I. Tea in the Sahara

Marhnia addressed a question to Smaïl which seemed to include Port. "She wants to know if you have heard the story about Outka, imouna and Aïcha," said Smaïl. "No," said Port. "Goul lou, goul low," said arhnia to Smaïl, urging him.

"There are three girls from the mountains, from a place near arhnia's bled, and they are called Outka, imouna and Aïcha." arhnia was nodding her head slowly in affirmation, her large soft eyes fixed on Port. "They go to seek their fortune in the 'Zab. ost girls from the mountains go to Alger, Tunis, here, to earn money, but these girls want one thing more than anything else. They want to drink tea in the Sahara." arhnia continued to nod her head; she was keeping up with the story soely by means of place-names as Smaïl pronounced them.

"I see," said Port, who had no idea whether the story was a humorous one or a tragic one; he was determined to be careful, so that he could pretend to savor it as much as she clearly hoped he would. He only wished it might be short.

"In the 'Zab the men are all ugly. The girls dance in the cafes of Ghardaia, but they are always sad; they still want to have tea in the Sahara." Port glanced again at arhnia. Her expression was completely serious. He nodded his head again. "So, many months pass, and they are still in the 'Zab, and they are very, very sad, because the men are so ugly. They are very ugly there, like pigs. And they don't pay enough money to the poor girls so they can go and have tea in the Sahara." Each time he said "Sahara," which he pronounced in the Arabic fashion, with a veheament accent on the first syllable, he stopped for a moment. "One day a Targui comes, he is tall and handsome, on a beautiful mehari; he talks to Outka, imouna and Aïcha, he tells them about the desert, down there where he lives, his bled, and they listen, and their eyes are big. Then he says: 'Dance for me,' and they dance. Then he makes love with all three, he gives a silver piece to Outka, a silver piece to imouna, and a silver piece to Aïcha. At daybreak he gets on his mehari and goes away to the south. After that they are very sad, and the 'Zabi look uglier than ever to them, and they only are thinking of the tall Targui who lives in the Sahara." Port lit a cigarette; then he noticed arhnia looking expectantly at him, and he passed her the pack. She took one, and with a crude pair of tongs elegantly lifted a live coal to the end of it. It ignited immediately, whereupon she passed it to Port, taking his in exchange. He smiled at her. She bowed almost imperceptibly.

"any months go by, and still they can't earn enough money to go to the Sahara. They have kept the silver pieces, because all three are in love with the Targui. And they are always sad. One day they say: 'We are going to finish like this -- always sad, without ever having tea in the Sahara -- so now we must go anyway, even without money.' And they put all their money together, even the three silver pieces, and they buy a teapot and a tray and three glasses, and they buy bus tickets to El Goléa. And there they have only a little money left, and they give it all to a bachhamar who is taking his caravan south to the Sahara. So he lets them ride with his caravan. And one night, when the sun is going to go down, they come to the great dunes of sand, and they think: 'Ah, now we are in the Sahara; we are going to make tea.' The moon comes up, all the men are asleep except the guard. He is sitting with the camels playing his flute." Smaïl wriggled his fingers in front of his mouth. "Outka, imouna and Aïcha go away from the caravan quietly with their tray and their teapot and their glasses. They are going to look for the tallest dune so they can see all the Sahara. Then they are going to make tea. They walk along time. Outka says: 'I see a high dune,' and they go to it and climb up to the top. Then imouna says: 'I see a dune over there. It's much higher and we can see all the way to In Salah from it.' So they go to it, and it is much higher. But when they get to the top, Aïcha says: 'Look! There's the highest dune of all. We can see to Tamanrasset. That's where the Targui lives.' The sun came up and they kept walking. At noon they were very hot. But they came to the dune and they climbed and climbed. When they got to the top they were very tired and they said: 'We'll rest a little and then make tea.' But first they set out the tray and the teapot and the glasses. Then they lay down and slept. And then" --Smaïl paused and looked at Port-- "any days later another caravan was passing and a man saw something on top of the highest dune there. And when they went up to see, they found Outka, imouna and Aïcha; they were still there, lying the same way as when they had gone to sleep. And all three of the glasses," he held up his own little tea glass, "were full of sand. That was how they had their tea in the Sahara."

-- Paul Bowles
The Sheltering Sky