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I traipsed the Western Sahara with a man named Ahmed, a portly character big on tunes, hospitality but not the working class.
Every now and then, a car whooshed past us and disappeared down the highway that stretched from the Mauritanian border up north through Morocco. The sign for the empty petrol station creaked on its chain as it swung in the hot breeze. Through the cracked window of the shop, a bored-looking man in a heavy moustache and long grey robe stared up into the vast, blue, cloudless sky.
I pulled my hat further down my head to cover the sunburn that was already starting to peel my nose, and my boyfriend, H, wrapped a scarf around his face. Along the way, we’d picked up Tim, a scrawny British backpacker in his late teens and on his first overseas trip. He was standing next to the side of the road as we took it in turns to hold out our thumb to catch a ride.
It was hours before anyone pulled over, and when they did, it was a silver Peugeot. Its two front windows rolled down to reveal a couple of young men in their mid-twenties, wearing jeans and faux designer T-shirts and gold watches. Eminem played loudly from their stereo. Both the driver, Ahmed, and his friend, Mustafa, sipped from cans of beer and raced along the highway at 140 kilometres an hour.
“You need somewhere to stay tonight? You’re welcome at my house,” Ahmed said, rubbing his stomach that tumbled over the belt of his jeans. He grinned to reveal several teeth missing. “Welcome, my brothers, my sister.”
Night was falling as the car edged along the quiet streets of Dakhla, past square, clay-brown buildings with arches at the front, under which, occasionally, passed men in dark robes of brown and grey or women in long, colourful, brightly-patterned veils. They draped loosely about their bodies and faces, leaving their wavy hair to fall freely over their shoulders.
Ahmed and Mustafa grew excited at the sight of the women and leaned from the car windows to call out to them. “Habiba!” The women pulled their veils over their faces and hurried on.
“What are they saying?” I said quietly to my H, who spoke Arabic.
He just shook his head. “You don’t want to know,” he said, slouching back into the car seat so that he wouldn’t be visible in the car from outside.
She rose from the sofa and moved across the room to bend over Tim, now cowering on the floor. Even her shadow, flung across the dim light of the lamp in the corner, dwarfed him.
Our new friends soon ran out of beer, so they insisted that we come to a party with them. We thought this might at least be an opportunity to spend our time doing something other than circulating the streets of a Western Saharan town looking for women to harass so we agreed.
It turned out the “party” consisted of Ahmed and Mustafa picking up some more beer, along with the Moroccan eau de vie, called Mahia, a highly alcoholic schnapps made from figs. They then drove out to some point in the desert a little way from the town and parked the car on the edge of an embankment.
By now it was pitch dark. They switched the music from R’n’B to Arabic pop, raised the volume to the maximum, and the two men danced in awkward movements in the car headlights, pausing only to pass a joint back and forth between them. When the song finished, they whooped and flung their beer bottles into the desert, sending them clattering down the hill and finally smashing on some rocks below.
Once the party was over, we drove back to Ahmed’s apartment which took up the whole top floor of a block of flats. In the kitchen, Mustafa set to chopping vegetables and fish and arranging them in a tagine pot sitting on a gas stove bottle while Ahmed pressed apple-flavoured tobacco into a shisha pipe and heaped it with lighted coal. He laid against the cushions on the low sofa and put the pipe in his mouth, hitching the robe that he had changed into. A quick succession of puffs and smoke billowed around him, enshrouding the picture of Mecca that hung on the mosaic wall over Ahmed’s head.
After we had all dug into the vegetable and fish stew with our hands and pieces of bread, Mustafa left on an errand with instruction from Ahmed. A little later he returned with a bottle of vodka and two women adorned in loose-hanging veils of colourful patterns. They pulled them back from their faces and beamed at us, then removed the garments altogether.
Underneath, they wore tight black dresses decorated with sequins and glitter. They were large women and the clothes, several sizes too small, were held together by an arrangement of straps that dug into their ample flesh.
Ahmed invited the women to sit and they sprawled around him on the sofa, passing the shisha pipe around and gushing forward volumes of sweet smelling smoke. Mustafa’s tasks being completed, he discreetly left. This surprised us as we assumed one of the women was for him – but Ahmed had other ideas.
“Now we all have women,” he announced. “This one for me,” and he put his arm around the prostitute on his left. He waved his other hand vaguely in the direction of H and me, “This one for him.” Finally, he pointed at Tim. “And a woman for you.”
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Ahmed turned and smiled at the woman on his right, the one with a wide gap between her front teeth. He nodded towards Tim squatting on a cushion at the opposite end of the room and whispered something to her in Arabic.
The bits of her belly poking through the strings of her dress jiggled as she rose from the sofa and moved across the room to bend over Tim, now cowering on the floor. A look of terror passed over his face as the realisation of what was expected of him dawned. She was easily three times his size and even her shadow, flung across the dim light of the lamp in the corner, dwarfed him.
Tim looked to us for help. “Please. Do. Something.”, he whispered urgently.
H turned to Ahmed and explained in Arabic that as much as Tim appreciated his gift, he really didn’t want it.
Ahmed was baffled. He turned to Tim. “No worry, I pay! I pay!”
The girl looked over to him in confusion and he waved her onwards in her mission. She advanced forward a few steps and Tim’s eyes pleaded with us. H launched into a discussion with Ahmed with the latter’s responses growing increasingly heated. It seemed he couldn’t understand why Tim would turn down sex being offered to him in any form. Was he gay?
“Can I sleep in the room with you guys tonight?” Tim said to me.
We had been given as a bedroom the second salon which had a door that closed while Tim had been allocated the sofa on which Ahmed sat, to which the prostitute had now returned while the negotiations carried on – looking annoyed as she puffed on the shisha pipe.
The three of us retreated to the other room, only to find that the door didn’t have a lock on it. On Tim’s insistence, we pulled a chest of drawers to barricade the door so that the woman couldn’t burst her way onto a sleeping Tim in the middle of the night. Despite the reinforcements, he barely slept all night.
From the other salon wafted the distant sounds of Ahmed enjoying the attentions of both the women he’d bought.