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Taking the slow boat to Tunisia


The sun is a bright red ball that slowly falls behind the horizon. We unload the camels and Ali heads off to gather fire wood. We sit on a low dune and watch the sun fall. The temperature has dropped considerably. Despite the extra layers I have hurriedly added since we stopped, I shiver and rub my hands together before heading over to the fire that Mohammet has been building. 

The four of us sit around the fire silently, the only light coming from the dancing flames, as Mohammet and his son prepare our evening meal. Ali prepares the standard tea while Mohammet busies himself with various ingredients. We watch as he mixes flour, milk, and a dash of salt in a pan. He rolls the mixture into a flat, disc shaped piece of dough about the size of a Frisbee. Using his walking stick, Mohammet separates some hot timbers from the fire. We watch silently as he places the dough in the middle of the glowing ambers. Then, using his stick, he covers the dough with the remaining ashes.

I forget the dough, and wondering how it could possibly turn out edible, as my companion motions towards the heavens. A solitary star has pierced the night sky. The star is soon joined by others. One by one, the darkness above is illuminated and we sit back, warmed by the fire, watching the silent spectacle.

Our attention is directed away from the show as Mohammet puts a plate of couscous in front of us. We nod our thanks and chew the grainy treat in silence. The bread, a Berber specialty, made the same way for ages, is hot and delicious. We finish it off with the coffee that Ali has waiting for us.
 
The last of the dishes washed, we sit back and enjoy the stars. After a few moments of this pleasant silence I hear a slight knocking. I look around and finally notice Alis’ finger tapping against a tin pan. I look from Ali to Mohammet, where a slight smile has made its way across his face. Without taking his eyes from the stars above, he picks up a pan of his own and begins tapping. Without warning, Mohammet breaks into song.

It is an ancient, soulful, at times painful chant. The son joins in and sings the same song. There is more joy in his voice than his father’s, less pain. We understand the song even though Arabic is undecipherable to us. The feeling in Mohammets’ voice transcends an inability to understand the actual words. The song ends on the same note as it began. The four of us continue staring into the fire. The silence descends again, heavier than before the song, but somehow fuller.

We spend the next three days walking farther into the desert. The vegetation lessens and the dunes become larger and more impressive. After a while we circle around and head back to El-Faoaur. The landscape is breathtaking, but through the beauty of it, I find myself waiting for the nightly song. Mostly though, I find myself waiting for the tranquil silence after the song.

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