The immense desert which comprises the Western Sahara, almost 250,000 km in size, is one of the least-known, and most hostile regions in the world.
Part of the great African granite shield, the terrain is frequently interrupted by abrupt elevations; the remains of ancient volcanic chimneys and cones, which left behind solidified flows of basalt rock, giving these buttes their characteristic black colour.
The granite outcrops of the original land formation suffer the continuous bombardment of particles of sand transported by the Sirocco, called "irifi", which in time has modelled the rocks into strange, fantastic shapes.
The relief of this land, essentially a vast plain, is sharply interrupted by clusters of mountains. Erosion, due to the effect of thermoclasia, has caused the surface layer of the mountains to fracture and break apart, making landslides and subsidence a constant threat.
The granite massif of "leyuad", known by the desert nomads as the Mountains of the Devil, has given rise to all kinds of legends and superstitions, creating around it a halo of mystery.
The great chains of dunes, called "ergs", are the most characteristic feature of the Saharan landscape.
Formed by the erosion, grain by grain, of the rocks, they acquire their characteristic half-moon shape, advancing and constantly transformed by the action of the wind.
Interminable plateaux covered in pebbles, called "hammadas", are battered day and night by the wind. Scorched by the blazing sun, they are one of the most starkly beautiful landscapes of the desert.
The main colonies of plant life are concentrated in the "wadis", the dried-up river courses.. This is in part due to the morning fogs which form in winter, providing the vegetation with much-needed humidity.
The bush species that can be found in the "wadis" have managed to adapt to the extreme conditions of aridity and evaporation, pushing their roots down deep into the ground until they reach the water table. As the air close to the ground heats up, it gives rise to a strange phenomenon of refraction, causing spectacular mirages to appear on the wide plains. Impossible rivers and lakes rise up in the desert.
It has not rained for over a year in the Western Sahara.
On the Tiris plains, in the past praised for their pasture, the ground is parched and cracking, and the cattle are dying.
The prolonged drought which is afflicting this part of the planet, a consequence of the anti-cyclones which prevent the formation of clouds, is drying out the few wells, vital for the survival of the desert dwellers and their animals.
At last, the storms arrive and bring with them the longed-for waters. They are sporadic and fall torrentially, flooding the wadis.
In just a few days, pools and wetlands bring renewed life to the dying land.. The desert dons a mantle of green.
The nomads that inhabit this desert are the ULAD EL MIZNA, the Children of the Cloud.
Today is an important day for Habeyabi and Fatimatu. They are expecting a very special visit. Their guests, who have come from a great distance, are two old friends: Sidibrahim and Caloha. This interview was prepared well in advance. The reason is to settle the final details of the marriage which is to take place between Suqueina, the daughter of the hosts, and Shelej, their friends’ son.
With the good prospects promised by the recent rains, it has been decided that this marriage, so long postponed, will now take place.
After the lengthy ritual greeting, which may last several minutes, at the entrance to the "jaima" they drink the tea and goat’s milk which is offered to all guests.
Both men are "cheijs", chiefs of family clans of great repute. In the Western Sahara they are called "bidanes". In traditional culture, this concept is associated with a man of Arab race, who has his own herd of camels and servants to look after them.
Given their important social position, the marriage they are arranging will be a great event, celebrated in the traditional manner.
After drinking the three teas of welcome, the two friends retire to discuss and settle the final details of the marriage, most important of all to agree on the dowry to be given to the bride’s family.
It is also a good time to talk about the favourite subject of all nomads: their livestock.