The older Djeloul is our cook, for the moment at least.
From the first look we exchanged, I felt a connection.
I think he felt it too.
Tourist and photographer that I am, I cannot pass up the chance of first photos. Djeloul assumes a pose, perfectly so, smiling from behind his cheich — a cotton garment which is both a veil and a turban — though with an air of detachment. Through the camera lens, I can make sense of his eyes, which are saying to me, “Go on then, take your photo”. The photo is good, but it is not Djeloul I have captured.
A true photo of Djeloul is something that I will only secure much later on our journey. At the point when all the barriers have fallen away, those relating to our status as tourist and employee, as foreigner and native of the desert. When he sees me as Cédric and when I see him as Djeloul. When we feel like brothers.
Those who are accompanying us, guides, drivers and cooks, are all musicians. After all, who is not a musician. I don’t dare take part, not right away. Tonight I listen, I discover, and I learn. Here music, more than elsewhere, makes connections and is a language in itself. It is also one of the only things to do, and a vital necessity. In the desert, little is said. It is as if speaking is something entirely superficial. So instead people play music.
Over the tea which is served, three times in a row according to custom, eyes continue to exchange glances. Tourists on one side and guides on the other are smiling, seeking to understand and observe one another.
Hamdi, the group leader, makes sure he is translating. We know each others’ faces, having seen them a thousand times before on television, in magazines... But something is going to happen, although not straight away. I know that I am searching for something special, deep down within myself, in this journey, and in these characters. To take apart my preconceptions about the Maghreb, Algeria and the Arabs, and maybe to change theirs too.
This is not my first journey into Africa, but it is my first into Berber territory. Berbers for some and barbarians for others, for those who have never been here before. We are a long way from the capital Algiers, “La Blanche”, which takes its nickname from the white lustre of its buildings.
In all likelihood many Algerians know nothing of the desert and its people, their own people. In Algiers, within the space of a few hours, I could find all the trademarks of the West, its brands, its products and its values. I have not come here for all that. I have come for the desert.
We will need to spend more than twelve hours on the road departing from Ghardaia to reach our first makeshift encampment at Taghit. It is already night-time, and cold. The discovery we will make on getting out of the four-by-four is something we will look forward to experiencing again every evening, every night.
Does God exist?
I exist, and I am here, on this exact spot on our planet, which is afloat with this cluster of stars and constellations. I have never seen this sky which nevertheless has been above me always. And I can see the stars even on the horizon. Then I understand how Man, under the same vastness, at the dawn of time, started to believe in something. The stars are watching us. Some speak of God, others of a force, or an energy.
If I had the answer, I would probably no longer need to live. I could tell you that everyone feels quite small, that we mean nothing in all of this and that we are not living in the right way (and this is the truth).
While the guides are moving about setting up the encampment, each of us takes his first steps into the sand dunes.
If high altitude causes vertigo, the desert inhales you. When you climb a mountain, you reach a summit, yet walking in the desert feels infinite. 86,000 kilometers squared of dunes, sand, and sky.
Once gathered again round the fire of palm tree branches, the words which come to us are completely mundane. “It’s incredible” ... “It’s insane” … “Like totally crazy” … What can you say?
And so we bring the derbouka drums out again. This time I am bold enough and Djeloul joins in with me.
It was the start of a new bond, a fresh exchange of glances, and our first piece of real communication. We each listened to the other, followed … became lost, only to come together again more strongly. It is the first moment in the journey when I am no longer this tourist who is paying to see what the other man sees every day. The first moment when I am not ashamed, and when his gaze and his smile are those of a friend.
Without saying a single word — I speak no Arabic and he has only a little French — we have realised, Djeloul and myself, that we have something in common. Music, of course. But first and foremost a child’s spirit.
Djeloul is by far the oldest of us all, and he himself does not know his age for certain, but he is still a child. He knows it, he said as much to me. I am the same, I told him so and he knew it already.
One day I took him by the hand and we walked together. Rather like two childhood friends.
I turned him towards the sun and said, “Don’t move”.
Then I picked up my camera and clicked just once.
It is my brother Djeloul whose photograph I took that day.
He did not pose.
I did not want to look at the image straight away.
It wasn’t the right moment.
When I looked at it later…
It was out of focus.
PHOTOGRAPHS AND TEXT BY
VARIAL CÉDRIC HOUIN
Varial Cédric Houin
Varial Cédric Houin is a photographer, creative director, writer, explorer, seeker. He has put his artistic chops in the service of the planet.