During the winter of 1909-1910, a long caravan moves along a harsh valley in the Western Sahara Desert. It comprises people from the south, who seek to escape the war brought by the soldiers—colonial powers engaged in the conquest of Africa. These refugees converge on Smara to seek the protection of Sheik Ma al-Aïnine, Water of the Eyes, founder of the holy city. As more and more tribes join them, their campsites multiply. A boy named Nour, descendant of the legendary al-Azraq, the Blue Man, is among the travelers. The sheik distinguishes Nour in the crowd, intensely gazes upon him, and tells the boy of the spiritual teachings that the sheik once received from the Blue Man.
In the 1970’s, a girl named Lalla lives in a shack outside a city of the Moroccan littoral. She likes to run in the dunes and to observe the creatures that she discovers in the sand, the water, and the sky, as well as the variations of the light, the color of the water, and the direction of the wind. Aamma, the woman who has adopted her, has told Lalla the story of her birth: Her mother, Hawa, came from the country of the Blue warriors to the south. When the time for Lalla’s birth arrived, Hawa leaned against a tree with her arms hanging from a branch. The child was born at dawn.
Aamma’s response is not as explicit when Lalla asks about al-Azraq, the Blue Man of her ancestors, but the girl thinks about him during her solitary walks. She calls him al-Ser, the Secret, and feels his intense gaze upon her. Lalla’s best friend is a young shepherd, Hartani, who lives on the edge of the desert. Hartani knows about scorpions, secret paths in the desert, and light in the caverns. He sees “with his body,” knowing with all his senses. He does not speak the language of humans, but Lalla understands his signs, the expressions on his face, and the shine in his eyes.
Lalla grows up. Aamma pressures her to marry a rich man from the city. The girl chooses freedom; she joins Hartani on the plateau of stones and soon calls him her husband.
The caravan continues its march. Women and children, beaten by the sun, slow down. The weak drag along at the back of the column. Nour no longer remembers a time when he was not on the move.
From the railing of a ship, Lalla discovers Marseille. It is not the shining city of her dreams. She sleeps in an apartment as dilapidated as most houses in the Panier neighborhood. The size of the city amazes her, and she walks endlessly through its streets. There are people, mainly poor people, from all over the world. Lalla, who is pregnant with Hartani’s child, feels dizzy when surrounded by the crowd. She works in a squalid hotel, cleaning the rooms of immigrant workers. She meets a photographer who is stricken by her beauty. Images of her face appear on the covers of magazines, first in Marseille, then in Paris. As a fashion star, Lalla uses her mother’s name, Hawa. Since she cannot read or write, she signs autographs with the sign of her tribe.
The red city of Taroudant will not open its doors to the caravan. The travelers continue toward the north and Marrakech. They are weak and hopeless, leaving behind corpses by the hundreds. At night, they tell stories about the glorious past, when Sheik Ma al-Aïnine was a hero.
Two columns of soldiers from the French army march to close in on Ma al-Aïnine rebels. Their leaders are anxious to put an end to the adventures of the sheik, whom they see as a fanatic determined to drive the Christians from the desert. The soldiers fighting for the Europeans have powerful arms. The colonizers’ banks hold...
(The entire section contains 952 words.)
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