Deserts of Love21 min read

Long distance relationships in the Spanish Sahara – Sanmao, trans. Mike Fu

Excerpted from Stories of the Sahara

A tiny little grocery store opened up near our home about seven or eight months ago. With almost anything you could imagine available to purchase, life suddenly became much more convenient for us residents living some distance from town. No longer did I need to make a long journey under the blazing sun with my bags large and small.

I’d go to this store maybe four or five times a day. Sometimes in the middle of cooking I’d rush out to buy sugar or flour, always as a matter of utmost urgency, only to find that all my neighbours were in there shopping or the store didn’t have any change. No matter what, whenever I went, I couldn’t get in and out in ten seconds like I wanted. It wasn’t great for someone as impatient as me.

After a week of this, I proposed to the young Sahrawi clerk that I keep a tab. Each night, I could record everything I’d bought during the day. I’d pay it off once I reached a thousand pesetas or so. The youth said that he’d have to ask his older brother before he could answer me. The next day he told me they’d be happy to let me keep an account. They didn’t know how to write, so they gave me a large notebook and let me unilaterally record the accumulated products for which I owed them payment. It was from that point on that I got to know Salun.

Salun was usually alone in the store. His older brother had other business to attend to and only flitted by in the mornings and evenings. Whenever I went to settle my debts, Salun firmly rejected any need to double-check what I’d written. If I insisted as a courtesy, his face and ears would turn bright red and he’d start stammering. So I just let it go and didn’t ask him to check my accounts any more.

Because he trusted me, I recorded my purchases meticulously. I didn’t want to make a mistake and then have the blame placed on his shoulders. Though it wasn’t his store, he seemed to take on a lot of responsibility. He wouldn’t go into town even after closing up at night. Instead he always sat quietly by himself, gazing into the dark sky. Stiff and honest, he seemingly hadn’t made any friends even after the store had been open for almost a month.

One afternoon, I went in to settle my account. I was ready to go after paying it off , but Salun kept his head lowered, fumbling with my notebook. The look on his face told me he hadn’t forgotten to give it back to me; rather, he had something to say. I waited a few seconds. He remained silent, so I took the notebook from his hands and said, ‘All set. Thanks, see you tomorrow!’ I turned and made to leave.

He looked up abruptly. ‘Señora Quero…’ he began. I stopped and waited for him to talk. Again he wouldn’t speak. His face had already turned bright red.

‘Is something the matter?’ I asked him gently, so as not to deepen his anxiety.

‘I want … I want to ask you to write an important letter.’

He was too timid to look up at me as he spoke.

‘Sure! For who?’ I asked. This boy was really too shy.

‘For my wife,’ he said in a voice so small I almost couldn’t hear it.

‘You’re married?’ I was very surprised because Salun lived, ate and worked in this little shop. He had no parents, and his brother’s family treated him with cold indifference. I never even suspected that he might have a wife. He nodded at last, nervous as though he’d revealed a most profound secret to me.

‘And your wife? Where is she? Why isn’t she living with you?’ I knew what was in his heart. He was reluctant to speak, but longed for me to ask. He still didn’t answer, glancing around for a moment to make sure nobody else was coming into the shop. Then he pulled out a colour photograph from under the counter and shoved it into my hands, lowering his head again.

This photograph, its edges already worn and frayed, showed an Arab woman in European clothes. Her features were dignified, her eyes large. But she had slathered a lot of colourful make-up onto a face that wasn’t particularly youthful. She wore a revealing sleeveless blouse in a floral print, along with a very short and dé modé apple-green miniskirt. Around her waist was a copper chain-belt. Below that her plump legs slid into a pair of extremely tall yellow high-heeled boots, shoelaces criss-crossed all the way up to her knees. A portion of her black hair had been swooped up like a bird’s nest, while the rest fell on her shoulders. Cheap jewellery adorned her entire body, and she held a gleaming black fake leather handbag.

Looking at the picture alone was dazzling and overwhelming enough. If she were to appear in the flesh, powdery scent and all, it would certainly be even more astonishing.

I looked at Salun. He was earnestly waiting for me to react to the photo. I didn’t have it in me to dash his hopes, but I couldn’t find the appropriate words to praise this artificial beauty. Instead I gingerly returned the photograph to the counter. ‘Very chic. She’s totally unlike the Sahrawi women around here.’ I could only say this much and manage to avoid hurting him while salving my conscience.

Salun was very happy to hear me say this. ‘She is very stylish and beautiful,’ he said immediately. ‘No girl around here can compare with her.’

‘Where is she?’ I asked with a smile.

‘She is now in Monte Carlo.’ He spoke of his wife as though she were a goddess.

‘You’ve been to Monte Carlo?’ I thought I had misheard him.

‘No, we got married in Algeria last year,’ he said.

‘How come she didn’t come back to the desert with you after getting married?’

His face dimmed as soon as he heard my question, the look of eagerness vanishing. ‘Saida said I should go home first and, after few days, she and her brother would come to the Sahara together. But then, but then—’

‘Then she never came.’ I finished his sentence for him. He nodded and looked at the ground.

‘How long has it been?’ I asked.

‘More than one year.’

‘Why didn’t you write to her sooner?’

‘I…’ He sounded like he had something stuck in his throat.

‘Who could I tell…?’ he sighed.

Why are you willing to tell some completely irrelevant person like me, then? I thought to myself. ‘Let me see the address.’

I decided I would help him out.

He showed me the address and, sure enough, it was Monte Carlo, Monaco, and not Algeria. ‘Where did you get this address?’ I asked him.

‘I went to Algeria once to find my wife,’ he mumbled. ‘Three months ago.’

‘Aiya, why didn’t you mention it sooner? You’re not speaking clearly. So you have tried to find her.’

‘She was not there. Her brother said she left. He gave me this photo and address and told me to go home.’

Trekking such enormous distances, all for the sake of the vulgar woman in this photograph? I sighed and looked at Salun’s honest and kindly face. I suddenly thought of the customs here in the desert.

‘Salun, let me ask you, how much of a bride price did you pay when you got married?’

‘A lot.’ He lowered his head again as if my question were touching on a sore spot.

‘How much?’ I pressed gently.

‘More than three hundred thousand.’

I was stunned. ‘There’s no way you could have that much money,’ I said dubiously. ‘You’re talking nonsense!’

‘Yes, yes, my father left it to me when he passed away two years ago. You can ask my brother.’ Salun defended himself firmly.

‘Fine. Let me guess what happened next. You went to Algeria last year to buy goods to bring back and sell in the Sahara. But you ended up not buying anything. You married the woman in the photo, Saida, and the money went to her. Then you came back, and she still hasn’t come. Am I right?’

A very simple story of a swindle.

‘Yes, you guessed right! How did you know what happened?’ He seemed almost a bit happy that I had guessed correctly.

‘You really don’t get it?’ I widened my eyes, finding it extremely odd.

‘I do not understand why she refuses to come here. So I must ask you to write this letter to her. Please tell her I, I…’ He grew excited and held his head in his hands. ‘I have nothing now,’ he mumbled.

I quickly turned my gaze elsewhere. Seeing all the sentiments come pouring out of this stiff and honest fellow, I felt a great stirring in my heart. Since the very first time I met him, he seemed to radiate a kind of silent, lonely sorrow, like a character in an old Russian novel who has suffered tremendous misfortune.

‘Alright, let’s write a letter,’ I said, pulling myself together.

‘I have time right now.’

Upon hearing this, Salun quietly implored me, ‘Please do not tell my older brother about writing this letter.’

‘I won’t say anything. Don’t worry.’ I opened up my notebook.

‘OK. You speak, and I’ll write. Go on…’ I prompted him.

‘Saida, my wife. . .’ Salun seemed to tremble just spitting out these few words. He stopped.

‘This won’t do. I can only write in Spanish. How will she read the letter?’ I lost my will to write again, knowing deep down that this female trickster wouldn’t even getting around to reading this letter, let alone admit to being his wife.

‘It is no problem. Please write.’ Salun looked worried that I would refuse. ‘She will find somebody to read the letter for her,’ he implored. ‘I beg of you…’

‘Fine! Carry on.’ I lowered my head and prepared to continue.

‘Ever since we parted ways last year, I have never forgotten you. Once I went to Algeria to find you…’ 

I could see that Salun must feel great love for this woman, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to overcome his shyness. Here he was describing the passion buried deep in his heart in front of a total stranger.

‘Done! Come sign.’ I tore out the written letter from my notebook.

Salun knew how to write his own name in Arabic. He signed carefully and sighed. ‘Now we just have to wait for her reply,’ he said, full of hope.

I looked at him and didn’t know how to respond. All I could do was keep silent.

‘For the return address, can we put your mailbox number at the post office? Would it bother Señor José?’

‘Don’t worry. José won’t mind. Let me write the return address for you.’ I hadn’t even thought of writing one in the first place.

‘I will go and mail it myself right now.’ Salun got a stamp from me, closed the front door of the shop and flew off into town.

From then on, Salun would start and stumble whenever he saw me come into the store. If I shook my head, a look of despair would immediately come over his face. At such an early stage, he was already suffering from the wait. How would he manage in the days to come? A month passed like this. Salun’s wordless badgering was becoming a huge headache. I no longer went to buy groceries from his shop. I didn’t know how to tell him, No reply, no reply, no reply – forget it all and give up hope, so I just didn’t go to the store. He would still surreptitiously come to my window every day after closing up. He wouldn’t knock, either, but simply wait for me to see him and tell him there was no reply. Only then would he murmur his thanks and slowly walk back to the shop, plopping himself down on the ground and gazing towards the sky. He would sit there for many hours on end.

After a long period of time, I opened my mailbox one day and found a few letters inside. There was also a notice from the post office asking me to come.

‘What is it?’ I asked the post office employee.

‘Certified mail to your mailbox for a Salun somebody – Hamid. Is it your friend or did this get sent to the wrong place?’

‘Ah!’ I cried out, taking this letter from Monaco into my hands. All the hairs on my body stood on end. I snatched the letter and started walking home with quick steps. I had completely misjudged this situation. She wasn’t a trickster. She wrote back, certified mail, no less. Salun would be delighted beyond words.

‘Read it, read it!’ Salun urged, closing up the shop. He was trembling, his eyes glimmering like a madman’s. Opening the letter, I found that it was in French. I was very apologetic to Salun.

‘It’s in French…’ I bit my finger.

Hearing this, Salun was beyond desperate. ‘But it is still for me, right?’ he asked quietly, as though he might wake from a beautiful dream if he spoke too loudly.

‘It is for you. She says she loves you.’ This was the only phrase I could recognise.

‘Just guess, I beg you, what else does it say?’ Salun had lost it.

‘I don’t know. Let’s wait until José gets off work.’ I walked home, Salun trailing stiffly behind me like a zombie. I had to invite him inside to sit and wait for José.

Sometimes José has to deal with difficult people on the job and comes home in a foul mood. I don’t mind so much, having grown used to it. He came back particularly early that night. When he saw Salun, he nodded indifferently and went to change his shoes without saying a word. Salun held the letter in his hands, waiting for José to notice him. But José ignored him, going off into the bedroom. After a long spell, he emerged wearing shorts and headed towards the bathroom.

By this point, Salun was at his wits’ end from the anxious wait. Suddenly, without making a peep, he fell to José’s feet with the letter in his hands. It looked like he wanted to hug José’s legs. I was startled to see all this happen from the kitchen. Salun had gone over the top. I was angry at myself for letting this madman cause a ruckus in our tiny home.

José had been lost in his own head until Salun fell to his knees before him and gave him a dreadful scare. ‘What’s going on?!’ he yelled. ‘What’s the meaning of this? Sanmao, save me…’

I went over to pry Salun away. Getting both him and José to stay still was no easy feat. Already tired and disheartened, I couldn’t wait to get rid of Salun so I could have some peace.

José read the letter. He told Salun, ‘Your wife says she also loves you. She can’t come to the Sahara right now because she has no money. Please try to raise one hundred thousand pesetas and send it to her brother in Algeria. Her brother will use this money to buy a plane ticket so she can come to you and never leave your side again.’

‘What?’ I gasped. ‘That’s bullshit! She wants money again—’

Salun was completely unfazed. ‘Saida said she will come?’ he kept asking José , over and over again. ‘She will really come?’ His eyes were glazed over as if he were in the happiest of dreams. ‘Money is no problem,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Easy to arrange, easy…’

‘Forget it, Salun…’ I could tell that he wouldn’t snap out of it, despite my urgings.

‘This, I give to you.’ Overcome with joy, Salun took off the single silver ring that he wore and pressed it into José’s palm.

‘Salun, I can’t take this. Keep it for yourself.’ José slipped the ring back onto his finger in one movement.

‘Thank you. You have both helped me very much.’ And with this tremendous gratitude, Salun left.

‘So what’s the real deal with this wife of Salun’s?’ José asked, baffled. ‘He’s gone absolutely bonkers for her.’

‘What wife? She’s obviously a whore!’ This fake flower deserved to be called out.

After receiving this letter, Salun left no stone unturned in finding extra work. By day he oversaw the shop, while at night he baked bread at a major bakery in town. With this backbreaking labour around the clock, he could only sleep from five to eight in the morning. A fortnight of this quickly wore him down. He lost a lot of weight. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair dirty and unkempt, his clothes ragged. But he became much more talkative. When he spoke, he was full of hope for the future. Yet somehow I knew that he was still suffering deeply in his heart of hearts.

Not long after that, I realised that he had quit smoking. ‘I must save every céntimo,’ he said. ‘Not smoking is no problem.’

‘Salun, you’ve been working so hard day and night. How much have you saved?’ I asked. It had been two months now, and he was already skin and bones.

‘Ten thousand. I saved ten thousand in two months. I am almost there. Don’t worry about me.’ His speech was incoherent from long bouts of sleep deprivation, his nerves weakened to the extreme.

I kept on wondering what sort of sorcery Saida had used to get a man, with whom she had spent only three days, to fall in love with her like this, unable to forget the bliss that she bestowed upon him.

More time passed. Salun was still going crazy, half living and half dead. Could a person keep this up until he died?

One night, in his exhaustion, Salun put his hands on the red hot metal of the bakery oven. Both hands suffered serious burns. He still worked in the shop during the day; his brother wouldn’t allow him to close up and rest.

I watched him at work, using both wrists to hold things for customers, rushing to and fro, getting one thing, knocking over another. When his older brother came in and looked on coldly, he grew even more nervous and scattered tomatoes all over the floor. While picking them up, he became distracted by the pain because his fingertips were swollen and filled with pus. Great big drops of sweat poured from him.

Poor Salun. When would he be able to free himself from this mad thirst for Saida? He seemed even more wretched than before.

Since burning his hands, Salun came over to my house each night so I could apply ointment before he went to work at the bakery. It was only in our home that he could indulge and reveal his innermost secrets. He had already completely forgotten about the setbacks Saida had dealt him before. If only he could save another peseta, he would draw that much closer to the happiness of his dreams.

One night when he came over as usual, we asked him to stay for dinner. He said it was inconvenient with his hands, so he might as well not eat.

‘I will be fine soon. My hands are starting to scab up. Maybe I can bake bread tonight. Saida, she…’ Once again he was back in that unchanging reverie. This time, José took pity and gently listened to Salun talk.

I had just brought out the cotton gauze to reapply ointment and dress his wounds. When I heard him bring up this tired old shtick again, a wave of disgust surged in my heart. ‘Saida, Saida, Saida,’ I said to Salun. ‘All you do is talk about her. Either you really don’t know or you’re pretending you don’t know that Sa–i–da–is–a–whore.

The words came tumbling out of my mouth. Th re was no way to take them back. José lifted his head abruptly and watched Salun. The entire room froze over in dead silence. I thought Salun might jump up and strangle me, but he didn’t. What I said was like a big stick that had struck him down. He slowly turned his head to gaze at me, looking as though he wanted to say something. But no words came out. I stared back into his scrawny, pitiful face.

There was no anger in his face. He lifted the two hands that had been burned to a pulp, looking at one, then the other. Tears streamed from his eyes. Without saying a word, he leapt up and stormed out, running into the dark wilderness.

‘Do you think he knows he’s been cheated?’ José asked me softly.

‘He’s known ever since the beginning. He just refused to snap out of it. He couldn’t help himself, so who would help him?’ I was certain about Salun’s feelings.

‘Saida bewitched him,’ José said.

‘Saida was able to bewitch him not just by fulfilling his lust. For Salun, her flesh and blood came to symbolise everything he lacks in life. What he wants is love, affection, family, warmth. When such a stiff and lonely young heart finds a bit of love, even the false kind, it’s no surprise that he would try to hold on to it at all costs.’

José said nothing. He turned out the lights and sat in the dark.


We thought Salun wouldn’t come back the next day, but he did show up. I changed the ointment on his hands and said, ‘Alright! This shouldn’t hurt any more when you bake bread tonight. Within a few days, the skin will have completely healed over.’

Salun was very calm and didn’t speak much. As he was leaving, he seemed like he wanted to say something but couldn’t. He suddenly spun around when he reached the door. ‘Thank you!’ he said.

I felt there was something strange going on. ‘No need to thank me,’ I replied. ‘Don’t go crazy again. Go on and get to work.’ He gave me an odd smile. My heart prickled when I closed the door. Something was definitely wrong: Salun never smiled.

The next day, I was opening the door to take out the rubbish when I came face to face with two police officers.

‘Are you Señora Quero?’

‘Yes, I am.’ Salun’s finally dead, I told myself.

‘There’s a Salun Hamid…’

‘He’s our friend,’ I said calmly.

‘Do you know of his whereabouts?’

‘His whereabouts?’ I asked.

‘Last night he fled after taking money from his brother’s store, as well as the income from the bakery…’

‘Oh…’ I hadn’t thought that Salun was capable of making this kind of decision.

‘Has he said anything strange recently?’ the policemen questioned me. ‘Or did he say he was going somewhere?’

‘No. If you knew Salun, you would know that he’s a man of few words.’

After the police officers left, I closed the door and went to take a nap.

‘How do you think Salun could bear leaving this desert?’ José asked me during dinner that evening. ‘These are the Sahrawi’s roots.’

‘Well, he can’t come home now. They’re looking for him everywhere.’

After dinner, we sat on the roof. There was no wind that night. José told me to light the lamp. Once it was lit, swarms of flying insects fluttered over, spinning incessantly around the light as though it were the one thing in life that they believed in. The two of us watched the flying insects.

‘What are you thinking about?’ José asked.

‘I was thinking that moths must truly be happiest when they throw themselves into the flame.’ ∎

Excerpted from Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao, translated by Mike Fu, copyright © 2020. Published by Bloomsbury USA. The original title of this essay is ‘Looking for Love’.