Book Talk: Eamonn Gearon tackles "mysterious" Sahara

Thu Jul 12, 2012 8:38am EDT
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By Tom Pfeiffer

CAIRO (Reuters) - Outsiders traversed the Sahara's expanses in the imagination long before the first European explorers ventured into the desert's uncharted interior.

Now war, banditry and an al Qaeda offshoot threaten tourism and could leave a region bigger than Australia off limits again, wiping out income for its nomadic inhabitants.

Author and analyst Eamonn Gearon wandered the Sahara for years, often on the back of a camel, before he wrote "The Sahara: A Cultural History", a book that dispels myriad myths about a place and people long caricatured by clueless foreigners.

Q: What surprised you most in your research?

A: The history of the Sahara is replete with examples of major civilizations, empires that disappeared because their water dried up... There are only 4 million native inhabitants of the desert proper but throughout history the Sahara has been seen as a place of outlaws and rebels. In Roman times, it was where tax evaders would hide out. Egyptians saw it as the land of the dead, a hideout for bandits who would rob the tombs on the west bank of the Nile. It is a common theme going down the centuries... The Tuareg rebellions in Mali, Algeria and elsewhere were driven by Saharan peoples overlooked by authority but still leaned upon to pay their dues and fall into line... These people are, if not overtly abused, completely ignored.

A lot of Europeans who travelled there either in disguise or dressed as Europeans were murdered by their own guides. So for sure, I am not trying to paint some picture of an Elysian Fields in the middle of the desert. It is not paradise by any means.

What is true of Saharan people is their self-sufficiency. What characterizes them most is their absolute and unqualified hospitality. If they come across someone in the desert, they have the obligation to feed and water you for three days before even asking your name. You offer such information as you wish.

Q: Is the nomadic lifestyle on the decline?   Continued...