Photo by Lucas Vallecillos
In ancient Douz, a town in the south of Tunisia about 300 miles from Tunis, signs by the road read: “Attention: Camel Crossing.”
The nomadic Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa and, at the Musée du Sahara in Douz, I learn about their desert lifestyle, their intricate facial tattoos and camel husbandry. Tattoos are prohibited in the Quran but the Berbers follow their own style of Islam and their women use traditional designs to protect against the spirits known as jinn.
The tattoos are still seen around bodily orifices such as the mouth or nose, anywhere a jinn might try to sneak into the body, as well as the feet to protect against those rising from the earth. Another common marking, on the chin, takes the form of symbols from an ancient Berber alphabet based on agricultural implements and the constellations of the desert night.
I take a camel expedition into the desert to see the night sky. Our languid caravan plods slowly across the gently undulating dunes away from all traces of civilisation and, as the sun dips below the horizon, the temperature plummets in tandem. We pitch our tents and gather around the campfire while the Berber guides prepare a feast of harissa soup and vegetable couscous, washed down with hot, sweet mint tea.
Later, they pull up the pointed hoods of their prickly woollen burnous and lay their blankets around the fire, choosing to sleep under the star-studded sky rather than canvas. I shiver in my sleeping bag until I am lulled to sleep by the rhythmic murmur of their voices and do not wake until a shaft of sunlight lights up my tent.
After strong coffee has been drunk and the grumbling camels brought to order, we are back in the saddle. Despite the turban wrapped around my head and face, wind-blown dust makes its way into eyes, ears and mouth. There’s no denying the desert.