In 1949 Paul Bowles’ existential novel “The Sheltering Sky” was published. It was a favorite of the woman. I read it and found the prose to be excellent, but the characters drove me nuts. I couldn’t relate to any of them. It seemed crazy to me that they would do what they did and I think I offended the ex by my proclamations of my feelings about the book. I didn’t really come to that realization, and the ensuing remorse, until I came to the Sahara. It was one of those moments where, for example, you’re in the shower and everything is fine until, inexplicably, your mind goes to some embarrassing or shameful memory or a terrible realization of some kind that causes a shiver and involuntary aggghhhhhh!’s and ruins an otherwise revitalizing cleanse.
I bring this up because the Bowles’ novel begins with the main characters heading on a trip to the Sahara to try to salvage a failing marriage. I just finished a trip into the Sahara on the tail of a failed relationship. I know, I know; if you’ve been following this blog you’re probably all like “dude…we get it, get over it” and then I be all like “you don’t even know man!…you don’t even know. My heart is as big as the sky so like when it breaks it breaks the sky”. Hahahahahahaha. The main issue causing the schism is the very same thing I cannot seem to reconcile within myself. How does the rambling nomad and the settled lover ever come to terms? I want a settled life and stability and family but the siren song of the road and the unknown is ever-present. The Sahara it seems wishes to remind me of this divide.
In the days of PhDing I was often clad in blue. My rain pants and my favorite coat are blue and my favorite shorts are also that sweet azure. Before we moved out to the blueberry farm I would skateboard to the office and much to my delight one morning I saw Jenson who greeted me with “I saw this mass of blue coming towards me and I knew it was you”. Aside from the blue I have, for the better part of my adult life, always worn a beard. People who know me either freak out or don’t even recognize me when they see me clean shaven for the first time. The beard is a seemingly big part of how I am recognized amongst my friends and colleagues and having lived in the northwest is in no way out of the ordinary.
In Morocco, on the other hand, having a beard induces, at the very least, commentary out of the ordinary and in some cases seems to invite ridicule. The general reaction has been that people think I look like a Berber because I have hair on my face. I have been repeatedly referred to as Ali Babba. I know that Ali Babba is also a greeting here, but it has become what most of the locals call me.
The Berbers’ banner contains a single character of the written alphabet common among themselves and the Tuareg. It is the character which represents the sound of “Z” or “Zed” if you’re european.
You will find it upon doors and flags throughout the Maghreb and it’s meaning is freedom. From what I gathered it is the freedom to come and go as one pleases. I wont pretend to know enough about the politics or history of the Berbers to comment on deeper meanings or implications of the symbol. But I will use this opportunity to offer your ears the delight of my favorite Phish song. I want to make clear that when rocking out to this song, as I do, let it be known that the freedom I currently celebrate most is still, months later, the freedom from school and not from any people and certainly not from her.
The same symbol also appears on the Tuareg banner and from what I understand has roughly the same meaning. The Tuareg are known have been called blue people due to the indigo dyes used in their clothing. Our guide related to us that blue is worn to indicate that your heart is as big as the sky. Having been in the Sahara a few days I can say that the region easily gives Montana a run for its money when it comes to the title of “big sky country”. Thus by the transitive property since the Saharan sky is really big, wearing blue implies that one’s heart is really big.
I haven’t really put this together all that well but I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have the free nomad in me just as I have the blue sky’s sized heart that wants love and family. This isn’t some grand realization that I was never before aware of. In fact, the journey into the desert was less enlightenment and more a beating me over the head with what I already knew. Just as the camel ride pounded my sit bones repeatedly (still blue as the big sky my ass is), the duality of freedom and love has been pounded into my heart. My heart is a big as the sky and I have loved as deeply as the most indigo of indigos. I have lived also the life of the nomad; wandering the west and now the world. I have felt the tearing of my heart that breaks the sky and not just with lovers, but also being far from those friends and family that are now a world away. I have felt the icy grip of the Saharan night in winter and I have been embraced by the brightest starlight beneath the sheltering sky.
Of course, having been to Saharan oases and spent a night in the dunes, it’s mandatory for this song to be played. Also I want to give a shout out to the people I met on this jaunt into the dunes. I was the 11th wheel on the bus to the 3 Spanish couples, the German couple and the Danish couple yet the pangs of sadness were not there so, you know, like yay.