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How Dry He Is

Shifting Sands: The vastness of the desert informs William Langewiesche's "Sahara Unveiled."

The Sahara sands beckon intrepid traveler William Langewiesche on a journey of discovery

Sahara Unveiled:
A Journey Across the Desert

By William Langewiesche
Pantheon; 302 pages; $24 cloth

Reviewed by Tai E. Moses

WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE must be enamored of long journeys and dry, contentious places. His first book, Cutting for Sign, was a portrait of the United States­Mexico border for which he traversed a 1,900 route from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. For his latest book, Sahara Unveiled, Langewiesche, who is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, chose an even more disputatious region: the world's largest desert, which blankets the northern third of Africa, an area the size of the United States.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry filled his writings about the Sahara with rhapsodic flourishes and hyperbole: "This sea of sand bowled me over. Unquestionably, it was filled with mystery and danger. ... Sahara, my Sahara!" American expatriate Paul Bowles pressed the Sahara into service as exotic backdrop for his stories and novels, writing of horrors unimaginable anyplace else on earth, extremes of beauty and brutality: "Once you have fallen victim to the spell of this vast, luminous, silent country, no other place is quite strong enough for you." Bowles sees in the desert a moral vacuum; Langewiesche prefers a more dispassionate view: "The Sahara is not cruel, but it is indifferent."

Langewiesche's journey began in Algiers. From there, he traveled by desert taxi, truck and bus down the length of Algeria, noting the changes wrought by the country's four-year-old civil war, a struggle for power between the military government and Islamic revolutionaries that has claimed more than 60,000 lives. He crossed the border into Niger and boarded a riverboat in Niamey. In Bamako, the capital of Mali, he upgraded his transportation to train for the remainder of the journey, which ended in Senegal. Into the body of this arduous trek are spliced accounts of his earlier Saharan travels, short trips taken mostly by plane (the author is a former commercial pilot).

A SEASONED traveler, with a prose style that at times resembles the jotted dispatches of a war correspondent, Langewiesche proves a thoughtful and candid guide. Underneath his low-key manner, however, lurks the soul of an Indiana Jones. Through acute discomfort and untold hazards, including the possibility of ambush by Tuareg rebels, he remains, for the most part, unflappable.

In Mauritania, Langewiesche is accused of being a spy. So common is this charge by now, that he has grown bored with the routine. "What is there to say about the desert?" demands his interrogator. "How dry it is," replies the author, in all sincerity.

During a visit in the high heat of summer, with temperatures reaching upward of 128 degrees, he reflects, "I could have gone to Adrar in the spring, or waited until fall, but I chose July for its intensity." This may seem like arrogance or naiveté, but Langewiesche isn't aiming for Hemingwayesque feats of machismo; he's in search of authentic experience, the taste of Saharan dust--and he gets it. In an oasis called the M'Zab, friends try in vain to dissuade him when he announces his intention to take a ill-reputed 600-mile truck trip across the mountains, deeper into the desert:

    "Why don't you fly?"

    "Because I want to see the desert up close."

    "Buy a postcard."

    "But I want to feel the desert."

    "It feels bad."

Crammed into the back of the truck, its doors locked from the outside, Langewiesche can see only glimpses of the desert through the slats. His devotion to veracity assumes near-catastrophic proportions when, abandoned near the Libyan border by an unscrupulous guide--who turns out to be a small-arms dealer--the author confronts the possibility that he may die of thirst in the desert.

"The Sahara is not a natural destination," he admits. "A writer writes about it, a reader reads about it to satisfy his curiosity about an unseen part of the world. Imagine abandoning life for no better reason. If the Sahara killed me I would die stupidly."

Langewiesche elucidates the region's racial, religious and economic woes with insight, including a succinct history of French colonial occupation of the Sahara. He has a gift for the casual aside: the old woman from Mauritania's back country who was unable to descend an airplane's steps because she had never seen a staircase; the residents of El Oued, a city in the midst of a sand sea, who invite the sand into their homes. ("They embrace their fate.")

A remarkable array of people cross Langewiesche's path. He shares their tea and sleeps on the floors of their mud houses; he listens to them and lets them speak for themselves. In such portraits are the heart of the book: Amadou, the enterprising young Malian who despite his mastery of seven African languages and French, is destined for a life of certain poverty; the dejected Peace Corps volunteer whose lovingly tended saplings are eaten by roving goats or destroyed by erosion as fast as he can plant them; a haughty Parisian couple who collect scorpions out of boredom. And Langewiesche's friend Salah Addoun, a Moslem architect whose adobelike designs would look right at home in the trendy communities of Santa Fe, N.M.

LANGEWIESCHE wrote a wonderfully elliptical essay a few years ago in The Atlantic on what seemed at first glance a curiously esoteric subject: the banked turn of an airplane. A synthesis of personal observation, history and ornithology, with a little physics mixed in, the resulting mosaic proved immensely readable: "The mastery of the turn is the story of how aviation became practical as a means of transportation. It is the story of how the world became small."

He performs similar magic in Sahara Unveiled, which, braided through its main narrative, includes numerous mini-essays: casually elegant prose pieces on topics such as cave paintings, thirst, the science of dune formation, the physiology of camels, the religion of Islam and a beautiful meditation on the properties of sand.

The author also discourses knowledgeably--and passionately--on the subject of the Tuaregs, the light-skinned, Berber-speaking people who once controlled north-south trade in the Sahara. Nomads, camel herders, former slave masters, the Tuareg are a displaced people--embittered and proud, still convinced they are the undisputed rulers of the Sahara.

Nearing the end of his journey, sick from drinking improperly boiled river water, the intrepid author takes but a glimpse of the famed "city" of Timbuktu, and turns back around to reboard the boat. In explanation for this uncharacteristic lapse in adventurousness, he recounts the tale of the foolhardy Briton who, in 1826, was the first European to see Timbuktu, but failed to transmit the importance of his ultimately fatal odyssey: "That [it] was not worth the visit."

Langewiesche is so successful at immersing the reader that, upon his abrupt arrival in Dakar, with its modern high-rises, neon signs and billboards, the culture shock is palpable. But even in Dakar, so near the innocent blue of the Atlantic, the desert comes creeping in the guise of poverty, riots, drought and crime. Langewiesche's Sahara is more than the sum of its geography; it is an attitude--in the desert's scorching heat and drifting sands, the author found his metaphor for the troubled soul of Africa.

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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