He urged us to start at once, at the same time announcing his intention of accompanying us so as to protect us against treachery. I was much touched by this act of kindness on the part of that wily old barbarian toward two utterly defenseless strangers.—Rider Haggard
The accused was named Amadou Amadou. Every single piece of evidence went against him, and the sum of the evidence was a death sentence. Amadou was twenty-one or twenty-two, a gangly young man who lived or had lived with his parents, grandparents and a dozen brothers and sisters two blocks from the scene of the crime, an agrarian commune in the oasis of Tindirma.
The commune consisted mostly of Americans, a few French, Spanish and Germans, a Polish woman and a Lebanese man; all told, twice as many women as men. The majority of them had got to know each other in the mid-1960s in the coastal region around Targat and had stumbled accidentally on the property in the oasis twenty kilometers away, a two-story building with a bit of land that was available to rent cheaply. The dream was of a natural, self-determined life, of collective organization and so forth. None of the communards had any experience of this sort of concrete utopianism. At first they lived from a laboriously irrigated field and junk they bought from the locals and exported to the First World; later came the occasional dealings in illegal substances.
Initially viewed with distrust, the longhaired, talkative, directionless, bumbling communards won the goodwill of their new neighbors relatively quickly through their openness and helpfulness. They reached out their hands in a friendly and generous manner to those around them, and those around them reached back hesitantly at first and then affectionately. Foreign jewelry was marveled at, hair was touched, food was exchanged. It was the time of the big speeches, the long discussions and implied fraternity. Eventually came a few small fortifications and the first unrest. Over the summer, the number of uninvited guests who sought to extract financial gains from the commune became unmanageable. Medical, technical and sexual services were requested and at least in part granted. The consequence was a series of troublesome conflicts, called misunderstandings internally, whereupon they pulled back from the local people more and more, initially in a diffuse way and then programmatically, receding to a strictly business relationship, until finally an additional meter was added to the top of the one-and-a-half-meter wall already surrounding the property. By just two votes, a tiny majority was to thank for the fact that shards of glass weren’t pressed into the fresh clay atop the new wall. All of this took place in the course of a few months.At the time of our story, the commune had sunk to the level of a pathetic economic partnership of convenience—the prosperity of which seemed only negligibly better than it had been at the time of its founding.
The two most noticeable figures in the commune were a Scottish industrial scion named Edgar Fowler III and the French ex-soldier and drifter Jean Bekurtz. In one of their sober moments they had come up with the idea of the commune, recruited members with their infectious enthusiasm—among them a striking number of attractive women—and drafted a rough outline of what they called their philosophy.
But the desert quickly changed the outlook. Where initially one took up residence in the gray area of a discussion-friendly Marxism, the number of incense sticks in the household increased in a short amount of time. Between Kerouac and Castaneda, a half-meter of Trotsky molded away, and the idea of a constantly physically co-mingling mass of humanity (“It’s just a metaphor”) broke down due to the reluctance of the women, who were no longer inclined to acquiesce. At the time of our story, the commune had sunk to the level of a pathetic economic partnership of convenience—the prosperity of which seemed only negligibly better than it had been at the time of its founding.
In order to make the sequence of events and everything that follows understandable, a short explanation must be offered at this point of what we mean when we speak of “the oasis”.
Archaeological examinations had uncovered no evidence of earlier settlements on the site. In 1850, Tindirma was still a collection of three mud huts around a meager reservoir on the slope of an isolated rock spire in the desert. Geologists speak of a cone of volcanic origin. The highest elevation is 250 meters above sea level, and provides a view that even on good days doesn’t allow one to see anything more than sand all around, sand that had been blown into an endless field of crescent dunes by the constant wind from the coast. Only the western horizon offered even an inkling of moisture and green and blue.
Located at the crossing of two inconsequential caravan routes, the oasis first grew during the bloody battles surrounding the Massina Empire. Displaced Fula people with no belongings and, most importantly, with no livestock arrived here from the south, half naked and half starving, and negotiated the transition from a nomadic existence to farming. Three mud huts became fifty, pushing up the slope between scrubby acacias and doum palms. Life is hard, and like many unwilling emigrants the Fula named the paltry patch of earth they cultivated after the place from which they’d fled: Nouveau Tindirma. In the space of a generation, the number of unfortunates there rose tenfold.
Historiography from that era does not exist in written or in credible oral form. The first documented image is a black and white photo from the 1920s of men with scarred faces. With deadened gazes and pressed into a dark rectangle, they are standing in the cargo bed of a Thornycroft BX, which is entering the freshly graded main street of a Tindirma that is barely recognizable; in the background is one of the first two-story buildings.
At the end of the 1930s two events profoundly transform Tindirma. The first is the arrival of a lost Swiss engineer, Lukas Imhof, whose car breaks down and who is hindered by the locals from repairing it. With practically no tools and just the help of a few Haratin, Imhof digs in the next few months a forty-meter-deep well next to the Kaafaahi cliffs, which henceforth provides the oasis with an abundance of water. Imhof is subsequently presented in ceremonial fashion with two refurbished spark plugs (family album, square photo).
The second is the mushrooming civil war in the south, which puts Tindirma in the most strategically advantageous location for smuggling arms and other resources. Only two or three families cultivate their millet fields any more; the rest bow out in favor of night work and flood the community with previously unknown prosperity and the routes south with dead bodies.
At about the same time, the first Arab merchant families relocate from Targat to Tindirma. Europeans with dark sunglasses and meticulously shaved necks drive through Tindirma in olive-green automobiles, and in 1938 the head office installs the first police station there. The appearance of state authority doesn’t change everyday life much at first. Anyone who values a peaceful life and can afford it maintains a private army; the police find themselves fighting primarily for their own security.
The transition from lawless to half-civilized entity comes to fruition only with the displacement of the civil war in the south and west. The arms-saturated region becomes receptive to other goods. Former smuggling barons invest in infrastructure, the first bars and hotels sprout up. In the mid-1950s there’s briefly a cinema. A paved road thrusts its way through the center of the oasis for several hundred meters, makes a weak feint at the coast and peters out in the sand. Two small mosques stretch their minaret fingers to the yellow sky. Religion exerts a moderate influence on the life of the municipality, strengthening the weak and the faithful and solidifying morals and civility through the clarity of godly thoughts, through education and shari’a law.Former smuggling barons invest in infrastructure, the first bars and hotels sprout up. In the mid-1950s there’s briefly a cinema.
Parallel to the intrusion by state and religious organs, repeated attempts are made to change the name of the locale in order to erase the memory of its dark past, but neither the residents nor the Arabs nor the one or two cartographers who acknowledged the settlement up to the year 1972 manage to establish any other name than Tindirma.
On Wednesday, 23rd August 1972 the following occurred, according to witnesses: Amadou Amadou, intoxicated, drove a car, a light-blue rusted Toyota that did not belong to him, into the courtyard of the commune, which was near the souk. There, as five members of the commune concordantly reported, he initially offered to sell some unspecified service, then subsequently, over tea, made a speech about sexuality that was as explicit as it was anatomically incorrect (four witnesses), as well as starting to have a philosophical discussion about gender relations (one witness), then apparently made his way unnoticed into the kitchen where he helped himself to more alcohol, and finally, brandishing a firearm that suddenly appeared in his hand, stormed through the property searching for valuables. A stereo hi-fi system in the common room was the first thing to attract his interest, but he was unable to transport it alone. A female member of the commune, asked to carry the speakers to the car, had refused, as the stereo system wasn’t fully paid off, at which point Amadou had shot her in the face. He then shot two other communards who arrived on the scene to try to disarm him (with words?). After further search of the property (now with the weapon held out in front of him like a dog pulling on a leash), he discovered a woven rattan suitcase that was stuffed with money (paper notes of unknown currency). Amadou had forgotten everything else and attempted to flee the house with the rattan suitcase. While attempting to do so he lost a sandal when it fell down a stairwell, shot a further communard hiding in a wardrobe, and took possession of a basket filled with fruit that had been standing in the kitchen pantry. Some thirty or forty witnesses, drawn by the gunfire, had seen Amadou as he fired into the air in order to disperse the crowd, jumped into the Toyota and drove off in the direction of the coast road. Halfway to the coast, in the middle of the desert, he ran out of gas and was arrested by the fat little village sheriff, who showed up with the suspect a short time later in Polidorio’s office. Amadou was wearing just one sandal at the time of his arrest. The rattan suitcase with the money was nowhere to be found, but the basket of fruit sat on the passenger seat of the light-blue Toyota in the desert. The still-warm Mauser was in the glovebox. An empty magazine that fitted the weapon was later seized in the courtyard of the commune. A sandal was recovered in the stairwell, which was a mirror image of the one Amadou had on.The victims may have all been a bunch of drugged-up hippies who ran an anti-imperialist pot business in the desert—but as soon as things got serious, the only thing that mattered to the First World was citizenship.
In his statements, Amadou didn’t address any of the particulars of the allegations against him. He flatly denied the whole thing. This was not unusual. In a country where a man’s word still held sway, there were in essence no confessions. The standard statement of all accused criminals in all investigations was that all allegations brought against them were fabricated and that they felt their honor deeply insulted. If the suspect or accused put in any effort to come up with their own version of events, as a rule they paid no attention to the details. Amadou was no exception. Coherently integrating the facts at hand into his fantasy version of events never crossed his mind. How did the sandal end up in the staircase of the commune? How did an empty magazine get into the yard? Why did forty witnesses say they could positively identify Amadou? Amadou shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t answer to save his life, and he didn’t understand why these questions were being asked of him of all people. Wasn’t it much more the duty of the police to answer such questions? He pointed to some electric device or other (telex, coffee machine) and begged to be hooked up to the lie detector. He swore before the true and only God, he stated that he could only say what happened in reality, and he would be happy to do so at any time. He, Amadou Amadou, had been taking a walk in the desert. The weather had been lovely, and the walk took several hours. (It wasn’t as unlikely as it might at first sound. Many oasis residents still moonlighted as smugglers.) While under way he had lost a sandal in a thorn bush. Then, near the road, he had found an abandoned, light-blue Toyota and had climbed into the unlocked vehicle because there was a basket of mouth-watering fruit on the passenger seat and he, Amadou, had toyed with the idea of eating some of the fruit since he was very hungry. This was something they could actually reproach him for, since the fruit did not belong to him. He would swear to this. At that moment, however, he was arrested and taken to Targat by a policeman who seemed to materialize out of nowhere. He didn’t know anything about a pistol in the glovebox.
This statement he repeated on four consecutive days without changing a word. Just once, on the evening of the fourth day and in a state of severe fatigue, did Amadou remark that he had tossed the rattan suitcase out of the window during the escape; he recanted this sentence after just a few minutes and later wouldn’t admit to having said it at all. Didn’t want to say anything more unless they let him finally sleep.
And the fact that the victims were foreigners made everything infinitely more complicated. Polidorio had led the interrogation only on the first day, on the second and third Canisades made half-hearted attempts to shift the case back to Tindirma; then the Interior Minister unexpectedly intervened, and the affair was transferred to the most senior member of the staff, Karimi. A government official had already been in the United States for a few days and was negotiating alliances and development aid when the massacre received unusually extensive coverage in the American press. In Europe as well they busied themselves with the affair, even though no Europeans were among the victims. In the capital there were uncomfortable inquiries (the French ambassador, the American ambassador, a German news magazine), and the result of it all was that Karimi and a federal prosecutor had to be stationed in a hotel in Tindirma. Officially, in order to thoroughly reinvestigate; in reality, to provide the journalists gathered there with indiscreet information about the status of things and lurid examples of the insanity of the culprit. Because the victims may have all been a bunch of drugged-up hippies who ran an anti-imperialist pot business in the desert—but as soon as things got serious, the only thing that mattered to the First World was citizenship.
Excerpted from Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf. Used with the permission of the publisher, New York Review of Books. Copyright © 2017 by Wolfgang Herrdorf. Translation copyright © 2018 by Tim Mohr.