We’d come down that long, shimmering road that made its way across miles and miles of minefields. Like a velvet blacktop flirtation with safety that allowed us to travel into a heartland that was otherwise a shattered, bone-pocked, uniform and spent- shell expanse of stone and sand. Just don’t go off the road.
The mosque at kilometre 98 was untouched, a sort of moving thought, really – that driving hard, killing everything that moved in their path, the soldiers had skirted around the mark of God as if leaving his temple whole would perhaps absolve their murderous advance.
Nomadic peoples had wandered here for millennia, trading goods up and down the desert trails from the interior to the coast, wandering across borders they never knew were borders, raising their families and getting on with life under the sun.
The recent wars had put an end to a traditional way of life, borders now being un-crossable, and the sands previously traversed scattered with landmines and worse. It was unclear to me how they really survived. They still traded – at roadside micro-general stores that offered anything from kerosene to packets of biscuits.
The little encampment where we had stopped lay not far from the road, the colours of the women’s clothing shouts of anarchic joy against the flat, dun sand, not yet converted to black, and the young mother’s face not yet veiled, but open and beautiful.
The children cute and sweet like any children anywhere, the men in their loose half-mast trousers talking to the alpha male of our company, who was not the chief of the group, by the way, and Beatriz and I squatting beside a young mother, who was washing clothes with her daughter in a converted oil barrel.
The heat that afternoon was like something solid, making progress through the world around you somewhat of an effort. Sitting down on the sand was a relief, like a unexpected special offer from the day. As a Ferengi, we came with sunglasses, shaded baseball caps, factor 5 million sunscreen, and is it any wonder our nomadic hosts looked at us askance, with clear amusement, the big white eejits there, in sunglasses and hats, dabbing at their eyes every now and then, which were streaming with tears from the mixture of sweat and sunscreen.
I had often thought to don a simple head scarf, like the local women, of cool cotton that would drape over my head and allow the scalp to breathe. I had one, but I was laughed out of it, “going native” not being a compliment in our circles. But I eschewed the dreaded baseball cap. As much as possible, no baseball caps, please. A cream linen hat with a medium brim. Eccentric, perhaps, but functional, un-American and being civilian, after all, I didn’t have to wear a uniform.
We laughed as the toddler squealed in delight at the apparitions that had alighted from the big white vehicle, now silhouetted against the sun behind us. As were the outlines of two men, quirky opposites in shadow-puppet forms against the sky: slight, slim nomad with turbaned crown, tall, chest-heavy international with silly baseball cap.
The young woman had a face that you could only love – yes, a word that happens, spontaneously sometimes. She bore no apparent ill to anything in the universe, was besotted with her baby and laughed loudly at her antics, invited us into her world without a thought.
Her smile was something you would want to save into a genii bottle, to open, lonely dark evenings when there was nothing on the box at home, to remind you of another world, of which reality TV simply has no concept.
Behind her, mother or grandmother had a face that was darker, no smile, and why would there be. Her daughter had become an adult in some kind of peace, but she was of the generation who had seen the full force of war.
We were too hot and very thirsty, and the water in the vehicle tasted of plastic and chemicals. In the time-honoured tradition of Islamic hospitality, the older woman made the motion of shaking her hand in front of her mouth and nodding.
We shook our heads, politely. No, no, thank you, don’t trouble yourself. Grandmother ignored that of course, and addressed an order to an enthusiastic little boy at her side. We expected the usual ritualistic sugary tea, or strong coffee served in one tiny cup, to be passed from mouth to mouth. But grandmother sensed, maybe, that these over-heated Ferengi would prefer something more familiar. When the little boy returned, he was carrying three bottles of Coca Cola. Yes, read it and weep.
We wanted to pay. The faces darkened. We said thank you instead, and gave a pencil, a branded organization pen and an eraser to the little boy instead, who was in turn, chuffed.
Call me sentimental – but really, it was the best Coca-Cola in the world. Right there, on that day, with the splitting stones around us and the speech of smiles, eyebrows and the motions of head and hands breaching the borders of language, to make it a most memorable afternoon tea …