Maghreb Voices – The Smiling Ghosts of Mides, Part I

“Individually, every grain of sand brushing against my hands represents a story, an experience, and a block for me to build upon for the next generation. I quietly thank this ancestor of mine for surviving the trip so that I could one day return.”
– Raquel Cepeda

we’re driving through the Dorsal, which is part of the Atlas Mountains that mark off the Maghreb region (comprising Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) from the rest of the African continent. Most of southern Tunisia is a combination of semi-arid land and desert, in contrast to the much greener north.

You have to drive for a stretch into the Sahara to get to the mountain oasis of Mides in southwestern Tunisia. The drive itself is formidably beautiful: imagine the mountainous landscape of some distant planet? rolling masses of stratified rock with hardly a trace of vegetation to hide the sensual folds, the sweeping vistas of sand, the yawning canyons.

At the end of the last Ice Age, the Sahara Desert was much like it is now, but it did experience a few thousand years of almost rainforest-like conditions. This is when humans started quitting the overpopulated Nile Valley to settle in the north. Mides is one such settlement. It was given its name by ancient Roman colonisers who called it Madés, but the village existed long before the Romans came along.

With neither a wealthy infrastructure to support tourism in the area or sufficient defense resources to adequately guard tourists against the terrorist threats that plague the region, tourist services here in Mides are limited to a small cluster of palm huts with crudely handmade signs. It’s a tourist goldmine, but so out of the way and hard to get to that solitary poetic types can bask in it without having to elbow the crowds.

We enter Mides and find several huts and booths advertising henna tattoos, green tea, and coffee. There are men here, young and old, who spend their days looking for the very things we tourists covet but don’t have the time to go after, like fossils, petrified wood, and desert roses.

There’s a large gorge here that, in addition to having been used for the desert scenes in The English Patient, was used as a defence in earlier years. It looks like rather a dangerous place for children to play.

The village itself looks a lot like the abandoned Pueblo dwellings of the American Southwest, and had a similar history of lush beginnings that eventually turned to arid inhabitability. Mides was once part of a lush area that eventually desertified, reducing the village to an oasis. People continued to live there until 1969, when 22 days of rain washed away most of the houses.

There’s a large gorge here that, in addition to having been used for the desert scenes in The English Patient, was used as a defence in earlier years. It looks like rather a dangerous place for children to play.

The village itself looks a lot like the abandoned Pueblo dwellings of the American Southwest, and had a similar history of lush beginnings that eventually turned to arid inhabitability. Mides was once part of a lush area that eventually desertified, reducing the village to an oasis. People continued to live there until 1969, when 22 days of rain washed away most of the houses.

We are accompanied by a young man, who I’m told is our guide, but who remains silent until we reach the summit of the mountain, where he pulls (I’m the only Westerner in the group)me from the herd to show me a display of necklaces, something one might consider out-of-place here but which somehow seems perfectly apt, if only because the necklaces displayed, unlike the vast bulk of Chinese-manufactured products, are handcrafted from real stones and pure metals.

He draws my attention to a silver pendant with an intriguing pendant, explaining that he’d bought it across the border in Algeria and that It’s a Tuareg symbol.

Being completely infatuated with all things Tuareg, I buy it on the spot, for the equivalent of 12 Canadian dollars. My Arab friends tell me I paid too much, but my rule is always to pay the same or less than what I’d pay for a similar item in Canada, and not to worry too much about the paleface premium.

(to be continued)

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.

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