“Under the sky of the Sahara, we are the happiest people in the world.” Sanmao and her husband Jose | Alchetron
“Under the sky of the Sahara, we are the happiest people in the world.” Sanmao and her husband Jose | Alchetron

The desert first cast its spell on Sanmao, author of Stories of the Sahara, when she studied geography as a child. Later in life, while reading a feature on the Sahara Desert in National Geographic, the Taiwanese poet and author “couldn’t understand the feeling of homesickness” she felt for a land she had never visited. This “nostalgia and longing … only deepened” over time, driving her to take up residence in the Western Sahara in the early 1970s.

It is in the vastness and “serene mystery” of the desert that Sanmao attempts to seek asylum from her own feelings of “immense loneliness”, isolation and despair. “To know that I was wholly alone in this unimaginably vast land was totally liberating,” she reflects. “There’s no such thing as excessive joy” in the “humdrum existence” of a desert town and “nor is there much sorrow.”

Sanmao’s sensory experience is a classic example of the kind of therapy which philosopher Alain de Botton refers to in his book The Art of Travel. “Sublime landscapes,” he writes, “through their grandeur and power, retain a symbolic role in bringing us to accept without bitterness or lamentation the obstacles that we cannot overcome and the events that we cannot make sense of.”

Driving through the desert at dawn, Sanmao compares the sand dunes of the Sahara to “the body of a gigantic sleeping woman”, adding, “such quiet serenity and profound beauty inspire an emotion close to pain.”

A travelogue from the Western Sahara, now translated into English, tells of a Taiwanese woman longing to escape her loneliness and isolation

Her marriage to Jose, a Spaniard with whom she lives on the peripheries of the remote desert outpost of El Aaiun, is an extension of her yearning for what de Botton describes as “foreign elements” that “accord more faithfully with our identity and commitments than anything our homeland can provide.” According to de Botton, “in our love of someone from another country, one ambition may be to weld ourselves more closely to values missing from our own culture.”

Sanmao’s memoir, penned in Chinese, was originally published in 1976. In November 2019, the highly acclaimed collection saw the publication of its first English translation, by Mike Fu.

The opening story, ‘A Knife on a Desert Night’, initially published in Woman’s World magazine in 1974, curiously makes no mention of Jose. The author accompanies her landlord’s son Bashir and his friends at night, when “the stars twinkled coldly like diamonds”, to witness a strange “flying object lit up in orange” — a phenomenon that no one is able to explain. Many of the townsfolk too have seen it before, including the landlord, who later tells her, “Senorita, I believe in Allah. But that thing in the desert sky truly exists.” Her Spanish friends, meanwhile, warn her, “Oh, there’s so much more than mirages. Take your time to get to know this desert, there are weird things aplenty.”

In ‘Child Bride’, Sanmao attends the wedding of her new friend Gueiga, a member of the local Sahrawi tribe, and is shocked to learn that she is only 10 years old. The ceremony lasts an entire night and is played out against the backdrop of a drumbeat that is both “mysterious” and “a bit frightening.” The evening reaches its climax when the groom, cheered on by his peers, goes into the bride’s room and forcefully takes her virginity. In Sahrawi tradition, the groom must live in the bride’s home for the first six years of the marriage — a fact that makes the author sufficiently jealous of her friend.

Sanmao quickly learns that the desert is a land of contrasts and contradictions. In ‘Night in the Wasteland’, she narrowly escapes a rape attempt by two locals, while trying to save Jose, who is sinking in quicksand. This latter detail is somewhat ironic, as we are told in the Foreword that Jose would later die from drowning, in 1979. At one point in the memoir, the author reflects, “Maybe, just maybe, I have a subconscious impulse to end my own life”. We learn in the Foreword that she committed suicide in 1991.

‘Seed of Death’ tells the story of a curious necklace that the author stumbles upon in the street and takes home with her, only to be followed by a string of catastrophic events ranging from a life-threatening illness to accidents, all in the span of a single day. Strangely, the trinket is able to manipulate electronic and mechanical objects, such as cassette players and vehicles. When her Sahrawi neighbours spot the necklace, they recoil in horror. “This is the deadliest and most powerful curse,” explains one of the locals. “It is witchcraft from Mauritania.” The necklace’s contents include a cloth sack that emits a strange odour and a copper tablet. When an imam dissects the latter, he finds inside “an amulet with a drawing on it.”

The collection, which reads like a personal diary, turns voyeuristic in ‘The Desert Bathing Spectacle’, when the author ventures into a local bathhouse for Sahrawi women and learns that some of them don’t bathe for up to four years. Ever the curious one, she travels to the Sahara’s Atlantic coast to spy on tribal women carrying out their traditional custom of colon cleansing; she is discovered and chased away by them. “According to the aesthetics of the desert, the plump women were considered the most beautiful, so average women would do anything they could to gain weight,” observes Sanmao.

Conflict turns her desert fantasy upside down when Morocco and Mauritania lay claim to the Western Sahara — then under Spanish occupation — and the native tribes, in their quest for independence, organise themselves into a guerrilla army. In ‘Crying Camels’, the author meets the son of a Sahrawi chieftain, whom she describes as having a “regal” bearing. “His worn and ragged uniform couldn’t conceal the radiance that emanated from him,” she observes, adding, “his gaze was sharp and focused, so much so that it was almost hard to look him directly in the eye.” He was “handsome and refined in a way that I’d never seen among the Sahrawi.” She later learns that this man is none other than Bassiri, “the mighty leader of the guerrillas … the spirit of the Sahrawi people.”

Living an ascetic life in the Sahara, Sanmao strikes a fine balance between the utilitarian and the creative sides of her personality. She becomes the neighbourhood “scribe, nurse, teacher and seamstress.” Besides running a school for girls in her home, she goes out of her way to help locals, who often take advantage of her generosity. Yet one cannot help but wonder whether she is doing all this to prove a point to her husband. When she had arrived in the desert with a pillowcase full of cash given to her by her father, Jose had said, “You came to the Sahara because you’re stubborn about your romantic ideas. You’ll get tired of this place soon enough.” Resentful that he saw her as a “shallow and useless woman”, she vowed to prove her potential.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based journalist who has written for local and international publications

Stories of the Sahara
By Sanmao, Translated by Mike Fu
Bloomsbury, UK
ISBN: 978-1408881880
416pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 8th, 2020