The popular image of an oasis is a romantic picture – waving palms beside a crystal-clear pool where nomads replenish their water supplies before moving on. It is an idyllic but not entirely true vision, for some oasis, such as Ouled Said in Algeria, have long had permanent farming communities.
With its groves of palm trees and plots of vegetables; Ouled Said is a beautiful place, where the women’s robes add splashes of colour to streets lined with red, mud-built houses. There, great dunes rise like the waves of a rolling sea of sand, and the relentless sun raises the summer daytime temperature to 49°C (120°F) or more.
A traveller stranded without shade or water would die of heat stroke and dehydration within 48 hours. The people who have settled in Ouled Said are mostly market gardeners.
They cultivate plots of irrigated land, growing vegetables, grapes, figs, peaches and oranges, and the desert’s most treasured crop, the date palm. Within the palm groves, pillars still mark the site of the ancient slave market, whose hapless merchandise once toiles to create the irrigation channels, or Foggarts, that bring about all this fertility. The Foggaras tap water is held underground in a vast sandy ‘sponge’, up to 6000ft (1800m) thick in places.
The date palm, it is said, likes to stand with its head in fire and its importance is treated with reverence, and almost as a near relative. It is also the subject of myths and legends. One legend about the date palm says that Allah made the tree from clay after he had created Adam. Another claims that after Adam had been driven out of Paradise, God commanded him to cut his hair and nails and bury them, whereupon a tree grew bearing a juicy fruit.