Read Desert Divers Online

Authors: Sven Lindqvist

Desert Divers

BOOK: Desert Divers

From the reviews of
Desert Divers

‘A poem to the Sahara, and those whom it has obsessed … Sensational’

‘Mixing confessional narrative, literary analysis and history … a neat, accessible work that, for westerners drawn to the vast reaches of this desert, asks all the right questions’
New Statesman

‘Not so much a travelogue as a pilgrimage, in which colonial history illuminates literary critique, which in turn sheds light on autobiographical confession’
Independent on Sunday

‘A powerful mix of travelogue and the history of French colonialism in North Africa. This is writing with a conscience that shows the enormous and provocative possibilities of the travel book’
Sunday Times

From the reviews of ‘
Exterminate All the Brutes

‘Europe’s long, often murderous history of racism towards Africa is chillingly summarized in this dazzling book … which pursues Hannah Arendt’s view that the totalitarianism and butchery of Hitler and Stalin were both “fathered” by the “terrible massacres” and “wild murdering” of European imperialists’

‘This powerful book has haunted me for months’
Sunday Times

‘An engaged and engaging book … exemplary for its lucidity’

‘Beautifully written … this book should be school curriculum material’
New Internationalist

Desert Divers


Translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate

‘All is included in transformation. You too are subordinate to change, even destruction. So is the entire universe.’


‘The journey is a door through which one goes out of the known reality and steps into another, unexplored reality, resembling a dream.’



A large muddy stone is lying in the washbasin of my hotel room.

Carefully, I scrape off the mud and rinse it. The water coming out of the tap is black.

After I have washed the stone clean, it is as pink as the morning sky. It is pink granite and made of two rounded segments resembling the halves of a brain.

Yes, now I can see it – it is my own brain which has arrived before me.

It is so heavy I can hardly lift it out of the washbasin.


I am woken from my dream by the usual charter-flight applause, filled with profound relief that the plane has miraculously landed in one piece at the right airport: Agadir.

Bus to the Hotel Almohades. I rent a room for the night and a car for a month.

I am not drawn to the pool, but to the desert. As a child I read about fire-eaters and well-divers, about sandstorms and desert lakes. I planned a great journey in the Sahara. Now I am here.

I am alone. I have just parted from my volumes of Dostoevsky; with all my notes in them. I have parted from the woman who was once my beloved. I have parted from thirty-three years of my life.

This has one advantage – the period of time before those thirty-three years has suddenly closed in on me.

As long as I remained in my childhood home, I could remember nothing of my childhood. It seemed to have been erased. Nothing but a bunch of anecdotes, no genuine memories.

Nor could I dream.

Now that I have moved, fragments of my childhood often come into my mind. And when I began to train with weights as I did when I was small, then I also began to dream.

Memories and dreams do not allow themselves to be forced. The very intention locks the door you want to open. You can only reach your goal by back ways and sidetracks.

One way I have tried to approach childhood several times is to do now what I so fervently longed to be allowed to do then. Even if it seems childish and unmotivated, sometimes I try what in the impotence of my smallness I dreamt of doing.


‘It’s like diving into black water,’ says Antoine de Saint-Exupéry about a night-landing in the Sahara.

When the mail planes in his novels landed for a stopover in Agadir, the pilots had four hours before they had to go on again. I remember that as if I had read it yesterday. They went on to the town and had dinner, their bodies still singing with the vibrations of the plane.

I eat prawns au gratin at the Water Garden restaurant opposite the hotel and drink a toast to the mail plane pilots in Oulmez fizzy mineral water. Will I find that there, down south, where it really will be needed?

I am not really worried about not finding any there, but just long for it to be necessary.

At about ten in the evening on October 30, it is a little cold around the shoulders to sit outside after dinner. I go to bed early. I lie there, drawing my soul together in the no-man’s-land on the borders of sleep. Then the dream interrupted on the plane comes back.

Once again I am washing that stone in black water. Bats whistle around me in the dark of the cave, the breeze from their wings waking others asleep, hanging in the roof with their heads down. Heads? The whole cave is a head, an empty skull full of a whistling darkness, in which I stand with the pink stone in my arms.


The Stravinsky-chatter of sparrows in the bush, the sky blue with light clouds. Early in the morning, I leave the monkey mountain of humanity around the hotel pool, get into my little Renault and drive slowly south.

At first the hollows are still green and glisten with moisture. The fig-cactus is just bearing fruit and bunches of ripe dates hang heavy as udders below the tops of the date palms – yellow, brown, dark red and ready to burst with the sweetness of dates.

Morocco’s favourite colour is shocking pink. Instead of the white corners that we have on our red-painted houses, the houses here have reverse-stepped gables, highest in the corners and sinking towards the middle.

But soon the houses become fewer, the ground dryer. The greenery thins out until it looks like the sparse, tender green grass which grew in the sand of our Christmas crib when I was a child.

And as the desert opens up around me, as the sandy colours take over with their million monotonous variations, as the light becomes so intense that it hides shapes, extinguishes colours and flattens out levels – then my whole body hums with happiness and I feel, This is my landscape! This was where I wanted to be!

I stop the car, get out and listen.

A cricket, dark as a splinter of stone, chirps shrilly. The wind whistles in the six telephone wires, a thin, metallic note I haven’t heard since childhood.

And then silence, which is even rarer.

Far away over there, the nomads’ dark goat-hair tent trembles
in the midday heat. Their women and children come walking in the shadow of their burdens.


In Tiznit, some of them have camped north of the town wall. They come from the occupied areas in the south to sell their jewellery.

They are not veiled. They have fearless children and fearless eyes. One of them is called Fatima. She has flames painted in henna on her heels, licking her foot from below.

Calmly she spreads a blue cotton cloth out on the ground. Then she starts removing objects from a little chest.

I remember Agadir’s shops and their over-decorated leather goods, their rattling metal tray-tables, their thick loose mats in clashing colours – the way smoking-room orientalism has characterized the image of Morocco, perhaps the whole of North Africa.

Fatima’s jewellery belongs to another, Saharan, tradition. Eagerly, I ask how much they are. She does not answer.

‘This isn’t the bazaar,’ she admonishes me in Spanish.

I have to wait calmly as the ritual continues. Ornament after ornament is brought out and explained. ‘The three tents on the lid of the box are the three tribes in Sahel.’ ‘This bracelet shows drought and the rains.’

Not until she has finished does she ask which objects I am interested in. She puts those into a dark wooden bowl and packs the others away in the chest.

Then she tells me which families the objects in the wooden
bowl belong to. She is selling them on their behalf. With a gentle naturalness, she gives me the prices in wheat flour.

I had imagined everything beforehand – the sandy mist in the air, the pinch of sunglasses behind my ears, the buzz of flies around military outposts, the perspiration tickling its way from armpit to waistband, everything.

But I had not imagined that only a few hours south of Agadir I would be buying Saharan ornaments for half a ton of wheat flour.

And for whom?


The desert road continues south along a green-floored valley.

The water supporting the greenery is nowhere to be seen but is there, beneath the ground. That is how to survive in the desert. Plants exposing themselves to evaporation have failed. The same applies to watercourses. Only those that have made their way below the surface have been able to endure.

Beside the road I see a plant with yellow flowers that leaps forward in a zigzag, covering the ground with squares like wire netting.

I see small, pale pink bell-like flowers on grey bushes and a stonecrop plant with blue star-shaped flowers and long funnels for stems.

Small cacti grow on top of one another in clumps, like coral, and protect themselves not only with spines but also with sharp milk-white juice which spurts out in all directions at the slightest touch.

For an endless half-hour I drive through a cloud of grasshoppers. They are innumerable, as large as small birds, with buzzing, transparent wings. They glisten with moisture, pink as prawns, and with the same crunching sound as when you bite into a prawn’s head, they smash against the windscreen.

Something yellow and sticky is left behind and soon obscures my entire field of vision – I have to drive very slowly, until the cloud passes just as suddenly as it came.


Tan-Tan is a yellow town with pale blue gates. A garrison town, like Boden in the far, far north of Sweden, a disaster of a posting and where you are afflicted with their equivalent of ‘Lapp sickness’,
le cafard

The town lives off the desert war in the south. This is where the soldiers come on leave. All the small hotels are full of their families who have come to visit.

The Hotel Dakar is by the bus station. Halls and stairways are tiled, which gives an impression of cleanliness and cool. But the bathroom acoustics multiply every sound. The rooms are small and high-ceilinged. Through the closed shutters, my green room is filled with a dim aquarium light.

The sun sets at six. I sit in the twilight outside the hotel listening to the pentatonic music. The Atlantic wind is cool, almost chilly. There is no beer. The tap-water is too salty to drink. Drinking-water comes in tanker carts drawn by small tractors. I no longer long to
Oulmez but to drink some.

Inside the café the television blares. The video shop rents out videos.
The Terminator
is on at the cinema. Photocopiers make photocopies. The street lights come on automatically. But the waiter who had said that they have all kinds of vegetables comes back to tell me they have no cauliflower. A moment later he tells me that they have no carrots. When asked what they do have, he suggests tomatoes.

Cats roam hungrily around the table. Everyone shouts for Hasan, apparently because everyone not called Mohammed is called Hasan. When the food comes, the tomatoes, representing ‘all kinds of vegetables’, turn out to be purée, squeezed out of a tube over the rice.

Before I fall asleep, I see the basket of bloodstained goat hooves, which were for sale in the market. What can they be used for? Maybe to boil down for glue?

In the borderland of sleep, I smell the glue pot from the woodwork room where my father taught, the copper pot with thick layers of congealed glue stuck to its sides …

And the workbench from below! I am sitting down there among the sweet-smelling shavings, listening to the tearing sound of the plane, and the shavings come flying down to me, curly, rolled up – the thin fragrant skin of wood …

I lie curled up beneath a thick desert blanket of greasy wool. Dogs howl in the night. Perhaps my childhood has not vanished after all. It is true I have virtually not a single memory from that time, but perhaps my memory is only out of sight, like the watercourses in the desert. It has survived by disappearing from the surface and still runs in the depths, where I am heading.


I am buried. But I am far from helpless. Like the pea under the princess’s mattresses, I lie under layers of sediment, beneath continents and continental plates. They are forced to shift. My irritating presence is interrupting geological eras and making the continents change direction.

When I get back home, I go and mangle sheets. The old-fashioned hand-driven mangle rolls the washing between polished marble blocks. The upper roller turns out to be the bottom of the Atlantic on its way west to be devoured by the mantle. Suddenly it turns right round so that Boston returns to Casablanca and Rio to the mouth of the Congo.

I persuade myself I am still in control. But soon the movements of the continents become more and more unpredictable. They are dancing to a music I cannot hear. Finally I am leaping in despair between them, as if between ice floes, for a few million years without being able to reach land.

When I have almost got used to living in geological time, short time comes back again, suddenly, like the handle when you step on a rake.


Morning urine is thick and sluggish, highly concentrated; dark. Faeces consist of small hard kernels like sheep droppings. I drive out of Tan-Tan between drifts of sand like the heaps of snow in Stockholm at winter and think: sand never melts.

I find it difficult to shake off the geological perspective of my dream. The landscape of the desert has no protective covering – the desert is geology exposed.

One of the few books Darwin had with him on his voyage on the
was Charles Lyell’s
Principles of Geology
. As he read it, he slowly realized that the earth was much older than he had thought. Not four thousand years but perhaps four thousand

Time was given a depth it had never had before. What did Lyell feel, what did Darwin feel, looking down into those depths?


The first forty-one hundred million years of the history of the Sahara are still practically unknown today. All we know is that Africa then, as now, was a primaeval mountain plateau of granite.

Our earliest knowledge of the Sahara comes from a period when sedimentary types of rock had just begun to form layers on top of the primary rock. Africa then stood on its head roughly where the Antarctic now lies and the Sahara was covered with kilometre-thick inland ice. The ice left scrape-marks behind in Ordovician sandstone, marks found and interpreted five hundred million years later, in the 1970s.

The continent turned over as it slowly wandered northwards and for a while North Africa bordered on North America. Had the weather been more suitable, it would have been possible to walk dry-shod from Boston to Casablanca.
When the continents were wrenched free of each other, bits of Africa went with America and became eastern Massachusetts and one bit of Pennsylvania stayed behind in the western Sahara.

Four hundred million years ago, the Sahara was under water. Large parts of the oil deposits were formed in the sediment from that period. Three hundred and fifty million years ago, the climate turned warmer and the sea water retreated. Over two hundred million years, the Sahara was alternately land and sea. The last Saharan sea disappeared ten million years ago.

Eight million years ago, the Sahara was an even bigger desert than it is today. The Mediterranean was closed off from its connection with the Atlantic and after a thousand years it had dried out into a desert which lasted for several million years. Salt deposits from the evaporated water still lie on the seabed, found in 1960 and investigated by deep drilling in 1970.

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