The Acacus desert, Libya, 2008. Sand, mountains, rock arches, and, right in the middle, me.
Me and other ten people. We’ve been travelling by motorbike and 4×4 for days, following our tuareg guides, the Sharif brothers.
After a chilly night I struggled to sleep through because of my cold feet, we are ready to leave the camp. We’ve already had breakfast sitting on a rug and sipping tea, and we’ve took all the tents down.
Here I am, sitting in the car, sand in my hair and feet still freezing under two pairs of socks.
The Sharif brothers drive fast leading the line. The dunes are wide and low and the rocks make natural paths to climb up the small hills around us. The bikers are having a lot of fun, discovering new passages and disappearing from our sight. Sometimes I get anxious for them. What if they fall behind a big rock and we can’t see them? But I’m sure they know what they’re doing. I trust them. And I trust my dad driving the car too. A few days ago he got off the Toyota and said “Here, drive”. I’m sixteen. I tried, stopped the car and got off.
During a stop, we are approached by a young boy asking if we have any medicines. He leads us to his village, a bunch of huts made of wooden boards. And there, sitting alone on the sand, I see him. He’s old, very old, and almost blind. With one of the Sharif brothers translating for us, we ask him how old he is. He doesn’t know, and that answers will haunt me for years.
He doesn’t know and still he doesn’t seem bothered at all by this lack of knowledge.
His peace hits me hard right in my Western anxiety about time, all the time that we lose, all the time we can’t grasp, the time we’d love to stop.
He tells us he worked with Fabrizio Mori, the Italian archaeologist who discovered ancient rock paintings in this area in the fifties. I imagine Mori and this man together, working side by side in their white clothes, the sun hitting their heads, in a colonial-imagery-influenced fantasy. How old is he? Should I imagine a young boy, like the one beside him? Are those wrinkles a result of a life under the sun and the sand? Do they age him? Or should I imagine him with an already greying mustache? Was he a professor, a guide, a simple laborer like many others? I don’t dare to ask.
We give them most of the medicines we have with us. Aspirines, eye drops, antibiotics, ointments. We leave, hoping that taking them after a long time won’t kill him. We joke about it. “We killed him!”
I’m still a bit afraid we may have.