On the edge of the Sahara

A first person account of travels to rogue places in Africa where rebels and al-Qaida terrorists reside. And where Jews are cited to have once ruled.

mosque in Niger 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
mosque in Niger 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was never my intention to make it to Agadez.
When I finally decided to go, it was after traveling through West Africa for nearly two months, kicking off in Senegal and working my way inland through Mali and Burkina Faso to Niger.
I saw few other travelers, and not a single Israeli. In fact, apart from a mysterious ceramic decoration in an entrance to a high-end Dakar residence, I saw nothing to remind me of home.
Of Niger, a huge Muslim desert country, I knew nothing save for the fact that Israel maintained no diplomatic ties with it and that it was considered a dangerous place for all Westerners. I decided to go nevertheless.
Something about its sheer remoteness, I imagine, about its being the current forbidden fruit of travel destinations, proved too enticing.
I was warned that going to Niger in late 2010 – much like going there today or anytime in the foreseeable future – I was looking for trouble. Nearly all Western volunteers and NGO workers were pulled out of the country and relocated to other areas in the region considered safer. The Tuareg – a loosely-affiliated, semi-nomadic, desert-dwelling people – have been rebelling against the government on and off since 1990, aggrieved by what they saw as their ongoing political and economic marginalization.
To make things worse, they seem to have started cooperating with the Saharan offshoot of al- Qaida, apparently deciding to abduct Westerners and sell them to al-Qaida both as a means of embarrassing the Niger government and as a way of earning some extra money. A few Westerners had already been abducted in the northern extremes of Niger, some taken across the border to Mali, some killed in failed rescue attempts.
Things in Niger looked grim indeed, with security threats being added to the usual mélange of coups (the last one took place earlier that year), corruption and crippling poverty. Niger officially abolished slavery only in 2003. Not exactly your typical family-oriented, fun-inthe- sun holiday destination.
I had no intention of tempting fate. Venturing to some places around the country’s northern Sahara reaches was considered foolhardy and a death wish. I avoided those.
But then I had also my own experience to rely on. As a traveler, I was often told to avoid certain places which eventually turned out to be as fascinating and as tranquil as any. As an Israeli, whose country was unjustly deemed a no-go area by many a Westerner, I knew better than to automatically believe the hype. “To travel,” Aldous Huxley once said, “is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” Entering Niger, I was truly hoping this was so.
Arriving in the capital Niamey after a daylong bus ride from neighboring Burkina Faso, I spent a few days there and in the provincial town of Zinder before heading north to Agadez. This legendary town is located in central Niger, at the southern end of the Aïr Massif – a crossroads between the Talak and Ténéré deserts, both sections of the Sahara. In a country which sees precious little tourism, Agadez – once the heart and soul of Niger’s tourist industry – is today absolutely off any tourism map.
While being the only tourist around was something I came to get used to in many places, it was still something of an oddity when traveling across the southern edge of the Sahara. Jews made inroads into this vast desert as early as the sixth century BCE, following the Babylonian conquest and the destruction of the Temple. More Jews arrived following later conquests by the Greeks and the Romans. Jewish, Arab and Christian accounts even cite the existence of Jewish rulers here. There is a claim that the Tuareg had a Jewish queen in medieval times.
Later, even more Jews came here following their expulsion from Spain, and non-Jews converted to Judaism as a bulwark against Christian and Islamic proselytizing. Jews became active agents in the growing trans-Saharan trade in gold, and served as intermediaries and artisans. Quite a few settled in Agadez.
JUST NORTH of the seedy town of Tanout, the bus I was on pulled over and waited for the compulsory military escort to organize.
This escort was to accompany us on the remainder of the way to Agadez. Soldiers were loitering around a pickup truck mounted with heavy guns and boxes of ammunition.
Around them, donkeys and camels sniffed the garbage-strewn wasteland. We finally took off again, going like mad on a bad road through flat prairie of red earth and yellow grass.
Here, on the endless expanse on both sides of the bus, it was Niger only by name, as state sovereignty applied mostly in theory. In effect, it was rogue territory, out of which Tuareg rebels and al-Qaida terrorists could strike without warning. Up here, the breadth of the Nigerien state was little more than the width of the road on which we were traveling.
Making its way to Agadez that day was a caravan of sorts, made up of buses of competing companies, brought together by fear and by army dictates.
In its long-gone heyday, Agadez saw the coming and going of a very different kind of caravan – camels, up to 20,000 strong, plying the trans-Saharan trade routes that linked the Mediterranean to the tropics. Planes, ships and trucks brought about the near-total disappearance of these legendary caravans; the bandits, the rebelling Tuareg and al-Qaida brought about the disappearance of travelers.
I arrived in Agadez on Christmas Day. The only thing white was the bright, blinding Sahara light. This light hit me as I was ordered off the bus by the police at the town’s tollgates.
My passport was taken for registration and I was told to collect it from the police station in town later that evening. It was high noon when I marched into town, temperatures in the high 30s. I was sore, annoyed, and somewhat timid.
Tourism-wise, Agadez was a ghost town. I came across a sad reality of shut-down hotels, long-relocated travel agencies and empty restaurants. Mean-looking soldiers were huddled on the open back of pickup trucks, riding around town, clutching their rifles, one always manning a heavy antiaircraft gun.
I tried one hotel. Its door was shut and locked. A man called me over from across the street. I approached him. He told me he was the owner and that he had to shut down four years back. There was no electricity in the hotel now and no running water, he said, but he’d give me a few candles and a bucket if I decided to stay. It didn’t sound too appealing, but I was tired and ill and electricity in this part of Africa was touch-and-go anyway, so I agreed.
We went inside, raising clouds of dust as we walked over a floor which hadn’t been swept in four-odd years. The owner, Abubakr, organized a mattress, some linen, water and candles. A boy appeared from nowhere and cleaned the toilet and shower. Abubakr told me how to reach him if I needed anything.
He turned to leave, then turned around and said, “Stay in Agadez town. The area around it is not good,” and left.
I WAS ALONE. The air was stuffy; it was quiet and rather depressing. I unpacked, improvised a way to hang the mosquito net over the bed, washed my face and set out.
Agadez is less about sightseeing and more about soaking up the ambiance. It has a magnificent mud mosque, which rises above its surroundings like a caricature of a porcupine. The late traveler and writer Bruce Chatwin described it as “bristling with wooden spires like the vertebra of some defunct fauna.” There are more mosques of course, but unlike other places in Niger, I saw no church in Agadez. I guessed there used to be one in the past, probably even more than one. In the 17th century, Pieter Farde, a Belgian Franciscan monk, was taken into slavery while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He was brought to Agadez, where he managed to convert a few dozen Jews. Some of these later became Christian missionaries.
I marveled at the Tuareg men, turbaned and wearing a dazzling array of colorful gowns, brandishing their magnificent swords. I wandered the dense warren of mud houses and crooked alleys of the town’s old quarter. It must have changed very little since the great Saharan explorer Heinrich Barth stayed in one of these very houses for a few days in October 1850. Like me, he was also advised not to come, and once here got to see absolutely no other Western face, so I could pretty much understand what went through his head as he had Agadez all for himself, for better or worse.
In the bustling marketplace I saw dates from the Algerian oases to the north and beautiful, ripe oranges, coming perhaps from the Mediterranean coast of neighboring Libya. Generally speaking, Algeria and Libya are big in Agadez, with Arabic spoken everywhere, posters of Muammar Gaddafi hanging on the walls and people strutting around with T-shirts of Algerian soccer teams. Agadez is a definite African-Middle Eastern-Arab melting pot, and all the more fascinating for it.
I did, eventually, see a handful of white faces, belonging to older people, probably tourists, occupying two tables in an upscale restaurant, the only one left open after tourists stopped coming. We never exchanged a word, only acknowledged each other’s presence with a faint smile. I ordered a beer and read my guidebook.
How frustrating it was that the area’s true gems, scattered around the oh-so-close Ténéré Desert, were unreachable. There were lush oases to be enjoyed, amazing mountain scenery, golden dunes, ancient – but still active – salt mines, even a huge dinosaur cemetery. Apparently, when the Sahara was green and verdant, dinosaurs roamed the place. The bones of quite a few of them remain scattered over a vast area to the northeast of town, uncollected, alternately hidden and revealed by the shifting sands.
Bemused, I bought a fossilized dinosaur tooth as a souvenir, as well as a few items of silver Tuareg jewelry. These perhaps were made by the Inadan, a distinct ethnic group with a special social standing among the Tuareg. Their origin unclear, I later learned that they might be, in part, descendants of Jews who were forced out of southern Morocco in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Some Inadan even today claim Lord Dauda (David) as their patron saint. So here was yet another Jewish aspect to enchanting Agadez. But Jews in Agadez today are as commonplace as living dinosaurs.
Near the mosque, a former sultan’s palace was transformed into a hotel, now standing empty and dark, but still open. I bought a cold drink in what the dining hall and where the French colonial rulers dealt with their own Tuareg rebellion of 1917 by hanging the rebels, and climbed to the roof. I sat on a ledge for a while, gazing at the stately mud mosque standing proudly over the dusty and scorching alleys as it has done for so many years.
In the distance, the red, foreboding massif closed in on the fallen-from-grace town.
The Saharan silence was eerie and majestic at the same time. In its physical and mental remoteness, Agadez was a place only a precious few dared to visit, and no one dared, or was allowed, to venture into the desert across its threshold.
It was the end of the earth.