at the edge of the Sahara, Les Filles de Illighadad

at the edge of the Sahara, Les Filles de Illighadad

This is how I remember traveling to the Sinai: you took the overnight Egged bus from Tel Aviv’s central bus station to Eilat, the port city at the very bottom of the country. Then, you took a local bus to the border. Once you got there, you cleared Israel immigration (basically a guard in a booth looking at your passport and asking where you were going), walked across the border (like maybe a half a football field? if that) cleared Egyptian immigration (another guard in a booth) and sat on a bench and waited for enough other backpackers to show up to fill a sherut, a shared taxi, basically a Mercedes station wagon kind of thing. If you came on the overnight bus, you were probably not waiting long, just long enough for the tourists who didn’t know you could take a city bus to get there in a taxi.

The tourists would try to argue about the price, the Israelis would roll their eyes and say, nu, the price is the price, yalla. Some of them would still be arguing but the rest of us would just throw our packs in the back and climb in – you wanted the window, but if you were a woman, you didn’t want to sit up front. Then you rode the 2 ½ hours south through the desert mountains to Dahab, a tiny beach village favored by Israelis, on the shore of the Red Sea facing Saudi Arabia. At least, this is how I did it when I felt like I was going to explode and needed to go somewhere, I could throw some things into a backpack and grab my sleeping bag and go.

The road down to Dahab goes through winding dusty brown desert mountains, more Ten Commandments than Lawrence of Arabia; you see the latter kind of dunes if you’re taking the bus to Cairo, which drives along the road at the top of the Sinai, before making its way down to Cairo. The first time I did that, I remember the bus driver welcoming us to the continent of Africa as we crossed over the Suez Canal. But in the Sinai, I was still in Asia.

En route, the taxi driver listened to endless cassettes of what was dismissively referred to by people as musika mizrahit, which roughly translates as “Oriental music,” which encompassed everything from Oum Khaltoum to Ofra Haza. I wasn’t as inclined to automatically dislike musika mizrahit as my extended circle of acquaintances; if anything, it reminded me of Bollywood soundtracks, the same high pitch and not-dissimilar tuning, lyrics in Arabic or Hebrew. You could buy them in the shuk near the bus station or at kiosks or gas stations. It was not Western music, and you didn’t hear it on the pop radio station. Don’t get me wrong, some of it was very bad. But not all of it.

During the drive, you chatted with the other backpackers about where they had come from and where they were going, where they had been, where they wanted to go next. I talked about traveling in India and my trip to Cairo and Aswan, and explained how you take a taxi in Cairo: you get in, tell the driver where you are going, and then pay him based on distance--it’s what the Cairenes did, and if you haven’t paid him enough the driver would tell you. If you ask him how much it costs he will know you are a tourist and overcharge you. (I have no idea if this is still the case, so please consult a travel guide if you are going to Cairo in the near future.) The last time I went, I didn’t know it was going to be the last time I went. I just could not deal, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to get on a plane. So I went to the desert.

When we arrived in Dahab and were extracting our backpacks out of the back of the Mercedes, a tall, curly-haired American boy who’d been sitting up front during the drive asked me where I was going next, that he was heading overland to Ethiopia in a day or two and he had heard that travelers could buy passage on freighters from Djibouti that would take you to India. I was so sad when I had to tell him that I was actually a local and half of my beloved red Cannondale internal frame backpack was actually my sleeping bag, it was just easier to throw everything into something I could carry on my back. It physically hurt that I had to say no, and I was flattered that I’d been deemed sufficiently capable to manage that kind of journey. He was right; I would have been.

Dahab back then was not a fancy place. It was a small village you could walk end to end in less than 20 minutes, a collection of small hostels and inns interspersed with restaurants and bars and tourist shops, and when I say ‘inns’ please downgrade whatever picture you have in your head. Everything was built of stone and concrete and wood and palm fronds and there weren’t buildings taller than two stories; now even the backpacker part of town is built up, and the fancy hotels you get when you do a web search on ‘Dahab hotels’ did not exist in the early 90s. This is a wiki photo I found from 1988 which is more primitive than it was when I went but gives you an idea of the general vibe. When I went, people were always complaining about the presence of actual buildings as they preferred it when they could sleep in huts built out of palm fronds on the beach.

Dahab circa 1988, Wikimedia Commons

I stayed at the very top of the village in a small row of identical stone rooms with dirt floors overlaid with plastic carpets, with one tiny square window that closed with a wooden shutter. You were curtly informed when checking in that this was not a party hotel; those were in the center of the village and were noisier. The rooms at this place faced the water and it was boring, quiet and beautiful. The woman in the room next to me was English and had been there for a few months; she made a living by braiding hair and started every day with a plain yogurt into which she mixed a crumble of hashish and some honey.

During the day you swam or snorkeled or kayaked on top of water that was warm and so clear you could see all the way to the bottom. I would walk south every night around sunset and do yoga on the beach, just me on my towel with the sunset and the mountains and the waves; I can still see some of those sunsets imprinted in my brain. If you were not someone who was hiking or scuba diving, you probably spent the rest of the time sitting at various cafes that were set up like the interior of a Bedouin tent; you sat on the ground on cushions and leaned back against palm tree logs that were covered with cushions. You would stay at the same place all day and run up a tab. I would sit and read for hours, drinking mineral water out of a quart bottle until I needed another one, interspersed with cans of mango juice.

There were many factors that one took into consideration when selecting where you were going to sit for the day: proximity to a beach-like area for easy water access, the amount of sun or shade available, if there were loud groups of dudes hanging out there, if the proprietors tried to hit on single women, and perhaps most importantly for me, what music they played and what volume they played it at. I did not come to the Sinai to listen to classic rock played at a distortion that would make J. Mascis leave the room (I could have gone to any number of Tel Aviv beach cafes for that), but I also did not want to listen to Arabic music played at a volume that made human thought impossible. This criteria left me with about two places to choose from; this was fine. One day I arrived and the proprietors rushed to change the tape to whatever pirate Led Zeppelin cassette was lying around, and I told them I didn’t care, I didn’t need them to change the music, it was fine. Then I sat down and opened a book, to make the point that I really did not care and was not going to turn around and walk out because they were listening to something non-Western (which, to be fair to them, was a thing that people did!)

When quarantine started in 2020 and there were suddenly constant livestreams and fundraisers and a million other musical placeholders, I was surprised at my complete lack of interest in many of them, even from artists I loved and would definitely have gone to see if they had been playing a show in town. I started nosing around Bandcamp, not knowing exactly what I was looking for, and that’s when I stumbled on Les Filles de Illighadad. As their name implies, they are a band of women from the village of Illighadad, located in the western part of the country of Niger, in the Tuareg region of the Sahara. The guitarist, Fatou Seidi Ghali, is one of only two women in the country who play guitar; the instrument she learned on belonged to her brother. She practiced in secret. She was 10. Her father told her she should be busy looking after the cows. She played at weddings. Video circulated on the internets. Sahel Sounds traveled to Illighadad to find her. Now she tours and records with two other women and one of her male cousins.

Les Filles de Illighadad

I was absolutely going to be interested in listening to music made by women in this set of circumstances, but I didn’t understand that it was going to connect with me at an elemental level. Last summer, I would put their records on in the car and drive with the windows down in the late afternoon and early evening, that magic summer light, and it felt perfect, even if I live somewhere that could not be more of the complete opposite of a small African village just adjacent to the Sahara. I am not a “world music” person, I am a music person, and the thing I connect to the most is music made by people who could not possibly do anything else with their lives. I am not drawn to its otherness but rather to how much it resonates with me emotionally. I feel comforted; it feels familiar; it feels like nothing else but yet everything else; it takes me back to that moment riding in the sherut through the mountains, I am once again that young woman cinching up her backpack and wishing she could just head off into the sunset to lands not yet travelled. It feels like freedom, which, in fact, it is, which ties it to rock and roll and punk rock, so it should probably not have been so surprising that I loved it so much.

This music from Les Filles de Illighadad (and many of their labelmates) was particularly comforting in a year where I did not go much further than my backyard and the grocery store; it assured me that my soul was still alive and ready to go, to put on a backpack and lace up some sensible walking shoes and go somewhere where everything is new, nothing is familiar, and it smells of smoke and spice, where I don’t know where I’m going but trust that I will be able to figure it all out.

Les Filles de Illighadad