Travel diary | Algeria

A journey into the endless expanse

From the airport to the Sahara: author Saïd Khatibi travelled to the Algerian oasis town of Timimoun. A text about the lure of the desert and the inspiration of emptiness
A man in jeans and a T-shirt is standing in a landscape of desert and grit. He is wearing a straw hat with a wide brim and sunglasses, his hands in his trouser pockets and looking into the distance. The landscape is empty, there is not a single plant to be seen

Saïd Khatibi contemplates the empty space in the Algerian desert


On the flight from Algiers to Adrar, a Spanish tourist asked me in broken English where it was possible to exchange euros for dinars when we landed at our destination. I realised that she was travelling to a country she hadn’t read anything about.

I didn’t want to hold this lack of information against her, because Algeria is a country that doesn’t advertise itself at all and is self-sufficient like a snail in its shell. I explained to her that there are no bureaux de change here like in other countries. Instead, she would have to ask around in the souk for a trader who would change her money, but that wouldn’t be entirely legal.

She was surprised and looked annoyed, and I for my part was taken aback by how emphatically she insisted that there must be a way to exchange money somewhere. I wished her good luck. Then I looked through the window and watched the propeller on the wing, its roar at odds with the tranquillity of the place I was travelling to.

“If Muslims go on pilgrimage to Mecca to purge their sins, why shouldn’t Europeans travel to the desert to cure themselves of the diseases of civilisation?”

I wondered what makes Europeans fly to the Sahara. Perhaps they need a break from the hustle and bustle of their everyday lives? Are they looking for a place where they can find themselves again and shed their fears? I thought of Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss writer and traveller, who had moved from cold Geneva to the desert, like many French and German writers and artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. If Muslims go on pilgrimage to Mecca to purge their sins, why shouldn’t Europeans travel to the desert to cure themselves of the diseases of civilisation?

Shortly before landing, the Spanish woman turned to me once more and expressed the fear that she would not be able to pay her taxi to the hotel if she couldn’t exchange her money for dinars anywhere. “Why don’t you pay in euros?” was my first response, but then I assured her that I would pay her taxi fare, whereupon she leaned back in relief and thanked me profusely.

The flight had taken just under three hours and now we touched down on the runway of an airport that was so covered in sand that you could hardly see anything. The aircraft was shaken like a metal spring as it landed and after a few minutes it stopped. The passengers made faces as if they had won a lottery.

Then it was time to disembark. The view across the tarmac would have made a good backdrop for a film set at the beginning of the last century: a sandstorm had just passed over the airport and the dusty air made it difficult to see. A young man hurriedly wrapped a turban around his head; he was from here, I assumed.

Apart from him, nobody had thought to protect their hair, eyes and nose from the swirling sand with a scarf to cover the lower half of their face. The Spanish traveller got out with me and found a taxi that definitely met her expectations in terms of safety: she hadn’t known that the police would take her to the hotel. Now she had a big smile on her face.

Foreigners enjoy special protection in the Algerian desert, even though security has long been restored. Unlike a few years ago, there is no longer any arms trafficking or petrol smuggling and the desert is once again a lonely place. But I’m not a tourist. I’m just a citizen, so no police car will escort me to my destination.

The Spanish woman waved to me as she left the airport and I waited for the taxi I had pre-booked. I rang the driver, but no one picked up. Time seemed to pass slowly for me: It was as if the hands of the clock refused to move forward. The people around me also moved slowly, quite unlike in the capital. They spoke calmly and moved as slowly as chess players. It was 27 October 2023, and I still had one more arduous stage of my journey ahead of me, from Adrar to Timimoun.

I waited another twenty minutes, then my driver unexpectedly came up to me, smiling cheerfully. Instead of apologising for being late, he was surprised that I was on time. And he was right. “Normally all flights land late here,” he said. For once, my plane had arrived as planned and I was almost embarrassed for the driver. Should I apologise to him? When you arrange a meeting in the Sahara, you hardly ever arrive at the exact time you’ve been told. Anyone who does is considered overzealous.

“Walking over sand has taught people to take every step with care, as unpleasant surprises often lurk in the sand”

People here appreciate slowness. Walking over sand has taught people to take every step with care, as unpleasant surprises often lurk in the sand. In addition, the sun, which is always shining here, apparently influences the hormones and makes people sluggish. Desert dwellers watch time go by and not feel as under pressure as the inhabitants in the north of the country, who are always chasing the clock.

We drove out of Adrar to the north. Everything is changing here, cement is replacing sand and the roads are tarmac, but the smell of the desert is everywhere. Cypress trees grow incessantly, surrounded by thorny bushes and green and purple plants. It's autumn, but it's still hot.

People are all wearing summer clothes, and every few hundred metres there are water jugs at the side of the road for anybody who is thirsty. In Adrar, drinking is more important than eating. In summer, temperatures can rise to over fifty degrees. “No angels enter a house without air conditioning,” said my driver.

And what do people do who don’t have air conditioning, especially older people? I didn't get any more answers, because we left Adrar and drove along the motorway to Timimoun. The sky was the same colour as the earth, it was raining sand and there were fewer and fewer palm trees the further we ventured. On both sides of the road, rocky mountains rose that looked like the backdrop for a western. The driver uttered a prayer that the gale-force winds would spare us.

“Perhaps the gods promise their believers a paradise in heaven so that they can have the desert to themselves”

I wondered how many people have got lost on this route. Driving into the desert is different from driving out of it. There was nowhere to orientate myself, no café, no restaurant, no petrol station, no canopy. The route to Timimoun is 210 kilometres long. It consists of sand dunes and rocky ridges, and God looks down on us from his kingdom above. The horizon stretches across the entire landscape, with nothing to catch the eye.

The sky lies directly on top of the desert, it embraces and kisses it. It is as if a gap has opened in the sky, through which the Lord is about to descend to take a nap in the sand. I don’t know what the gods are doing in heaven while the desert lies alone on earth. Perhaps they promise their believers a paradise in heaven so that they can have the desert to themselves.

There was hardly any traffic on the road, only now and again a vehicle came towards us, and occasionally we had to stop at a checkpoint where silent policemen stood. Sometimes they checked our vehicle documents, other times an officer who was bored wanted to have a chat about the weather, football or politics. The lights of small settlements shone in the distance.

The driver tried to play some music via YouTube to break our silence, but to no avail. The mobile phone network only worked intermittently. When I got a call, the line cut out again straight away. This was a good place to stay. If you pitched a tent away from the road, you would have some peace and quiet from life's pressures. You could talk to God instead of people.

Governments in Algeria used to banish opposition members to the desert because they thought their political fervour would die there, but they would return from exile as even more bitter opponents. The desert had breathed new life into them in a way that would not have happened elsewhere.

The road to Timimoun seems like the road to a city in Alice’s wonderland. The journey was so long that the driver ran out of things to say and we crossed the sea of sand in silence. I saw lizards scurrying along and imagined how happy their lives must be far away from any humans.

There were no birds in sight. What animal would dare to fly through this fiery heat? You can drill a well in the desert and get water that way, but the only water I had with me was in a bottle I had bought in a café in Adrar.

As the sun went down, the temperature became bearable. Air blew in through the side window and we approached Timimoun. Here, the night is more pleasant than the day. At nightfall, the endless expanse disappears, at the end of which the sky touches the sand. Darkness envelops the landscape and people can rest from the relentless sun.

“At nightfall, the endless expanse disappears, at the end of which the sky touches the sand”

When we finally arrive in Timimoun, the night reminds me of a poem by Goethe, with its calm spreading out in waves and the rising silence. The last few sounds die away and the sky becomes a painting decorated with stars. I look up and try to name the planets we learnt at school, but my memory fails me. In Timimoun, however, it's not about trying hard to remember anything, but about living the moment in its purest form.

From time to time, a motorbike passes, but its noise fades fast. The cafés close slowly, tea glasses are cleared away. Now it's time to smoke some hashish and listen to stories, for example about the red-brick fortifications that now lie beyond the city limits. They were once intended to protect Timimoun from attackers.

They still stand there today, in a round or square shape, and it is said that ghosts now inhabit them. More stories follow, about ancestors who crossed the desert on foot and without a drop of water, about mythical creatures that emerge unexpectedly from the sand. These tales, which take you into a dream world, only end at dawn.  When the sun creeps over the hills, people fall silent, just like Scheherezade in “One Thousand and One Nights”, and leave their city for the souk, where the hustle and bustle begins.

Everything is bought and sold in the market district, from clothes and food to medicines. Traders loudly advertise their wares in Arabic or in a Berber dialect. Just four decades ago, this market also traded in something else: Slaves! This historical chapter is closed, but no one has written it down properly, so it has largely been forgotten.

Tourists are now circling the sales counters and I keep an eye out to see if the Spanish woman who asked me on the plane where she could change money is there. I don't see her, but I hope she has realised that the Algerian desert changes temperature, but not currency. It changes its shape, but not its history.

There is a constant bustle on the main street of the oasis. People wear gandoura robes and turbans to protect themselves from the sun. Women look for shady spots and children play in dusty alleyways between mud-brick houses that let in little heat and keep as much cool air from the air conditioners inside as possible.

No visitor will miss the white-painted domes in the city, where popular saints rest in tombs, Sufis who brought Islam here and have inhabited Timimoun for centuries. Unlike in the north, however, there is no zealous piety here, no long beards or face veils.

“In Timimoun, everyone is the same, they dress alike, live in similar houses and drink the same hot green tea”

People live together in harmony here, they respect strangers and travellers as well as pious and less pious Muslims, and they shake hands with their fellow believers as well as Christians and Jews. A few kilometres outside the city, the Tuareg camp out, baking their bread in hot ashes in the sand and occasionally coming into the city to sell their camel milk or their handicrafts. Then they move on again with their herds.

The buildings in Timimoun nestle close together and protect themselves from the effects of nature. Houses made of clay are not only cheaper than those made of stone, they are also better insulated. As rarely as it rains here, there is little need to worry about their preservation. Life in Timimoun is simple and uncomplicated.

The city calmly observes what is going on around it. It does not boast or want to cause a stir. Life here is characterised by silence and is ideal for those who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the north because they are tired of the chaos, the crowds and the vanity of ever higher buildings.

In Timimoun, everyone is the same, they dress alike, live in similar houses and drink the same hot green tea. They listen to the ahlil chants in praise of Sufism and the joy of life and the music that men and women make together with their drums, flutes and ouds.

Translated from Arabic by Günther Orth, English by Jess Smee