As a guide, Ag Mohamed Ali made friends from around the world, and he visited some in Europe. It was, to him, an alien world, just as Timbuktu remains for many around the globe. “The first time I was in Europe,” he said, “and I saw water just lying on the ground, I thought ‘these people are crazy’.” And everything moved at a speed that was unthinkable in the Sahara. “In the desert we have infinite time but no water,” he said. “In Europe, you have plenty of water but no time.”
And yet, even so far from the desert, Ag Mohamed Ali found a connection: “The first time I saw the ocean in Barcelona, I cried because it is like the desert. You cannot see its end.”
Ag Mohamed Ali’s travels also helped him understand the appeal of Timbuktu, because Paris and Barcelona were as unbelievable to him as Timbuktu is to much of the rest of the world. He went to a football match at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium. “In the one place there were more people than in all Timbuktu,” he remembered. He would later found a Timbuktu chapter of the FC Barcelona fan club.
When travellers wanted to see more of the Sahara, Ag Mohamed Ali took them to deep-desert Araouane, a sand-drowned town 270km north of Timbuktu. To get to Araouane, travellers must cross the Taganet sand sheet, which stretches, uninterrupted, to the far horizon. For the last 100km, there isn’t a single tree.
Araouane itself has the appearance of a shipwreck. A number of its buildings have disappeared beneath the sands. Many of the houses that remain, even a mosque, lie half-submerged by the dunes that envelope the town. For weeks on end, the wind blows without respite, and sounds like ocean waves breaking on the shore. Women carry water from the well, leaning into the wind. Without the wells, life would be impossible here; sometimes it doesn’t rain in Araouane for decades. Sand is everywhere, and nothing of any value, save for a single, forlorn wild date tree, can grow here.