As a guide, Ag Mohamed Ali made friends from all over the world, and he visited a few in Europe. It was, for him, a foreign world, just as Timbuktu remains for many in the world. “The first time I was in Europe,” he said, “and I saw water lying on the ground, I thought ‘these people are crazy’.” And everything moved at an unthinkable speed in the Sahara. “In the desert we have infinite time but no water,” he said. “In Europe you have a lot of water but no time.”
And yet, even so far from the desert, Ag Mohamed Ali found a link: “The first time I saw the ocean in Barcelona, I cried because it is like the desert. You cannot see its end.
Ag Mohamed Ali’s travels also helped him understand Timbuktu’s appeal, as Paris and Barcelona were as incredible to him as Timbuktu is to much of the rest of the world. He went to a football match at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. “In one place, there were more people than in all of Timbuktu,” he recalls. He will later found a chapter of Timbuktu of the FC Barcelona fan club.
When travelers wanted to see more of the Sahara, Ag Mohamed Ali took them to the deep desert of Araouane, a city drowned in the sand 270 km north of Timbuktu. To get to Araouane, travelers must cross the Taganet sand sheet, which stretches uninterruptedly to the distant horizon. In the last 100 kilometers, there is not a single tree.
Araouane itself has the appearance of a shipwreck. A number of its buildings have disappeared under the sands. Most of the houses that remain, even a mosque, are half submerged by the dunes that envelop the city. For weeks on end, the wind blows relentlessly and rings like ocean waves crashing against the shore. The women carry water from the well, leaning in the wind. Without the wells, life would be impossible here; sometimes it doesn’t rain in Araouane for decades. Sand is everywhere, and nothing of value except a single abandoned wild date palm can grow here.