out, who seemed to only translate after hearing something that made him especially upset or excited.
It quickly emerged that the short man was not the Governor, or anyone with any power, for that matter. He was the spokesperson to the Governor, an echo of his command. I wondered how respected in government buildings this guy was. If there were a hierarchy of spokespeople, where would he stand? Was he the guy that speaks to diplomats and resolves fragile situations? Or did the Governor just tell him to do all the shit he didn’t want to do himself? Maybe he was the, theretofore invisible, government force responsible for the sorry state of that road. I wanted to price our earnings as hostages so far.
Whatever his title, that man immediately looked more professional than any leader the village could scrounge up. It was sad, really. The crowd was fired up, as if everyone had some independent, urgent point to make. Each tried to speak over the other, 360 degrees around, in a fever pitch of steadily rising tone that made the policemen start to eye each other nervously. Many of the young men seemed ready to break through at any moment and sock the spokesman in the face.
One man at last found his way to the center of the circle and addressed the spokesman as if representing the entire village. Frail-framed and hunching, he wore a ragged baseball cap––brim pulled down over his eyes––and spoke in raspy staccato bursts about the plight of the Saharans: the lack of roads, running water, and electricity, the sense of total abandonment. The crowd listened for a moment, some people here and there even cheering him on. But the collective attention span was short, and it quickly lapsed back into disharmonic protest. Every couple minutes, another man (always men, sometimes two or three at a time) made it to the center and attempted to rally the rest behind him; each time the effect was less pointed, and more pathetic. I thought about how impossible it often felt just to motivate my friends around a single plan for a Friday night. What would I do if my community were in this village’s situation? I like to think I would be the one with the ability to channel my neighbors’ needs into diplomatic demands, but would I really? Or would I be another loud voice, looking no further than my family and the thought of myself as the great leader. I took note to study Malcolm X and Mahatma Gandhi in depth when I got home, and to learn the names of the equivalent leaders for the struggles of my time.
By now, the policemen looked embarrassed rather than apprehensive. The government spokesman had switched modes from politician to facilitator, wading through the blast of complaints and trying to tease out a single demand.
Disappointed and frustrated to find out these people had abducted us without even developing a leadership structure, let alone a plan for what to do if their kidnapping were successful, I scanned the crowd for the old man Gaspar had thought was an elder, and shot him a spiteful glare for telling us they had done this before. They were clearly amateurs. I leaned over to Baqi, and told him, “We should get back to the car while we still can.” But he acted like he couldn’t hear me. He was entirely absorbed in the discussion.
The spokesman started speaking about all the development happening in Morocco under the young King, about the high speed rail being built, the expanding highway network, the trolley in the capital. He brought up the new constitution and the coming equality it was sure to deliver. Then he thanked the crowd for its time and energy, rolled down his sleeves, buttoned his cuffs, and told them the Governor might help if they released all the foreigners, inshallah. He didn’t even wait for a reaction before heading back to his Mercedes, and speeding away.
I remember the sun setting quickly after that, and my sweat drying up into chills. Although I had no idea how to set about building a fire in the middle of sand, I was happy to contemplate the task. Without light, I couldn’t read or fantasize about escape, and we had long ago run out of food, so it was either I learned how to make a fire, or I passed out in the passenger seat of my car at 8:30PM.
While Baqi and the rest of the hostages took the latter option, I caught a pair of village children mounting scraps of wood near us, and then heading out into the dark, so I followed them. One grabbed me by the arm and started asking me in pigeon French if I wanted wood. I said yes, and they led me to a felled and rotting palm tree. They taught me to feel for the scars along the tree stem––the brown diamond-shaped carvings that make palms look so ornate––and to pull these individual scars away from top to bottom. In this manner, the three of us filled our arms with palm wood and headed back to the site, which at this point had started to feel like more of a camp than a protest or pseudo-prison.
When we got back to the site, I dropped the wood and went to tell Baqi I had gotten a few of the local kids to help me build the fire. But by the time we returned to the boys, they had already arranged the palms into a circle, surrounded it with stones, and lit it. Soon we found ourselves surrounded with what seemed to be the village’s entire youth––maybe 30 or 40 boys and girls, from four years old to 18, each and every one staring at us and smiling. Someone produced a ragged acoustic guitar and handed it to me; a few others started beating on the back of whatever hard surface they could manage.
We spent the next hour and a half singing, chanting, screaming songs that were not quite Berber, Arabic, or American, but some highly meaningful and completely atonal medium among all three. At some point I think I sung the theme song from the Lion King. I have felt much more remote and alienated in the middle of New York City than I did in that moment. The entire context of the day –– the hours, the sweat, the anger and boredom and helplessness –– all of it slipped into the dark, neat, even night sky. My fingers bled from the rusty metal strings, from not strumming them properly, and because of excitement. I thought about desertification and what I had taken for emptiness, of the steam mirage where hot pavement meets the horizon line on a long drive. I thought about these kids and how they were so much like me, so much like all children around the world, groping for meaning and identity, not knowing whether to be strong or innocent, accusative or apologetic. There we were, huddled around a fire of scraps. And we seemed to have found all the answers we needed, for a while.
Before long, we heard a scrambling on the road. An abrasive voice started sounding through a megaphone, telling everyone to go home, a deal had been struck. The site grew loud immediately with villagers asking each other what the deal had been and who had struck it, with foreigners waking up and trying to make sense of this raid. Baqi and I went to each of the foreigners’ cars and spread the word too, hoping to organize our wide exodus at last. Soon enough we were all lined up, single-file, rolling slowly towards the road.
As Baqi and I were celebrating the fact that we would finally be eating dinner, and that we had taken a small role in the escape, we spotted the pack of children from the fire. As we rolled past, they waved warmly, sadly. We passed another squad of riot troops, this time with thick helmets and shields. Soon there was nothing by a dark, pin-narrow road, a vague memory, and the prospect of vacation. We ate a huge plate of meatballs and fell asleep without a word.
CYRIL BENNOUNA is a former and prospective student, a has been travel agent, retrospective mail artist, temporary transcriber of scholarly texts, permanent turophile, and aspiring mental health professional. During all this, he daydreams about moonlighting as a writer.