My Sahara guide’s name was Mobarak, but he asked to be called “Black Stars.” He was a kind, hospitable man with a peaceful aura. On our first day at camp, Black Stars passed tous his grandmother’s wisdom, “If you need something, ask. If you are too shy to ask, that’s your problem.”
After dinner, Black Stars recommend we leave camp and look at the desert sky. He said there was no need to bring a flashlight because in the Sahara, “Night-ears. Day-eyes.” If we got lost, just stop and listen. We bundled up and headed into the pitch. I walked the opposite direction as the group, found a tall dune and plopped down. I could distinctly hear the others talking more than a quarter-mile away–Black Stars was right, the desert is no place for secrets. Through “clouds” of the Milky Way, I swear the shooting stars echoed a faint whoosh.
Drumming started just as the temperature dropped. I returned to camp to see Black Stars and the three other guides, Mohamed, Aziz, and Hamid playing camel-skin djembe drums around a fire pit. I joined them, as did the other tourists, and soon we were all singing together. All four guides were fantastic musicians. Black Stars was the lead and followed each song with a joke or a riddle:
“How do you get a fox into the fridge in three movements?”–“Open the door, put the fox in, close the door.”
“How do you get an elephant in the fridge in four movements?”–“Open the fridge, take out the fox, put the elephant in, and close the door.”
Black Stars correctly predicted that the Australians would answer these two the fastest. But he stumped us all with the next one:
“OK, the lion is getting married and invited all the animals to attend. All come but one. Which one and why?”
We all gave the answer a go. I said something dumb about the lioness over-sleeping. The Chilean made a Biblical reference. The Aussies were stumped and the Japanese guy just sat there, reluctantly petting the cats in his lap.
Black Stars said, “The elephant couldn’t make it. Because he was still in the fridge.”
He followed with a riddle: “A father and son are in a car crash. The father dies. The son is rushed to the hospital where the emergency room doctor says, ‘Oh my, that’s my son.’ How can this be?” — “The doctor,” said Black Stars, “is the boy’s mother…Don’t you know that women can be doctors too?”
Black Stars knew how to engage his crowd—and though this last joke inspired conversation regarding cultural assumptions and gender, the music kept things light and roared on for hours. Only once all night did anyone add wood to the fire, yet it kept on burning with just enough heat and light.
Black Stars’ hands moved in a blur on his drum, his silver Berber rings flashing bursts of reflected firelight. Aziz kept the tempo and pace even though he was fighting off a nasty flu, sneezing and hacking between solos. Mohamed stoically sat wearing a glowing orange turban, his pounding hands scattering ash as it fell from his cigarette. And Hamid, decked out in a Metallica hoodie, looked up at the others between riffs only to throw his head back, laughing hysterically. They closed with a call and response.
“YES! Mama Africa!”
“NO! Mama Africa!”
“ME! Mama Africa!”
“YOU! Mama Africa!”
The the end only the Lithuanian newlyweds and I remained. The new bride asked Black Stars for one more joke before bed. He thought for a minute then granted her wish:
“OK Lithuanian, here you go,” he said. “Why are our ears on our head rather than on our chest or legs?”
She thought for a minute, then turned to her husband who shrugged, rubbing his eyes. “I don’t know,” she said. “Why?”
“Because,” he said, “some of us need something to hold up our glasses.” Then, over the dimming coals, Black Stars pointed at me and said, “HA! AFRICA!” The other guides burst out laughing then started chanting, “Africa! Africa!” Their faces lit up as they raised their arms and shouted the name of their beloved country. I wondered how far their voices traveled.
I woke up twice to the sound of loud farts. I blamed it on the herd camels, but really there was no telling exactly where it came from.