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Highlights from Sahara Unveiled (William Langewiesche)

I read this book and Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger simultaneously. Though they take place in different deserts, the people and environments are similar, but the authors are quite different. Thesiger was a romantic figure who lived among the Bedu and felt alienated from the changes that affected Europe and the modern world post World War II. Langewiesche is an American realist who sees no point in living anywhere but the present. Together they form a complementary picture: Thesiger of the desert that was lost, Langewiesche of the desert that exists today.[1] Below are my highlights from Langewiesche's book.

On nostalgia for the old desert

Do not regret the passing of the camel and the caravan. The Sahara has changed, but it remains a desert without compromise, the world in its extremes. There is no place as dry and hot and hostile. There are few places as huge and as wild. You will not diminish it by admitting that its inhabitants can drive, and that they are neither wiser nor purer nor stronger than you. It is fairer to judge them squarely as modern people and your equals. They were born by chance in a hard land, at a hard time in its history. You will do them no justice by pretending otherwise. Do not worry that their world, or yours, has grown too small. Despite its road, its televisions, the Sahara remains unsubdued.

On avoiding danger

Foreigners, too, were at risk. Some had been attacked and had their throats cut. I was not worried, since I did not intend to stay long, and I have learned to walk purposefully on hostile streets, to keep moving, and never to ask directions. Morever today, for once, I knew the way.

The Arab conquest of North Africa

In that sense the word “Berber” still expresses a common European attitude toward North Africans, though “Arab” is more commonly used. But the Arabs are if anything overcivilized. Inspired by Mohammed’s teachings, their armies came to North Africa from the Middle East in the seventh century A.D. and didn’t stay long. When the soldiers left, their followers remained behind as merchants and missionaries. They began to trade south into the Sahara. They interbred with the Berbers, and taught them a new philosophy and religion, and the language to understand it. Over the following centuries this potent combination spread into every corner of the wilderness, replacing the original Berber tradition. North Africa did not surrender to the Arabs, but was persuaded by them, and underwent a collective change of mind. The most determined holdouts were these tough mountain herders of the north and the even tougher Tuaregs of the central Sahara, a Berber people also originally from the north, who to this day have retained their Berber customs and language. But they, too, converted to Islam.

The varieties of riverbeds

Dry riverbeds are the most important feature of any desert, and they have many names. Within the United States alone, depending on the region, they are called washes, gulches, gullies, creeks, coulees, and arroyos. To see a desert clearly it helps to apply the local term. In the Sahara the term is oued, which is Arabic for “river.” Wadi is used farther east. Everywhere, it is understood that the rivers are dry.

Everyone suffers in the desert

The human animal is the most adaptable of all species, and the most successful in the desert, but it cannot stand to be overheated. The body requires about ten days to get used to the extremes of the desert climate, makes small adjustments, which allow it to dissipate heat more easily, but it never learns to conserve water. Of course, some people can just naturally stand the heat better than others. Because human cooling works by sweat, it works best on people with a lot of skin in proportion to their weight—people who are short and skinny. But there is no such physical type as a desert rat. Saharans are born small, but also tall and fat. Visitors are as comfortable after ten days as after ten generations. During the summer when the afternoon air sears your lungs, Saharans feel the pain as well, and complain frequently about the weather.

On Ralpha A. Bagnold

This was the landscape that inspired British officer Ralph A. Bagnold, history’s closest observer of Saharan sands. Bagnold was an English gentleman of the old school. He fought in the trenches of Flanders during World War I, then earned an honors degree in engineering from Cambridge, and later reenlisted in the British Army for overseas assignment. While stationed in Egypt and India between 1929 and 1934, he led expeditions in modified Fords to explore the sand seas of Libya. These were big places in need of understanding. One erg alone was the size of all France.

Bagnold had a strong and inquiring mind. He marveled at the desert’s patterns, saw magic in the dunes, and wanted it all explained. To his surprise, he found that scientific knowledge was as yet merely descriptive: dune shapes had been catalogued, but little was understood about the processes involved in their formation. Bagnold set out to understand for himself. In 1935 he went back to England, retired from the army, hammered together a personal wind tunnel, and began a series of meticulous experiments with blown sand. He considered himself to be a dabbler, a tinkerer, an amateur scientist. But his research resulted in the publication, in 1941, of a small masterpiece of scientific exploration: The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes. It was a treatment so rigorous, and so pleasantly written, that it remains the standard today. Throughout it, Bagnold never lost his wonder. He wrote:

Here, instead of finding chaos and disorder, the observer never fails to be amazed at a simplicity of form, an exactitude of repetition and a geometric order unknown in nature on a scale larger than that of crystalline structure. In places vast accumulatinos of sand weighing millions of tons move inexorably, in regular formation, over the surface of the country, growing, retaining their shape, even breeding, in a manner which, by its grotesque imitation of life, is vaguely disturbing to the imaginative mind.

Bagnold’s genius was his ability to think grain by grain. He defined sand as a rock particle small enough to be moved by the wind, yet not so small that, like dust, it can float indefinitely in suspension—and he proceeded from there, exploring the movement of each grain. He did his best work on that level, in a laboratory far from the desert. But he was never a tedious man. He understood the power of multiplication. And when he returned to the Sahara, and stood as I did on the crests of the great ergs, he found in these accumulations his truest companions. Just before his death, in May 1990, he wrote a short memoir—an unintentionally sad remembrance of a strong life. He wrote about two world wars, about great men he had known, and about his beloved family. But again he wrote best about the sand. Bagnold’s health was declining. It is a measure of the man that when he described the dunes’ ability to heal themselve, his writing remained free of longing.

I'm not sure whether it is because of something cultural or just because most of the sources I've read are in English, but the British Empire has a phenomenal cast of characters like Ralph A. Bagnold who led interesting lives. It must be partly cultural, since it is hard to think of any US State Department officials of similar quality, George Kennan perhaps being the exception who proves the rule.

A near fatal stranding

They had drunk most of the radiator water before Lag Lag had his inspiration. It occurred to him that the truck’s tanks might still hold dregs of diesel fuel, and that he might add engine oil to form a combustible mixture. Having passed from tears to hopelessness, his assistant refused to move from under the truck. Lag Lag ignored him, and drained as much oil as he dared from the engine before pouring it into the tank. He climbed into the cab, cycled the glow plug, and pressed the starter. The engine turned over reluctantly, but after several attempts rumbled to life. The assitant scrambled aboard. Spewing dense blue smoke, the truck rolled forward.

After a few miles they came to a rutted track. With no idea where they were, or where the track led, they followed it. Because they had drunk most of the coolant, the engine overheated and seized. But the desert spared them: a refrigereated van appeared in the distance, shimmering in the heat, and drove up the track to them, carrying water, fresh meat, and vegetables. It was driven by a friend. He broke the seal on the back and they built a fire. Lag Lag and his assistant drank and feasted. The specialists would say they rehydrated.

How nomads navigate the desert

These are the skills of the nomad, and they require an encyclopedic knowledge of the land and stars. An old Saharan explained it to me this way: “Yes, by the stars at night. In daylight, by local knowledge of the desert—this soil, this tree, this ruin, these tracks, these shadows before sunset. It is passed down from father to son, and spoken of among friends.” We were discussing the way across a thousand miles of open desert, where a compass is of little help, and mistakes are all the more dangerous because they are not obvious at first.

On the Tuaregs

The Tuaregs invaded the central Sahara from the north perhaps 3,500 years ago, and eventually established a nomadic existence based on the camel and the goat. Converted to a nominal form of Islam during the Middle Ages, they were known for the autonomy of their women, and more generally for the fierceness with which they clung to their ancient traditions. The Hoggar Mountains stood like a fortress at the center of their territory, which stretched for a thousand miles through the core of the desert. The land was wild and utterly poor, but it occupied a strategic position between the rich civilizations of black Africa and the Mediterranean. The Tuaregs survived by taking advantage of the trade that crossed it. Their isolation was a facade.

Why the camel, not the horse triumphed in the Middle East and North Africa

In fact the Arabian camel was so successful that in time it supplanted horses and ox-drawn wagons throughout most of the Middle East and North Africa. Across a wide swath of the earth, it replaced the wheel. In his pioneering exploration of this subject, The Camel and the Wheel (Harvard Press, 1975), Columbia historian Richard W. Bulliet explained why. He wrote that a camel can carry nearly as much as a wagon, but breaks down less often. A wagon is pulled by two oxen and requires a driver. Worse yet, a wagon rolls on wheels, which require roads, which must be built and then maintained. Pack camels walk in strings, on paths or open ground. They climb mountains, cross sand dunes, progress thirty miles a day, eat sparingly, drink deeply, don’t fear the dark, respond to whippings, and live long lives. They can’t offer riders the speed and impact of a battle horse, but then battle horses can’t stand the hard desert. And camels do gallop.

The wheel was already in decline. On the fringes of the Roman Empire the roads were not being well maintained. And since chariots had been surpassed in war by mounted horsemen, the wheel lost its luster. Nonetheless, only in the land of the camel did the wheel actually disappear. With few exceptions, the Middle East and North Africa became wheel-less societies. The banishment was so complete that in some of the Saharan oases even the memory of the wheel was lost.

The decline of raiding

It is said that by imposing the rule of a foreign law, and forbidding the old business of raiding, they strangled the Tuaregs. But the truth is that the world outside had changed anyway, and cargo ships, trains, and trucks had killed the caravan trade. In the central Sahara there was nothing left to raid—a dry desert had become even drier. The French could not keep these changes from happening, but they could protect the Tuaregs from facing the consequences. As colonial masters, the French were sincere and well intentioned. They thought they should help the Tuaregs to maintain their nomadic ways. They encouraged the Tuaregs to indulge in a way of life that became a fiction.

It was a fiction dreamed up in Europe. The French did not choose the desert by default, as is sometimes said. They were a densely civilized people, frustrated then as now by the competence and rigidity of their society. The Sahara was everything that France was not: big, clean, wild, dry, hot, hostile, and empty. It was uncivilized. It gave the French the escape they badly needed, a land that was empty and untouched and already so barren that it could not be spoiled, an especially pure sort of wilderness. There was no need even to go there; for ordinary French citizens, enclosed by all the refinements of their civilization, it was enough to have established this claim on the greatest open space on earth.

On why Europeans were attracted to the desert

The soldiers and civilians sent to rule the Sahara prided themselves not on what they did to the desert but on what it did to them. They were malcontents, ethnologists, and adventurers—not missionaries. The Sahara was their refuge.

The desert is becoming even less inhabitable

In the past decades, the pluviometric limit of six inches of annual rainfall—the minimum for grazing—has moved south sixty miles. Nouakchott, once surrounded by grasslands, is now swept by blowing sand.

A Frenchman who was determined to see Timbuktu

Caillé left Africa, and returned in 1824 determined not only to reach Timbuktu, but to reach it alone. The trick would be to pass quietly, drawing as little attention to himself as possible. This meant that he would have to pose as a Muslim. In preparation, he went to live among the Moors of Mauritania, seeking religious instruction, and learning Arabic, the Koran, and Islamic ritual. Afterward he worked for the British at an indigo factory in Freetown, Sierra Leone. After saving up 2,000 francs, he decided the time had come.

Caillé was the freest of men. He lived unrestrained by a proper upbringing, unrestricted by family or friendship, unconcerned with his dignity or comfort, and unafraid of dying. His plan was simple. Carrying an umbrella and a few pounds of trading goods, he would approach his goal from the west, secretly taking notes in the Koran that he carried, explaining his “strangeness” by presenting himself as an Egyptian captured as a boy by the cruel French, freed finally in West Africa, wishing only to go home, via the great Islamic city of Timbuktu.

Caillé reminded me of the various Europeans who attempted to reach Lhasa, Tibet, a similarly mythologized city, that was a disappointment to those who eventually made it there. Peter Hopkirk wrote an excellent book, Trespassers on the Roof of the World, which tells that story.

  1. Well, not quite today, since Sahara Unveiled was published in 1997, and the desert has undoubtedly undergone another change as cell phones and instantaneous communication have reshaped the world. ↩︎