Posts Tagged ‘Sahara desert’

Sanmao: Stories of the Sahara

September 21, 2020

91Xc988sUGL._AC_UL320_      This book came with three strong recommendations – from a fellow blogger, from a former student, and the very fact that it had ‘Sahara’ in the title: I’ll go for anything that’s about deserts.

It was very different from what I’d expected. Sanmao was a young Taiwanese woman in a relationship with a Spanish man (eventually married to him) working in the phosphate mines which were the mainstay of the economy of what was the Spanish Sahara in the 1970s. She was fascinated by deserts and wanted to live in one, and these stories are about various aspects of their lives in the colony, in the years running up to the independence struggle and eventual annexation by Morocco. So there’s not a lot of actual travel in the Sahara, but a lot of detail about life there.

Sanmao observes and records just how different life is for the Sahrawi people from that of relatively wealthy and educated Westerners. She feels great sympathy with their difficult lives (especially the lives of the women), respecting local customs and behaviour and tending to remain silent at times when they behave in ways which appal her: there is a sensitivity to a culture of which she is not a part and which she is conscious she may not fully understand. She shares her misgivings with her readers.

At times she seems quite laconic in her attitude, necessarily distant in so many ways from the people she lives among, yet though the series of stories we do sense he involvement with them, a bond and an empathy with people. Though not overtly feminist, she stands up for the Sahrawi women in ways in which she can, attempting to set up a school for them, and, of course, as a woman herself she is granted insights into local life, culture and traditions which no man could access. There are times when both she and her husband seem incredibly naive in their approach to the world of the desert and its people. I got a sense of just how different a culture and a place can be from what one is used to…

The stories are short chapters, often merely tantalising glimpses of a different world. Sanmao’s love of the desert is a simple one. And yet, she is also capable of very powerful and moving accounts, particularly later on, when insurgency and warfare directly impinge on her life and on the people she is closest to. The violence and brutality are horrifying and she is unable to help or save any of her three local friends. And the narrative of her encounter with slavery was truly shocking. For her it was a cultural shock which she did not really understand and clearly could not accept, and the power of the writing came from the very powerlessness she experienced in that situation.

It was a surprise that such a different and moving relation of encounters with the Sahara and its people had taken so long to be translated into English, and I do hope it’s widely read: I certainly recommend it.

James Wellard: The Great Sahara

August 11, 2018

51-uNw-CF8L._AC_US218_I’ve read a good number of accounts of travel through the Sahara Desert, but hadn’t come across very much at all concerning he history of the region until I found this in a second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh recently and snapped it up for that very reason. There are so many myths and inaccuracies about the desert that have been perpetuated because of our West-centred perspective on everything; no surprise there, then…

The Sahara region was well-populated and inhabited in prehistoric times. I learned rather more about the Carthaginians and their influence than I had in my Roman history course at school, and I was also astonished to discover the extent of Roman achievements in North Africa, which was, after all, their backyard as well as their bread-basket. The efficiency of the Roman army allowed a single legion to pacify and control vast areas for several centuries; Roman engineering focused on attempts to capture, retain and usefully use, the little rainfall which fell, and with a good measure of success. There are still whole towns and cities in ruins, preserved under the sands, unknown, unexplored and unexcavated, such was the extent of Roman penetration, unparalleled since. Nothing has been as well managed since the Arab invaders of the seventh century swept in…

Wellard is very detailed on the slave trade which existed for centuries, but it is evident that there is little detail or information available between the end of Roman occupation and the eighteenth century, when Europeans began to take an imperialist interest in the continent again. Surprisingly, he places little confidence in Arab travellers such as Ibn Battutah and Leo Africanus, who have quite a lot to say. Western interests began with exploration and a fascination with reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu, which usually proved (i) a disappointment and (ii) fatal…

The book dated from the 1960s, and at times the prejudices of those times show; the author has a fairly jaundiced picture to paint of contemporary Arab life, religion, sexuality and poverty; sadly Western interference and colonialism means there is a certain amount of truth in some of his observations; local geography, and social and religious attitudes also contribute. But what came across most strongly to me was the uniqueness of the Roman civilising enterprise, which even the French in their control of most of the region for a century or more came nowhere near matching.

The author – of whom I’d never heard before – is evidently well-travelled and highly knowledgeable about the entire region, and provides an excellent (though now dated) and annotated bibliography; it’s a pity that the end-wrapper map is so cursory and the only one in the book…

R A Bagnold: Libyan Sands

June 22, 2016

41C2r-8YDZL._AC_US160_I’ve had this book on my ‘wanted’ list for several years, and finally came across a secondhand copy unexpectedly. It’s a classic of desert exploration, and set in my favourite desert, the Sahara.

A groups of British army officers in the late 1920s and early 1930s really do not seem to have much official work to do and appear to be allowed sizeable amounts of time to mount expeditions to explore and map large areas of the desert, in Egypt and the Sudan and towards the Libyan border (Libya being an Italian colony at the time). The group varies in composition over the years and the various expeditions recounted, but Bagnold was always a member.

A particularly fascinating aspect of their travels is that they were the first to explore the Sahara in cars, initially using Fords which they had bought themselves, and when you see some of the photographs of the vehicles, you do wonder how they ever managed with such primitive-seeming transport – we are in days long before the Land Rover and such all-terrain vehicles. So they are not only exploring uncharted terrain, but are also experimenting to see just what cars are capable of achieving in places where there are literally no roads, only sand; they discover the different kinds of sand and how navigable they are, and how to excavate their bogged-down cars, too. They learn how to create fuel and food dumps to allow them to extend the range of their travels; they camp out in the desert; they encounter native tribes; they create real maps of vast areas of desert out of vague sketches, rumours and hearsay.

It’s fascinating, in a low-key sort of way, if you see what I mean, and clearly their logistical skills as army officers stood them in very good stead in terms of making a success of a number of expeditions; they had also been involved in the Middle East during the First World War, so did have some familiarity with and understanding of what they faced.

There are some maps accompanying the text but they are not very well-reproduced, sadly, and are not as helpful as I would have liked in terms of following the various journeys. This often seems to be the case with travel classics that are rediscovered and republished: the high-quality maps that came with the original editions are far too expensive to reproduced and so are either omitted or crudely copied.

When you have read a fair bit about Western explorations of such areas and terrain as I have over a number of years, it’s very gratifying to see the various pieces of the jigsaw coming together over time and place, and the knowledge and description of the area being completed. It’s also useful to remember that this knowledge and discovery is Western, to be seen in terms of control, and for future reference – for example the desert campaigns of the Second World War. The knowledge and understanding of the terrain, the track, trails, oases and what else it contains, of the local inhabitants was something completely different, known for centuries and suited to their very different needs. Nothing is value-neutral.

Philippe Bourseiller: Call of the Desert

November 25, 2015

51FPEHDBV6L._AA160_This is a wonderful book to browse during an English winter! It’s a series of essays about various aspects of the Sahara desert, illustrated by hundreds of stunning photographs.

I’ve thought long and hard about why I’m so fascinated by deserts, but haven’t really come up with a clear answer. I’ve been to Britain’s only desert and loved it (where? answer at the end); in my student-day travels I suppose I got close to the edges of the Sahara: a friend and I spent a day at Volubilis, a ruined Roman city in the Moroccan desert. The city was stunning, the ruins wonderfully preserved, there was plenty of sand and it was unspeakably hot… when we got back to where we were staying, we were told that it had probably hit 50 degrees out there… I have always preferred the warmth and sun of summer to any other season, as I feel more comfortable and more energetic and more alive generally; in the depths of winter, I fantasise about emigrating to the Sahara…

The photographs show simple landscapes, stark landscapes, weird shapes of rock and sand, incredible contrasts of light and dark, beautiful colours. There’s a romance about them, that I know logically I wouldn’t necessarily feel if I were actually out there, but the sense of the unknown, alien even, is captivating, breathtaking.

As I browsed, I found myself thinking, “I wish I could take photos like that!” (photography is the only creative art, after writing, that I practise). Then I thought that, actually, in such an environment, one would just need to point one’s camera and shoot: one would be guaranteed a stunning image, and at home it could be cropped until perfect. You just need to be somewhere out of the ordinary, exotic. But then I looked carefully at the credits: photos shot with a Leica, using film stock…you get out what you put in. Eat your heart out, National Geographic, I thought.

The book (originally a French production) is beautiful, and very thoughtfully put together. Because the photos are the thing, there are no page numbers and no captions on the pages: just photos. And what a difference this makes – no borders, the image is all you get on the page. So, at the end of the book, there are thumbnails of every page, with not just captions, but a rather more detailed commentary and explanation. And the printing is superb, too.

(Dungeness, on the Kent coast, if you didn’t already know.)

Michael Asher: Impossible Journey

June 28, 2013

After reading his first book (see recent post) I hunted down this his third – straight away. It’s the story of his journey across the Sahara from West to East, Mauritania to Egypt, with his wife, by camel, and, to my mind, confirmed him on a par with Thesiger and other desert explorers. This was clearly a very arduous and dangerous journey, undertaken for the love of travel, and getting to know the peoples whose lands he passed through. I was also pleased that there was a decent, useful map to track his travels – so often this is skimped or or omitted from travel books.

They travelled with a number of different guides – clearly only a madman would travel without a local guide, though they did for a short distance – and it was interesting to see how differently they behaved. The authorities in each of the countries through which they passed provided their own challenges, and Asher recounts the changing face of desert travel and desert life, with the advent of the car and the truck, and the arrival of Westerners out for a quick dash in a vehicle across some desert, of which they necessarily must observe very little.

Personally, I found the relationship between Asher and his wife tended to get in the way of the travel and description at times, but that’s probably rather harsh on my part, as they did travel together.

What’s so compelling about deserts? Vast open spaces, inhospitable spaces, spaces where the individual is forced to confront every aspect of her/himself, places clearly of great beauty – though it’s interesting that the local inhabitants do not recognise this! – places with history. Shelley’s Ozymandias…

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