Songs and Salesmen in the Sahara

Click here for a slide show. ESSAKANE, Mali—I guess if I hadn’t squashed the scorpion and collapsed in my pee-dampened (not for long, the Sahara being excellent for drying laundry) skirt, the nomad wouldn’t have brought me breakfast in bed. After 36 hours on buses and bush taxis, not sleeping wasn’t an option. No matter that I’d been shoved onto a pitch-black spot of sand covered by a cockleburr-coated cloth and told, in guttural French, that the toilet was “tout le Sahara.” That my hands were so filthy the only option was to remove my—thankfully disposable—contact lenses and throw them in the dirt. That the darkness was filled with scorpions, camels, sword-bearing men in robes, and something that smelled like goat.

So, when I wake to find a fiercely turbaned Tuareg prostrating himself at my feet, I do the only possible thing: wait for him to finish his messages to Mecca, then wiggle from the bug net in a burst of burr-infested glory and chirp, “Bonjour, monsieur! Ça va?

Now, Mahmed doesn’t speak much French, but it turns out that he’d crawled in after me later in the evening and has a lot to say about spending the night with a toubab infidel. After some gesturing and a few sound effects, I understand. “Yes. When I’m really tired, I do snore.”

Fortunately Mahmed doesn’t hold this against me, and in a few minutes I’m sipping a tiny glass of strong tea and chewing on some fried dough that, were it dusted with powdered sugar instead of sand, would rival the beignets at New Orleans’ Café du Monde.

I’ve come to Essakane to cover the Festival in the Desert, the most remote and “coolest” music festival in the world. Reaching the site takes four hours by four-wheel drive, four days by camel … and that’s when one starts in Timbuktu. The spectacle began in 2001, with nomads coming from every corner of the country to jam with refugee-camp stars like Tartit and Tinariwen, celebrating peace between the Malian government and rebel Tuaregs with music, camel races, and traditional sword dances.

The State Department’s thoughts on this event are pretty clear, and their employees have been forbidden to attend. “The U.S. Embassy in Bamako advises American citizens to avoid travel to Mali’s northern regions beyond the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, and to exercise caution when traveling in any isolated areas within Mali. U.S. Government employees serving in Mali, including those on temporary duty, are required to have approval from the Chief of Mission prior to traveling to areas north of the Niger River. Some of the towns included in this requirement are Kidal, Tessalit, Lere, Goundam, Essakane, and Menaka.”

Now, it’s my belief that the State Department is comprised of well-meaning ninnies. Like the father of a luscious 16-year-old, the State Department is happiest when we’re at home. I don’t plan on being an “incident” used to terrify other travelers. But I’m a woman. Women need to “maintain security awareness” every time we go to the grocery store. To my knowledge, no one is issuing warnings about the perils of venturing to Wal-Mart.

Still, there are dangers they could have warned me about. The festival campement is swarmed by touts and thieves. The queen of these is my landlady, whom I dub Moby Crone. Two British journalists and I rent a patch of the Sahara—not hers—one sheet of cotton, and three sticks. For this—and for guarding our stuff, which she cheerfully assures us will be stolen otherwise—Moby and her family collect 90,000 CFA, roughly $180. She repays the largess with traditional Tuareg hospitality—cups of harsh tea—and then charges us $5 extra for the beverage.

It is the vendors, though, who really spoil the scene. Toubab tourists are ripe for the picking, and the vendors won’t take non for an answer. Jewelry? Wood carvings? Indigo cloth? Jewelry?

By all accounts, 2003 was the year to be at Essakane. Robert Plant made an appearance. This year, many promised performers, such as Ali Farka Touré, are no-shows. Rumor has it that a number of last year’s musicians and technicians weren’t paid. Government corruption is alleged.

For whatever reason, sponsorship and attendance are down. The locals complain that the organizers are pushing aside traditional events like camel races in favor of more toubab-friendly fare. The tourists gnash their teeth over theft, price gouging, and nonstop hassle. And we’re not going to even discuss the sanitation situation.

The show starts three or four hours late each night, and the sound quality is awful. But many performances go a long way toward salvaging the situation. Baba Salah may be the next Jimi Hendrix, and dancing on the dunes as charcoal fires illuminate the Sahara has undeniable appeal.

When the music begins, the vendor assault ceases, and the crowd sways to one beat. Veiled men, their skin dyed blue by indigo robes, shake and sing next to dreadlocked backpackers. For a few magic moments, the festival lives up to the multi-culti hype.

Afterward, the chorus of sales pitches starts anew. Jewelry? Wood carvings? Camel-skin sandals? (OK, I actually do want those.)

“Many of these people are the dregs,” says Natascha. Natascha is Belgian, married to a Tuareg, and has lived with the northern tribes for eight years. “None of the decent families will come to this festival, because the behavior is a disgrace.” Natascha is here running a quite good concession stand where you can buy bread with jam, coffee, cold(ish) Coke, and beer. “Next time, go to Essouk.”

I didn’t come this far to be driven mad by merchants. But I’m not a particularly patient person, and I hit the wall on the third day of the festival. My polite French “Non, merci“s have been getting me nowhere. By Sunday morning, I have two choices: go postal or go Texas. I choose the Lone Star state and quit speaking anything but Austin-approved English. I even wear a South by Southwest T-shirt. Instead of doing the “Bonjour, ça va?” thing, I greet everyone with a huge, slightly deranged grin and a loud, friendly “Hey!”

Sometimes this is enough to scare the salesmen all by itself. If the jewelry and handicrafts come out, I rifle through everything enthusiastically. “Oh my Gawd, this is bee-yoo-tiful, but my husband will skin me like a cat if I buy one more thing. What? Honey, I’m sorry. Don’t speak a WORD. I mean, I studied in high school, but between you and me, I was doing most of my parlay-vous-ing with the boys. If you know what I mean.”

They don’t. Even the English-speakers are confused. I sit in beautiful solitude amid the sand and squalor. Until I see Mahmed and buy him a Coke.

Next stop: beautiful, cosmopolitan Timbuktu. Later, y’all.