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Eamonn Gearon: The Sahara: A Cultural History
How many camel experts do you know? If the answer is none, then you can change that by picking up Eamonn Gearon’s book, The Sahara: A Cultural History. Gearon goes to great lengths to dispel the misconstrued notion that the Sahara is a big empty desert. Though the largest desert in the world is undeniably isolated, remote and harsh, he demonstrates that the Sahara is by no means devoid of history, culture and life. The book reads as a fascinating cultural tour to be enjoyed by both adventurers and armchair travellers alike.
Gearon divides his book into five parts. The journey begins with a discussion of the desert’s watery past that dates back millions of years to when the Tethys Sea covered the land now considered the Sahara. These massive changes in the climate are further elucidated by intriguing descriptions of ancient rock art. It is clear that the author possesses a soft spot for these examples of prehistoric human creativity. Consequently, his anger concerning the vandalism of these early works of Saharan art is made readily apparent in his writing.
Parts two and three of The Sahara: A Cultural History serve as a sweeping history of the Sahara from ancient Egypt’s Land of the Dead to the armies of Islam and finally to the 20th century calls for independence from Saharan nations. This expansive historical sweep is much more readable than other histories thanks to lighter, interspersed stories and anecdotes like a section debunking camel myths. Woe to any foolhardy reader who dares call camels lazy.
Furthermore, Gearon demonstrates the importance of the human factor in narrating the history of the Sahara by including firsthand accounts of famed travellers like Ibn Batutta as well as that of the often less than culturally sensitive European explorers. Passages from personal diaries and primary sources depict the Sahara’s many visitors as inspired and well intentioned at times, as well as profoundly ignorant and even racist at other times.
The final two parts of the book cover the modern artistic creations inspired by the desert as well as encounters between indigenous peoples and visitors. War poems, famous brush strokes, spy stories, and a casual mention of Star Wars can be found in first of the final two parts. The well read reader will be delighted to see how literary figures such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats are intimately acquainted with, though often physically distant from, the Sahara. The final part of the book deals with treasure hunters, unsuccessful missionaries and adventure tourists who all sought to leave their mark upon the Sahara.
Adventure seekers, travel enthusiasts, and casual readers will all thoroughly enjoy this exploration. The reader may even be inspired to sell their house, buy three camels and spend the next couple years traversing the Sahara. If that sounds a little extreme, you can settle for reading a book written by someone who did exactly that.
The structure of the book is difficult to map out. While the story is chronological in the bigger sense, events tend to jump back and forth, where each child slave’s full story is only revealed the further you read. We do not know exactly how either of them came to be until to the end.
Other distractions from the story line are religious references. Using Biblical references, verses from the Quran and the history of Moses and Adam, Thompson uses mythical tales to reflect on the characters at hand and the trials they face. He even has a character and element that bears an uncanny representation of Noah and his arc.
Apart from his use of history and religious fables, Thompson also tells a very aggressive, and often times, dark story. Dodola is married off as a child and upon turning to prostitution is subjected to rape and mistreatment. Zam is a slave who sacrifices his manhood out of a loss of a better life. They are both abused time and time again and having their misfortunes sketched out for the eye to witness adds a shocking element to the novel.
This brings us to what makes the novel so wonderful at the same time; the illustrations. The detailing of the sketches and the exemplary hand-work at play is extremely commendable. Action scenes have your eyes rushing through the pages as frantically as one seen on a TV screen. The beauty in the details is endless; the graphics are looming and grand but also sensual and precise. There is a lot of calligraphy incorporated, which makes for an interesting experience for those who can read Arabic.
Another interesting aspect is his combination of the new and the old. Though the story takes place in today’s world, a lot of the prevalent ideologies are from nomadic times; primitive and beastly.
There is indeed something quite poetic about the story he tells – and the manner in which it is told – regardless of the gruesome, harsh aspects; on the contrary, it is these parts that make the novel that much more meaningful.