Detained in the Sahara
Travel Stories: It was night. Soldiers ordered Bill Donahue from the vehicle. Would they administer primitive justice?
05.30.12 | 9:47 AM ET
In 2002, I was traveling in the Sahara Desert of southern Morocco, near the disputed Algerian border, sitting in the back seat of a Land Cruiser that was otherwise occupied by two hardboiled American millionaires, globetrotting gem collectors, their Moroccan driver, and their Moroccan interpreter. It was night. Bumping along over a winding road through the rocks and the sand, we reached a small village and then we were suddenly stopped by three soldiers in crisp tan uniforms. We were not at the international border. We were in the middle of nowhere, and it was hard to discern on whose authority these fellows were detaining us. But they had guns—pistols holstered in their belts—and when they asked for our passports, we complied. They looked the passports over very carefully, and then their leader singled me out.
“Wheel-yum, come down from the vehicle,” he said in English, in a voice that was at once sing-songy and foreboding.
I stepped out into the night, careful to leave my reporter’s notepad under my car seat. We were in a Muslim country, and the American journalist Daniel Pearl had been killed by Muslims just a few months before. 9/11 was a recent memory. And now, it seemed, some primitive justice would be served. The soldiers drew me aside, into a crude shelter, a roofless and unlighted enclosure of rough stone. With a flashlight, they homed in on my passport, scrutinizing it as if, it seemed, its slim pages would deliver up my inmost secrets.
“Wheel-yum,” the leader asked me, “what are you doing in life?”
“I’m a teacher,” I lied.
“And what are you doing in Safsaf?” he asked, naming their village.
I stumbled deeper into the lie and now, as I perceived it, the soldiers grew more dire, and their voices more hushed. They drew close together and mumbled to one another in Arabic, and I had sufficient time to wonder why I had been singled out. Was it because I was slight of build, smaller and less menacing than the beefy millionaires? I felt bony and gangly, and I was shivering now in the cold of the desert night. What were these guys going to do to me?
I didn’t know. I waited. And then, after maybe a minute, the soldiers looked up at me. They were grinning now, all of them.
“Wheel-yum,” said the leader. “You are frightened?”
He lingered on the last word, squeezing every possible delight out of it, and then, as his underlings filled the shelter with a harsh, braying laughter, he handed me back my passport and I felt my heart dance. It had all been a joke. I would live, and I would forever after travel the world knowing that life is complicated—that even in “foreign” countries, what might seem like evil could in fact just be low-grade garden-variety malice. There are cruel young hotshots everywhere you go on the planet, and in these same foundering souls there is mercy as well.
“Wheel-yum,” the leader sang out as I climbed back into the Land Rover, “have an excellent journey in Morocco!”