I’m driving along in the Sahara Desert (you know, as one does) in the company of young Abdel Kader. It is an early afternoon in December with the sky a pale washed blue and still warm at midday. He has just shown me a deserted French Foreign-Legion fort – a desolate place which is gradually being reclaimed by the desert sands. I explore the place, climbing up to the ramparts and indulging in the usual clichés, Beau Geste desperately repulsing the Berber hordes etc. Actually what I found most evocative were the prison cells with the graffiti presumably scratched on the walls by the miscreant legionnaires.
Back on the sandy track with me again at the wheel, Abdel Kader mentions diffidently that his village isn’t far away and asks my permission for him to visit his wife for a while. I say yes of course, but ask where his village is because, as usual, all I can see is sand. Abdel guides us along the winding tracks until we find the village with its characteristic white windowless dwellings nestling in a whaddi. At the end of the village is a small date grove which, it appears, belongs to Abdel’s family. He asks me if I wouldn’t mind waiting there while he pays a visit to his wife and baby and again I agree. I enter the garden and look round for a place to settle among the tall stately palms, sitting down eventually with my back to the trunk of a towering date-palm. Perfect peace – all I can I hear is the gentle murmur of the irrigation streams which are watering each individual palm tree. The harmonious beauty of the setting argues the existence of a divine plan. I fall into a contemplative trance and allow my beating heart to slow right down and fall asleep.
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness.
I awake to find Abdel and his father Mohamed eyeing me expressionlessly. I look at my watch – it’s time to get back to the camp. Before we leave I am offered a small hempen sack of dates; some of the dates have been harvested from the very tree under which I have been reposing and are therefore a special gift from God, Mohamed assures me and opines that I will have a lucky life. (I sometimes ponder this and come to the conclusion that, yes, I have had my fair share of luck). He shows me how to assess a good date: first it should be dry and light brown in colour and when held up to the light it should be translucent; the ripe fruit should be firm and sweet. I like dates and keep the bag in a drawer of my desk, partaking of several each day.