The Sahara Dialogues
By James Michael Dorsey

Crossing 100 miles of desert with a draped Tuareg companion, an explorer finds peace in the swirling sand and unquestioning acceptance.

Mali travel

Tuaregs rarely venture into a city so Halis Al Moctar created quite a stir when we met at the Bamako airport in Mali at 2:a.m. All eyes were on him as he towered over the crowd looking like an indigo batman, and stunned everyone present, myself included, by lifting me off my feet with his bear hug greeting.

He shouldered my bag as if it were a mere wallet and as we drove into the humid night I had the rush of adventure and the fear of the unknown upon me because I had placed my life in the hands of this man whom I only knew through the internet.

At first, he was taken aback by my request to live and travel among his people but then, he eventually agreed, as intrigued by me as I was of him. How would these nomadic Muslims react to me, a white western Christian entering their world? Would I really be tolerated? I crossed the Atlantic thinking "What have I done?"

My model for such a trip was the great English explorer, Sir Richard Burton, who more than a century prior, became the first white man to enter the holy city of Mecca, disguised as a wandering mendicant. If he had been discovered, he would have forfeited his life. I had no illusions that my own trip would be so dangerous, but still, what I intended was far beyond the norm. It is one thing to visit Timbuktu as a tourist, and quite another to pass oneself off as a desert nomad. By any local standards I would be an infidel.

The Original Blue Man Group

Tuaregs are a Berber ethnic group that range across several countries in North Africa. They are called "Blue men" not because of their indigo robes and turbans, but because they employ the ink of sea urchins to create this luminous color, that in time, saturates the pores of their skin and renders it permanently blue.

They are an ancient people first mentioned in the writings of Herodotus and who for over two millenniums have controlled the Trans-Saharan camel caravans whose gold, salt, and slaves have driven the economy of much of Africa. Their oral histories speak of warfare and foreign invasions.


We drove for three days to reach Timbuktu, staying in fleabag hotels where Halis would only sleep on the floor with a dagger by his head and we talked long into the night. We drank beer at restaurants but Halis kept his on the ground and only took a quick sip when no one could see him lift his face veil, my first hint of his liberal bent.

But there was an edge to our conversations, no easy give and take between us; a natural barrier existed between our worlds that I needed to overcome. As we reached Timbuktu, and looked out at the low flat sameness of the southern Sahel, he let out a long sigh and I felt him relax for the first time. He was home and now it was my turn to be ill at ease.

Going into the Swirling Sands

He dressed me in his own robes, assuring me of the acceptance of his clan, and when we made our way to the remuda (corral), the merchants of this low brown city of mud came out to bow and murmur "Tuaregs" at our passing, offering a glimpse of the respect the blue men command there.

We mounted our camels, hung with pigskin water bags and woven mats, and if his clansmen took notice of this infidel it was not evident. Blowing sand from the harmattan, the constant, hot, desert wind, erased boundaries between land and sky and turned us into silhouettes as we rode into the empty quarter where time halted centuries ago. I spent my first night in the desert wrapped in my robes in the sand, feeling as though I had jumped off a cliff and was just starting to fall.

Our first morning out, a low black line on the horizon grew into a caravan of 400 camels hauling salt from the mines in Mauritania, headed south to Timbuktu, and as the stench and dust they raised coated me, it also drew me into their midst. I ran like a child between their long rows, running my hands over immense blocks of salt, stroking their hairy backs, searching for new words to describe this new world while their drovers laughed at this insane show of emotion.

salt caravan

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Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails

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Tears, Fear and Adventure

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