Michael Asher: A Desert Dies

September 5, 2013

This is one of the saddest books I’ve read in a long time. I’m old enough to remember the news stories about famine in the Sudan from the 1980s, and Asher tells the inside story with real people: this got through to me in a completely different way from the awful TV pictures.

Asher spent years living in and learning about the Sudan, its desert tribes and their way of life and customs, and he participates fully in their travels, describing in detail, and with sensitivity and sympathy, but, more importantly, without romanticising the desert people; though he can understand and take part, he knows he can never be one of them.

But he does also explain very clearly how the desert nomad way of life inevitably came to an end. Technology and change impinges on everywhere in the end, and the climate is also merciless: I finally understand what it means when ‘the rains fail’, and how people can be reduced to destitution and worse. A complex ecosystem that enabled people to live in some of the harshest conditions on the planet disintegrates in a few years and can never be put back together: this is the tragedy that Asher participates in and enables the reader to feel, as peoples’ pride, dignity, and eventually lives are lost.

As I’ve read his three books about the desert (not in chronological order) Asher has gone up in my estimation – for what that’s worth – and I really do think that he is on a par with Thesiger and other, earlier desert explorers.

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