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Mohamedou Ould Slahi: The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga

Ahmed is a Bedouin camel herder from the Idamoor tribe. His ancestors were all camel herders. Ahmed is not doing as well as his ancestors because of drought. Ahmed knew too well that the day would come when the camels would disappear, because old times were better than his times, and the times after him would be still worse. That sad and dark day would come when all of the family’s camels were gone, and that day would be the end of time. He knew the end of time was very near. The novel appears to be set between the two world wars.

He did not know how many camels he had as it was bad luck to count them, though he had to pay taxes to the French colonisers and they counted them, and similarly with his tribe and Allah.

Being a camel herder has its own traditions and, to be successful, you had to follow them. There could be only one uncastrated male. If there were more, they would fight. You also had to leave the lead male in charge, establish a good relationship with him and not cause him any grief. The same, of course, applied in the tribe. You had to obey the tribal leader or risk exclusion and a man on his own in the desert would find it difficult to survive.

The practice was to leave the camels to find their own food. They would follow the lead male and stick together. Ahmed would then go out, find them and bring them back. He had his ways of tracking them down.

On this particular day, there is a problem. One of the camels – one of his favourites called Zarga – is not with the herd. He takes the herd back and then sets out at night, riding Lamesh, when it is cooler, to look for Zarga. He wondered what had happened to her. If she had been stolen by bandits, why did they not take all of the camels?

Things go wrong, of course. He has to stop for a rest and while he is asleep he is bitten by a desert viper. He says a prayer and cuts off the end of his finger. If he had not done so, the poison would soon have spread to all of his body.

He manages to find another nomadic camp where he is well-treated and where a soothsayer, Sharifa Nounou, helps him. He was well aware and so was she that evil eye had struck him well before the snake bit him and it was her job to remove the evil eye, which she did with her prayers and incantations.

We follow Ahmed’s journey around the empty waste of the Sahara. He does come across other nomads and meetings are friendly. He had been told at the first camp that a large group of herders from Morocco had been sighted and they might have picked up his camel, either deliberately or accidentally, so he sets off in the direction of Morocco.

Things get still worse as he is unable to find food or water. He does see a dead man and even eats a bit of him to provide him with some sustenance. He also has a series of bad dreams which we hear about and thinks back about his family, his ancestors and their stories and his tribe. He also thinks about the present situation. He really does not like the French colonisers.

Eventually he finds a grubby looking tent. Both he and his camel are suspicious and even more so when a large woman eventually appears from inside. He is invited in and offered tea in a dirty cup. He drinks it and suddenly feels faint. When he awakes, he is tied up and the woman has been joined by her husband. She is playing with a human head while the man is brandishing a very sharp-looking knife.

It is hard to believe that this book was written by a man who had been unjustly imprisoned in Guantánamo for fourteen years. Had I been unjustly imprisoned for fourteen years, I would be writing bitter denunciations of my jailers and not much else. He made friends with his former guard and a film has been made of his time in Guantánamo.

Perhaps, he wrote this book to reconnect with his roots, which it does. Though we hear of the French, we do not meet any non-nomads in this book. The focus is on Ahmed, his adventures, his history and the story of his family and tribe and he tells his story (or, rather, stories, as we have several stories mixed in with the main story of his hunt for Zarga). It might seem that not much could happen in the middle of the Sahara but you would be wrong. When he is not meeting people, vipers and camels, he tells us stories of his life and the lives of his family and tribe, he tells us of his dreams and he tells us of his thoughts. It is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, with no Western technology or issues (apart from global warming, which seems as much a concern to the nomads as it is to us), no cities or, indeed, any built-up areas and a culture which, for the most part, seems friendly and cooperative.

Publishing history

First published in 2021 by Ohio University Press