Disfeaturing frontiers

Al Ahram Weekly

Gamal Nkrumah

Disfeaturing frontiers

Gamal Nkrumah interviews Eamonn Gearon about how Europeans projected the Sahara at their peril, and pleasure

There are fleeting moments when Eamonn Gearon, author of The Sahara: A Cultural History, is truly squashing the kind of emotions that most of this genre of works aim to expose. And, in these moments the sandstorms can be quite stirring.

Click to view caption
Tuareg tribesmen and their livelihood

The pretty Tuareg girl with her beautiful black eyes upturned, is the very nemesis of the tortured souls of malnourished children in war-torn zones. The political obstacles to the Sahara’s prosperity are formidable. An in-depth seminal work on the Sahara would expose the political machinations behind the poverty of the Sahara’s five million people that exploit public trust in the powers that be. Protecting the exploitative mining companies and militiamen, however, only prolongs the problems.

This is the first locus amoenus in the African tradition and the visual genius of the artists, travel writers, novelists and film-makers who depicted the Sahara of our imagination. It was a remarkably romanticised picture, far removed from the sordid realities of the Sahara.

The key dysfunction of the Sahara, however, is addressed in detail. The wild expanses that spread out as if for eternity are alluring, even today when contemporary writers adopt a less quixotic approach.

“I regret to say that an entire chapter on music, for instance, was cut out. These were deep and painful cuts for me personally. I had described in detail and undergone extensive research work on the different Saharan cultures,” Gearon laments. “About half of my life was spent in the Middle East and North Africa. My father was here in Egypt with the British Army in 1957. I was born in 1970. I had heard him as a child describing Egypt and the desert. I was fascinated by his stories and therefore I dedicated this work to my late father,” Gearon muses.

“I went into the desert, the Sahara, with three camels. I came to appreciate these hardy and curious creatures. Mine were called Osama, Baby and Ibn Kalb,” he smiles tongue-in-cheek.

Camels are indefatigable. They retain water and fat in their hump and so can live for days, even weeks, without drinking or eating. Gearon’s work is absorbing. It is neither auditory appeal nor accolade, tribute or elegiac praise of a particular people of the Sahara, whether the Tuareg, Toubou, or even the ancient Garamantines. If the author dares he can take bold steps into the Great unknown. He loves the land with an insuppressible, unsurpassible passion.

“Mind you, the Sahara has never been a barrier, rather I regard it like something more akin to a bridge. I fell ill, and traveled to Siwa to recuperate and lived in the westernmost oasis of Egypt for 18 months. I fell in love with Siwa and the Sahara of my childhood dreams,” Gearon remembers. “Then I returned to Cairo to teach English at the American University in Cairo.

Conspicuously absent from the work is the legendary Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine who does not get a mention. Chahine’s 1954 seminal Shaytan Al-Sahraa or Devil of the Sahara starring Tawfik El-Dikn, Riyad El-Kasabgy and Mariam Fakhr El-Din are nowhere to be found as I apprehensively flick through the pages of Sahara.

Similarly Naguib Mahfouz’s references to the Sahara in his novels are neglected, and so are those of Morocco’s Mohamed Ben Brahim.

Nevertheless, the referendum in Sudan that led to the independence of South Sudan in July 2011 features, albeit fleetingly, in Gearon’s The Sahara: A Cultural History. When will peace among the Saharan warring protagonists, those veiled men and ululating women, shift the focus of the desert dwellers to economic growth and investment? One asks rhetorically.

Over the past few months, tumultuous events in Mali have hit the headlines. The Sahara was the playground, so to speak, of the slain late leader of Libya Muaamar Gaddafi. He ventured in Chad, then Niger and Mali, and his tentacles stretched from Sudan to the Western Sahara and Senegal.

In Mali’s Saharan wastelands, Gaddafi supported the ethnic Tuareg tribesmen for the establishment of a secularist ethnic nationalist agenda. There they were pitted against a motley of quasi-religious and militant Islamist forces yearning to prepare the ground for the founding of a religious state, a theocracy governed by Islamic Sharia law and the Holy Quran. Intervention, or the threat of it, was the bargaining chip of Gaddafi and his hardened desert brigades.

In the Sahara there has been since time immemorial little at stake and even less time to lose. Gearon does not delve too deeply into the nitty-gritty of the political intrigue of the warring Saharan tribal groupings.

Antoine de Saint-Exup³©ry’s The Little Prince, 1943, the novella translated into more languages than any other work written in the French language.

The Tuareg people take pride in their culture of hard, back-breaking work and entrepreneurialism, and are not averse to comparing themselves favourably with those they regard as the more feckless inhabitants of the sprawling Sahara.

The novella was inspired by the author, an accomplished aviator’s, attempt to break the speed record. Both pilot and co-pilot survived the crash that took place in Wadi Natroun, Egypt’s historic depression where Christian Orthodox monasteries were first constructed. He briefly reviews the lives of the Desert Fathers, the world’s first Christian monks.

Lost in the desert for four days before Bedouins found them in a sorry state of dehydration and exhaustion, he picks up the story again.

The Sahara has inspired poems, novels and films as well as visual artworks, photographic interpretations and musical renditions of haunting beauty. “Postal routes across the Sahara were a fascinating escapade, an adventure, a joy,” Gearon sighs in relief, as if he relives the past.

The English Patient, exploring the desert conduct of World War II, was a box-office hit. “The common enemy was the desert itself,” Gearon cocks his head.

Humphrey Bogart’s best-selling film, Sahara, released in 1943, filmed in the Libyan Desert during World War II, just after the battle of El Alamein.

Gearon has always felt his way into Africa the deep recesses of the continent’s, and the world’s, greatest wilderness. Although it was later in life that he ventured into its wastelands.

Just when you thought it was safe to traverse the wastes of the Sahara, it turns out that another sandstorm is gathering on the Saharan horizon.

Then there was the iconic Marlene Dietrich in her memorable role in The Garden of Allah.

The Sahara was once upon a time lush and verdant. The conversation veers towards Beau Geste French Foreign Legion in Algeria, English scriptwriter, desolation and all.

“The Sahara has the power to inspire,” Gearon remarks laconically. The Mummy, the 1932 classic, in the ancient “Land of the Dead”, not to be confused with the 1999 film The Mummy.

Paul Bowles 1910-1999, arrived in Morocco like numerous Europeans of his time, they were cultural orphans. It was the immediate post-World War II and Europe was devastated and they were in search of the exotic,” Gearon notes.

“The turmoil taking place across Africa, the Sahelian and Saharan areas are no exceptions. The political chaos, coup d’etats and mayhem. In a sense these are a direct result of the Arab Spring,” Gearon elucidates.

A solution has been on the table when most Sub-Saharan countries gained independence from France in 1960. That is one way to earn tribal trust. The slain Libyan leader, the late Muammar Gaddafi is mentioned in passing. Gearon evades delving too deeply into the intricacies and intrigue of the various Saharan nations. The cruel paradox bedeviling the Sahara has survived Gaddafi and his tribal allies.

While acknowledging the crisis of political legitimacy, the peoples of the Sahara are searching for solutions to their problems. The Tuareg of northern Mali have established rival authorities — one secular the other religious — in the heart of the Sahara and named the country Azawad.

This is not the first time such steps have been suggested. The tribes of the Sahara are restless, but then they have always been. But if reform is painless then it is not likely to have achieved much. No other Saharan country has recognised Azawad. Algeria, Libya, Mali and Niger have their own Tuareg minorities and they will not support an independent political entity especially created for the ethnic Tuareg in Mali.

This latest controversy should be a spur to address these and other failings. Of the indigenous peoples of the Sahara, each of them claim it as their own. Most claim to be indigenous aboriginal peoples. But the Blue Men of the Sahara, the Veiled Men of the Tuareg have historically been the most visible of the all, in verse and in the movies.

Gearon is acutely aware of the paradoxes of the Sahara and its peoples. “The reality of life in the Sahara is very different from fiction and film,” Gearon extrapolates. “One just has to experience or witness the tragic realities of life in the Tindouf Refugee Camp, in western Algeria’s Sahara,” he adds.

The author devotes considerable attention to Arabic historical records of the Sahara. Timbuktu, an euphemism for the ends of the earth, an epithet of fabulous wealth, with priceless manuscripts detailing the fascinating history and cultural heritage of the city and its vicinity is now threatened with destruction by civil wars.

With the Arab conquest of the Sahara came a literary civilisation, but also at times of political crisis and despite tribal leaders with innate political acumen, catastrophic social upheavals.

“Although the practical destruction wrought by the Hilalian invasion was wholly negative, it opened up the region to outside influences that would prove crucial in future Saharan development. The invasion also spawned an oral epic that remains a classic of Arabic poetry. The Tashribat Bani Hilal is a fictionalised account of the Hillalian invasion that recounts the journey of the Banu Hilal from Cairo to Tunisia, in search of new pastures. The tale, like all oral traditions, evolved over time, growing in each retelling and watered both by the imagination of those reciting the tale and the urgings of audiences. Still recited by storytellers in Cairo and Algiers today, the poem was declared in 2003 by UNESCO to be a ‘Masterpiece of Mankind’ and now features in the organisation’s Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity scheme,” Gearon extrapolates in considerable detail.

“So while contemporary writers spoke of the Hillalian invasion as being like the end of the world, 1,000 years later the story of that invasion is reckoned to be a creative work of global consequence,” Gearon enucleates.

“The Moroccans were disappointed with what they found as booty was largely absent. Long gone, the gold trade that had spread far beyond the Sahara dwindled, and so too was ended the great university complex, leaving Timbuktu a shadow of itself, a dusty desert town and a legend,” he adds drawing on historical records.

“Twenty years before Ibn Battuta’s visit to Mali, the author of one of the world’s greatest books was born in Tunis. Abu Zaid Abdul-Rahman Ibn Khaldun, was born in 1332 and died in his mid-seventies in Cairo in 1406,” Gearon notes. “Like others before him, Ibn Khaldoun confuses the Nile with the Niger, writing that certain towns ‘and Ghana are situated along this Nile’,” Gearon quotes Arab historians.

The Kingdom of Ghana on the southern edge of the Sahara is a subject that fascinates the author. “The Kingdom of Ghana contained numerous mines with an abundance of gold and salt and several important oasis towns, southern termini of the busiest trans-Saharan trade routes,” Gearon makes clear. Intriguingly, the author delves into curious details. “The King adorns himself like a woman wearing necklaces round his neck and bracelets on his forearms and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton,” Gearon jazzes the historical text up.

“Al-Bakri illustrates how much gold the king had at his disposal by writing of the royal dogs: ‘Round their necks they wear collars of gold and silver, studded with a number of balls of the same metals,” Gearon rounds this African saga up. Past and present are inextricably intertwined. Leo Africanus, or Leo the African is mentioned somewhere. He and his ilk crop up like ghosts from the distant past to add colour and verve to the author’s all-absorbing prose.

Towns have grown spontaneously around uranium mines and other mineral deposits in the heart of the Sahara and miners working under the scorching sun in inhuman conditions. The gruesome images of these desperate desert dwellers differ radically from the romantic notion of the endless sand dunes and paradisiacal oases.

The Europeans, be they tourists or mining magnates, military personnel or adventurers have done a great deal of damage.

Sadly there was no room to document these aspects of the Sahara in any detail. There are weird aspects of the Saharan rock art, for instance. Sex in rock art is taboo, especially graphic images of say sexual indulgences with animals.

Matthew McConghey Sahara, 2005, the most recent in a line of films on Africa’s greatest desert is entrancing. But so are the comic adventures of Laurel and Hardy in the Sahara.

“What is the link between Star Wars, 1977, and the Sahara? They were both filmed on location in Tunisia’s Sahara. All told, so much for George Lucas’ Sahara. The Sheltering Sky 1947-1999 was set in Morocco, is another desert gem. The author has a deep affection for Africa, its landscape and its peoples. “North African landscapes and the geographical whole of the Sahara have inspired Westerners,” he observes.

Gearon’s documentary film A Mother’s Love, shot in post-genocide Rwanda tells the tantalising tale of Rosamond Carr, an American who lived in Rwanda for more than half a century and founded the Imbabazi Orphanage.

The poignant panoramas, are dear to his heart. Landscape and the imagination intermingle in Gearon’s jewel. When does the Sahara become the Sahel? When do sand dunes metamorphose into shrub-studded savanna?

Legendary city of Timbuktu, the dark side of the moon, is living proof of the dividing line between Sahara and Sahel, drawing a parallel like dusk or dawn — neither blinding daylight nor Cimmerian midnight.

Alas, there was no room for Souleymane Ciss³©’s 1972 classic Cinq Jours d’une Vie (Five Days in a Life). The classic film is a story of a young man who drops out of a Quranic school to become a petty thief. Nor was there room for Yeleen, Bambara for Light, the 1987 directed by Ciss³© and presented in both the Bambara and Fula languages of the Sahelian belt of Africa on the Sahara’s southern fringes. Set in the thirteenth century, presumably in the heyday of the Malian Empire.

Still readers of this marvel should take note, others have, myself not excluded. Gearon’s Sahara, not surprisingly, makes a wonderful read.


Posted on June 15, 2012, in Morocco News, Sahara, Sahel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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