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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 14

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part II. Age of Excess

Chapter 14. The Legend of Ali Aouellim

As told by a Hassi-Messaoud ergamine

The Tuaregs grieved to see their desert bleeding from the mounds inflicted by the pitiless pioneers.

"Pioneers from the North brought me to the Earth's surface at a place of ochre sand dunes in the middle of the Sahara Desert, where it never rains. It was 1956. I was part of the first group of ergamines to rise up in the well drilled by these fearless explorers. They did not expect us to appear so quickly or abundantly; they barely had time to capture us in an old rusty barrel. For them, it was an unforgettable event. They greeted us with great emotion and celebrated our arrival for days. They even christened us, naming us after the ancient water source at that place, Hassi-Messaoud. {a}

"The Northerners were euphoric. But the Tuareg people, who had wandered that land as nomads for thousands of years, were offended by the presence of these pioneers from far away who had disturbed their desert's peace. They stayed away from the celebration - all except for young Ali Aouellim, who came to be near us. When night fell, he rode up to our barrel on his camel, a strange beast with its humps and constant chewing. He was wearing the indigo blue veil the Tuaregs use to protect their faces during sandstorms. He sat down and stayed with us until late into the night and returned the next day and the day after that.

"Ali could not accept that the pioneers had removed oil from the Earth. He was deeply troubled by it. He believed it was unnatural. To him, the Sahara was inviolable - no one had the right to remove so much as a grain of sand from it. He believed that long ago this land was inhabited by creatures who cared nothing for the Earth and had tried to take too much from it. So die sun beat down on them and chased them all away. The Tuaregs were allowed to stay because they promised to protect the desert.

"Now the nomads were caught in a whirlwind of unwelcome activity. They had tried many times to make these visitors understand their sacred trust, but no one cared. Tuareg sensibilities did not carry much weight with the technological geniuses from the North, who went about their strange business oblivious to the native people's distress.

"The drillers' initial joy soon dissipated. They grew accustomed to our presence and began to focus their attention on installing a temporary pipe to transport the first Messaoud {21} ergamines to the railway at the Touggourt oasis. From there they would be loaded onto tank cars and taken away. But our barrel was not connected to this line. We were placed in a large tank to wait for a bigger and much longer pipe, which would channel us across the desert to the Mediterranean Sea. We were deeply puzzled by all of this. What was so important about us? Why had these sorcerers come from so far away for such a huge undertaking? The energy within us surely was not enough to explain all of this. Young Ali tried to help us understand, but we had difficulty following him. Then one night he read a little poem he had written just for us:

'Oil of Messaoud
essence of the Earth
fire of the Sahara
snaking through the desert
just to bring
hope and flame
to the people of the North
who anxiously await your black river of life
to illuminate their own'.

"I understood from this that we were being sent north to light fires for the people there. But I still did not see why they wanted so many of us. With all the wells being drilled in Messaoud, the number of us leaving would be enormous.

"We waited in our tank for the pipeline for two years. Sometimes the Tuaregs left their camp for a time and Ali would go with them. Otherwise he came to us every night, his anxiety growing as the fatal day approached.

"Then one morning as the sun rose hot over the horizon, the leader of the pioneers gathered his tribe of elated engineers to celebrate the work they had done: at last the great pipe was finished. This was the second celebration we had witnessed among the drillers in this far deserted corner of the Earth. Such events were very strange to us. We still did not see why our mere presence evoked such jubilation. The next morning, huge mechanical birds came down from the sky, bringing swarms of people in strange dress. The speeches they gave for our send-off were even more emotional than those that had greeted our initial arrival. The visitors poured out their enthusiasm, deeply moved by the momentousness of our imminent departure.

"Then came the moment for which they had all been waiting. Two assistants dressed in pure white approached the valve that would release the flow of ergamines. They lifted the cloth that had been placed over it like a veil upon a goddess. Ali Aouellim stood behind the crowd, concealing his distress within the folds of his blue veil.

"Suddenly, the valve opened in front of us. Ignorant of our fate, we were sucked down into the manmade cylinder by a powerful force that sent us careening at dizzying speeds up and down the mountains separating Hassi-Messaoud from the coast. In no more time than it takes the Earth to spin once or twice upon its axis, we found ourselves in an enormous crude oil tank at the port of Bejaia on the Mediterranean Sea.

"At this stage in our one-way journey, which was as baffling as it was frightening, we began to grasp the magnitude oj our forced exodus, for we were followed by Messaoud ergamines in a flood that never ended. I couldn't help thinking of young Ali Alouellim's face, streaked with sadness, and I pondered the end of his message: '... who anxiously await you; black river of life to illuminate their own'. It was still difficult for me to comprehend how our mere fire-making power could justify the taking of so many of us.

"Not long after our arrival on the coast, we heard a strange rumor. During their wild journey northward, newly arriving ergamines thought they had heard the footsteps of a young Saharan and his camel. The rumor was repeated every day a more arrived. We thought immediately of Ali Aouellim, but that seemed impossible. Impossible or not, twenty days later our friend arrived at the Bejaia port. He and his camel had left their native Sahara for a land unknown to them, crossing over dunes, mountains, and valleys to be near their desert ergamine once more, before we abandoned them forever.

"All's arrival evoked a kind of anguish in me. I realized then that the Tuaregs' protective mission, passed down from generation to generation, was not the only reason he had come. The Tuaregs revered the Earth, just as it was. Their calling to protect the Sahara was born of a great love. I understood that day how distraught they must be. They grieved to see their desert bleeding from the wounds inflicted by the pitiless pioneers.

"Just as in Messaoud, Ali's emotions were close to the surface. And, as before, he came to us each night. Finally the inevitable day arrived when the ships of the Northern merchants entered the bay. At the sight of the first one, Ali fell mute with sorrow. He knew that others soon would follow.

"Once the ship was anchored, things began to happen quickly. Floods of our ergamine friends were loaded into the tanker, a kind of floating reservoir. Only a few hours after its arrival, it left for the open sea. This was difficult for Ali to bear. Racked with pain, he watched the vessel slip away in silence, his eyes never leaving it. How could this be happening? Why hadn't the sailors who worked at the port stopped the foreign merchants from taking this treasure away from his desert? We felt Ali's grief as he saw the ship disappear over the horizon, never to return.

"Ali mounted his camel and secured himself to his saddle as he did for his longest journeys. He muttered something and we understood that he was too devastated by his failure to uphold his mission to find the way back on his own. He asked his camel to return him to Hassi-Messaoud.

"The Northerners never knew about young Ali's odyssey. If they had been told, they would never have believed it. We learned later that the faithful camel followed the pipeline all the way back, returning its noble master to his home."


{a} The Hassi Messaoud oil field was discovered in 1956. Located in the Sahara Desert in the center of Algeria approximately 800 miles south of Algiers, it proved to be the country's largest oil reserve and is still one of the biggest in Africa. The Hassi Messaoud area contains an estimated 6.4 billion barrels, or about seventy percent of the country's proven oil reserves, and can produce approximately 400,000 barrels per day.

{21} Alain Perrodon, Le petrole a travers les ages (Paris, France: Editions Boubee, 1989), 170.

Bill Totten


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