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Field Notes
Morell
Photograph by Mark Thiessen
Virginia Morell

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

Before joining the Afar salt caravan, we were invited to a wedding in the village of Asso Bollo. It was far different from any wedding I've ever attended: The bride wasn't present. She was in her village about 20 miles (32 kilometers) away, and the ceremony was to celebrate the groom's return from consummating their marriage.

All the villagers dressed in their finest regalia: the women with finely braided coiffures, gold jewelry, and red-and-black shawls; the men in short-sleeve button-down shirts and patterned sarongs. When the groom ran into the village after his nuptials, the women broke into high-pitched ululations, and the men beat drums and fired their Kalashnikovs. Later, we all joined in their ke-ke dance, the dance of love, which lasted far into the night.

We didn't stay for the whole party but slept under the stars, rolled up in light blankets on top of palm-thatch carpets. When the moon came out, someone shouted that a caravan had arrived. We jumped up and ran to the edge of the village. There below us, slowly moving down the Saba River, was the first Afar caravan we'd seen (they'd stopped for Ramadan). I've never forgotten the scene: the moonlight on the camels, the sound of their feet splashing through the river, and the rhythmic drums and songs of love in the distance.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

We traveled to the Afar 15 months after the attacks of September 11. Of course, we knew the Afar were Muslim. Nevertheless, I was completely unprepared to find many of the men sporting T-shirts with Osama bin Laden's image. He was regarded as a hero throughout the Danakil Desert, and many male babies were being given his name. Once, a policeman who'd been assigned to protect us unbuttoned his jacket: There it was, the Osama bin Laden T-shirt.

All of this left us feeling very strange, never sure if people understood that I was an American and might feel threatened by their hero worship. I finally screwed up my courage and asked our Afar guide, Edris. His explanation was simple: Osama had accomplished a great thing. He'd successfully attacked a great Satan on Allah's behalf, and so, of course, he was a hero. That was all there was to it. There was nothing for me to worry about, he added. Their regard for bin Laden didn't translate to hostility against me or my country.

Still, photographer Carsten Peter and I felt uneasy. Sometimes, listening to the young boys in the larger towns chanting verses from the Koran at night, we wondered what they were really being taught.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

We had to drive cross-country through the desert to reach some hot springs near the town of Dubti. Along the way, we spotted a young Afar man, probably in his mid-teens. He was walking briskly, his Kalashnikov balanced across his shoulders. He was bare-chested but had a loaded ammo-belt strapped around his waist. The hot springs are contested territory between the Afar and Issa Somali, and he was prepared. We stopped to talk, and when we discovered he was going the same direction in search of a lost camel, we offered him a ride.

Through our translator Sa'da, we learned that this fellow's name was Mohammed. He sported a beautiful coiffure: a full head of long black curls glistening with sheep butter—an indication to Sa'da that he had reached the "age of fire"— when a young man's interest in the opposite sex suddenly peaks. We were impressed by his elaborate curls and asked how he made them. Without hesitation, he pulled the cleaning rod from his Kalashnikov. Each curl had been lovingly wrapped around it, then carefully buttered to stay in place. He demonstrated on my long tresses, gently separating one strand and winding it tightly around his cleaning rod, the Afar curling iron. It made a good curl, too, but I declined the butter.

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