Eamonn Gearon tackles "mysterious" Sahara

Reuters, Tuesday 17 Jul 2012

In his book, 'The Sahara: A Cultural History,', Gearon explores how Saharan cultures have impacted the world, rather than looking at the impact of western culture on the Middle East

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 civilisations, 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?

A: Yes, unquestionably. Without the nomads there would be no tourism and without the tourism there would be no money for the nomads. It's not just because of the Arab Spring but also al Qaeda in the Maghreb. Tourism has been devastated across the Sahara. It's forcing people out of the desert for sure, in some cases leading to even more extreme poverty than before. There were thousands of people across the Sahara who had made a very good livelihood from tourism.

One thinks of the Hoggar mountains in southern Algeria - some of the most beautiful landscapes on the face of the earth. The mountains are effectively shut for business. The government has said no one can go there because of the fear of kidnapping, and to be fair a lot of the so-called terrorism, a lot of the activity of this group which calls itself Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, is actually banditry.

It's true, and unfortunate, that some governments pay ransoms. Of course if I was kidnapped I would pray to God that someone would pay a ransom for me rather than be murdered but it does rather encourage these terrorist groups to kidnap more people. Qaeda in the Maghreb is not a large organization but they do have a great deal of influence and it is increasing every month because they are flush with cash... They could have anywhere between $5 million and $20 million dollars and you don't need much to buy arms.

Q: Has the Sahara's mystery disappeared?

A: I don't think so. Its discovery is a personal one. The desert is a place where people find themselves. It's no surprise that three great monotheistic religions came out of it. People ask me how quiet it is in the Sahara, how do you cope? The first night or two you think 'what the hell am I doing' and there is the danger of temporary insanity, but then the peace that one finds is incredible.

But there is no silence. When I was several hundred miles from another living soul, it was incredible how loud the blood was in my ears. You can hear your veins pumping because of the silence, or the wind or the camels groaning and grumbling. You are never completely alone but the mystery will always remain."

Q: What other misunderstandings do you try to dispel?

A: Edward Said sees "Orientalism" as a power trip, to a degree, of westerners over easterners. I disagree with his theory. I think there are many innocent scholars who studied for a love of knowledge who weren't associated with governments or armies or anything else. Perhaps they had an agenda and perhaps not... We often read about how the West has come here and about the impact of western culture on the Middle East. I am trying to show the impact of Saharan cultures, north African cultures, on the West because they are many and numerous, and I am putting them together for the first time in a single book."

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