Names, by Andreas Sundgren
Sitting on the transfer bus, passing through suburban Djerba, date palms mixed with olive trees in orange sand, he noticed that all the trash thrown along the road, most notably thin plastic bags and plastic water bottles, looked entirely new, as if they had just been discarded. The bottles lined the wayside gravel and the plastic bags were like flags in the branches of the olive trees.
Later, on his way by foot through the desert, it occurred to him that up until that moment this might be a disturbing mirror image of most of his life. A vast half desert where the things you tried to cast away never really disintegrated back into where they came from or flew away to disappear with the breeze as intended, but rather got caught flap, flap, flapping somewhere in the back of your mind.
Getting off at the last hotel he was asked again by the girl from the travel agency if he really didn’t have any more luggage? Shaking his head and then nodding goodbye as she retreated back into the coach he stood for a moment on the marble steps before the white hotel front, his one carry-on bag in hand, and then proceeded up and out of the midday sun into the cool shaded lobby and the front desk.
The desk clerk greeted him in French and again he just mumbled in the very little of the language he knew where after they both switched into a halting German. He had made his reservation well ahead of time, calling the hotel and insisted with the travel agency to be guaranteed room number 17. This had not been entirely easy since the hotel was coming into high season and number 17 was a double occupancy. The hotel of course had demanded that he pay double fare, which he had done without question or protest.
Since his demand had been an unusual anomaly in the busy but monotonous life of a charter resort the desk clerk recognized the reservation right away and handed over the key with a slight nod and a wish of a pleasant stay. Once in his room he drew the curtains, got undressed and lay naked on the bed in semidarkness, letting his head unwind all the thoughts and memories until he fell asleep.
It was the 8th of June and the heat of northern Africa was strong but not yet oppressive. This was lucky since the duly elected democratic Tunisian government had decided that no air conditioning be turned on in hotel rooms or homes until the 15th of June nationwide. In that cool dark room he slept until early evening.
When he woke up he knew exactly where he was and he lay for a long time listening to the sound of the buses stopping out front dropping off or picking up tourists. With the steady conviction that in a short while he wouldn’t have to bother with the mundane things of everyday life that he had always hated, he got up, took a shower, shaved, got dressed and went for dinner.
In the ten days to come he settled into a routine that was familiar because he had gone through it so many times in his head reconstructing the moments he needed to reconstruct.
The second day after arriving, Thursday, he went on a tour of the island called ”Djerba – Island of Lotus eaters”. The tour encompassed the market at the village of Midoun, the Heritage museum at Guellala (smelling incessantly of wax since all the displays of wax dolls of Tunisians engaged in everyday chores and traditional festivities were melting in extreme slow motion in the desert heat), a 14th century synagogue (recently bombed) and forty minutes at a silver shop in Houmt Souk. Not once did the guide mention or make any kind of effort to clarify who the lotus-eaters were and why Djerba was their island. She did however inform everyone that Tunisia was a free and democratic country thanks to the sitting president and that the Tunisian people in unending gratitude to Him had decided to elect Him president for life instead of the otherwise legislated ten year terms that had been common since the country’s last coup, conducted at the time out of concern for the welfare of His people by the sitting president.
He had his dinner every night in the hotel buffet and ate nothing but the Tunisian cuisine. He spent an hour or two some afternoons in the hotel tearoom drinking mint tea, eating the little almond cookies and chatting with the tea maker, asking for the cookie recipes. He went to the beach most days and, coming back before going for his first drink of the day, he watched the beach football game. This game supposedly was for everyone at the hotel but in practice was an affair solely for the boys employed by the French travel agency that hogged the pool and other French, fit men in their early twenties. These boys had already formed teams (with substitutes and umpires) long before the 5 pm kick-off that was posted in the lobby, effectively making every game the French against the French.
Exactly one week after arriving he took a taxi into Houmt Souk and spent the day buying one pair of fake Puma sneakers size five, one pair of handmade Tunisian leather slippers size eight and a half and one hand-woven traditional Djerban woman’s blouse. He haggled with the salesmen who, at the end of each sale, although they usually appreciated tourists with a little guts, were glad to see him go since he always seemed on the edge of true aggression. After he had finished his shopping he walked around in the shade of the covered souk taking in the smells and colors. When he got back to the hotel the air-conditioning was turned on in his room. He immediately turned it off. Thursday the second week he rode a horse and carriage to the crocodile farm at the other heritage museum, built with more money and at a later date than the first one but virtually empty. He paid an absurd amount of money to watch two hundred crocodiles not move in the midday heat and read signs written in strange English describing the mating habits of the Nile crocodile. He walked the six kilometers back to the hotel along the road drinking two liters of water.
Coming back to the hotel that day in late afternoon he did something that was not part of the routine he was copying but had merely been discussed at the time as a possibility. In the weekend ahead, from Saturday to Sunday, one could go on a tour of the desert, meet the Bedouin, ride camels and sleep in the desert in a genuine Bedouin camp. The girl who took his admission for the outing told him that this would be the experience of a lifetime. He spent Friday writing postcards, reading and drinking tea.
Come Saturday morning he woke up without the alarm at five, checked the content of his carry-on bag, dressed and went out to wait with other tired eye tourists for the bus to carry them to the mainland and the desert.
He chose to sit on the left side of the bus to be able to see the water and the sun rise and as morning slowly came about on the eastern coastal road of the island. The sun crept above the horizon line setting the Mediterranean on fire, fusing the sand shore and the water into one solid reach of gold, stretching from his point of vision on until the sea hit the barely visible strip of land on the opposite side of the bay.
It was of course not as simple as just getting on a camel. The hours before lunch were spent in one of the mainland spice markets where tourists bought large amounts of spices from half mad Tunisian vendors. Before taking off to Germany, Italy, Sweden or France, they would later throw all those spices away and for a few hours every week after check out time the hotels in the Zone Touristique smelled as if the spice market had moved there.
Lunch was served in a dirty wayside restaurant and he only ate the Couscous not taking his chances with the undercooked chicken. After lunch the travel agency had booked a stop at a cave village where the cave dwellers had lived for centuries. The same guide that some days earlier had not followed up on the lotus eater island issue said that this was one of the few villages of its kind remaining in the country and that it was still there on a special permit from the government to preserve Tunisia’s rich cultural heritage. She said the majority of cave dwellers had been relocated to city apartments at the end of the seventies. The government had wanted to raise the standard of living so that its citizens would not have to live in the dirt and squalor of these caves. This struck him as strange since he found the dwellings both clean and practical. He suggested in a loud voice to the guide that perhaps the government had felt that there would be a dangerous power of subversion and independence in a people that could create the necessities of life simply by chipping away a four room apartment in the closest uninhabited rock face and therefore felt it had to make these people submit to dependence and confines provided by an authority who deemed itself in much more need of preservation than any kind of genuine cultural heritage. She looked at him as if he was from another planet, turned away and continued the tour according to script.
At roughly four in the afternoon, after another hour of bumpy bus ride through the brown of the hill country they finally arrived at the edge of the sands. Beyond run down mud houses and a dirty puddle under a clump of palm trees stretched dunes uninterrupted in large soft waves crested by little waves formed by the breeze on top of each dune. The late afternoon sun lit them in fields of grey shade and orange light. Here there were no empty water bottles or plastic bags flapping in the breeze. There was only the light and the sand.
Against the wall of the closest of the mud houses lay twenty or so camels garishly adorned in red cloth and leather but underneath it all just as run down as the houses they were tied to. The camel drovers were all dressed in the dark blue robes of the northern African desert nomads but looked just as rundown underneath those cold blues as their camels.
The ride lasted in all for two hours. For about forty minutes they rode straight into the dunes. The sun in the west cast shadows at right angles across the dunes and the whole desert ahead of them were checkered by half moons of sun and shadow.
After a while the party started veering almost imperceptibly back in a circle. He calculated, when they reached the tent camp, that in the morning they would be no more than ten or fifteen minutes ride from their starting point although it was not visible from the camp itself.
The evening commenced with more couscous, chewy overcooked mutton and belly dancers. Although he did not enjoy the efforts of authenticity made by camel drovers and dancers it still felt somewhat like coming home. He could almost imagine the vast subarctic forests of his home standing guard just beyond the pool of light spread by the fire in the center of the camp.
He turned in early and lay waiting for the dancing and laughing and voices to subside and eventually die. When he was sure that everyone else in the camp was soundly asleep he got up and sat at the edge of the bed. He felt around in the dark beneath his tent cot and took out the little carry-on bag. He opened its zipper slowly as to minimize the sound of it and felt around to find a small Maglite flashlight. He turned it on and with it between his teeth he emptied the bag of the rest of its contents. Except for the flashlight it contained the following:
One black gore-tex wind stopper jacket with the removable lining removed
One pair Israeli issue military desert boots
One-liter water bottle, green plastic
One ultra compact sleeping bag US Marines issue
One standard Silva compass
One cheap plastic divers watch with fluorescent display
He took off the sneakers he’d been wearing all day and put them neatly together in the bag. He put on and tied the boots, put on the jacket and slid the water bottle into the right pocket and the sleeping bag into the left. He zippered the jacket and lit by the flashlight he took his bearings on the compass out of the camp due south and started walking. In just a few minutes after clearing the closest dune he could no longer see or feel the presence of other humans and treading his way in the dark he was at long last completely alone. It was a clear moonlit night and so he dropped the flashlight in the sand.
He walked for two hours allowing himself a drink of water every thirty minutes. After drinking four times he threw the empty bottle behind him. At the start he’d been concerned that someone might be able to track him down in the morning by following his footprints but within the first hour the wind was rising and it quickly scoured the sand sea of all features that weren’t a direct result of the wind itself.
When the water had run out he took his final compass bearings by the little light that the watch provided and on the hard sand surface on the ground between two sand dunes broke the compass by stepping on it repeatedly.
After that he walked on for a long time without checking his watch. On the top of an unusually steep and high dune he stopped finally, took the watch off his wrist and threw it high and wide watching it land, roll, stop and bury itself in the slope of the dune.
Taking out, unrolling the sleeping bag, taking off the jacket, folding it into a pillow, crawling into his black compact cocoon he fell asleep instantly. He woke what seemed to be just a moment later as the sun cleared the dune burning the skyline from edge to edge and for a long time after waking he did not once think of their names.