Book review: Sahara Life of a Great Desert – Mark de Villiers & Sheila Hirtle


Mark de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle. Harper Collins, 2003

It is generally unavoidable to write about history while not having been there, but it is surely indefensible to attempt to describe the geography of a region with virtually no firsthand experience.The authors start off promisingly by dismissing the customary romanticism laid on the Sahara as “outsider thinking”: the “pitiless sun” being no more than the “pitiless traffic” of Fifth Avenue. Thereafter great empires of West Africa are well accounted for (lifted from a previous book of the authors?) but beyond that, and their visits to Niger and Timbuktu, they get in a complete muddle. The howlers start from page 9 when we learn that the Tanezrouft is an erg and later that In Salah is “an epicentre of the oil industry” and Leptis was dug out of the sand. The nature of the harmattan wind also happens to contradict all previous sources, Ghat is an all but abandoned Tuareg camp and – get this – the canyon of Iherir contains the Sahara’s only perennial river! This is a clanger of Saharan proportions but will hopefully bring some income to the poor village of Iherir when the whitewater brigade turn up.The problem is that the authors have been to the Sahara just a couple of times, more than most it is true but surely not enough to attempt a book such as this?

One gets the impression they fell for the enigmatic Tuareg (as you do) and thought “heck, let’s write our new book about Sahara and those shimmering courtly nomads!” Anyone who would dare take on such a task surely ought to read French and German. Perhaps this is why the authors quote repeatedly from a limited range of the usual English-language sources: Barth, Nachtigal plus Africanus and other ancients and the few Brits like Clapperton that put pen to paper. But they use these 19th century explorers as if they were as reliable as anyone and relevant today – including ancient spellings; have they not even heard of a Mich 953/741 map? Having done a lot of their groundwork fifteen years ago, Porch’s excellent ‘Conquest of the Sahara’ (see below) gets a good work out while Heseltine’s ‘From Libyan Sands to Chad’ (1955, and a great little classic) is the veritable horse’s mouth for Chad and the Tubu (so never mind about Jean Chapelle’s ‘Nomads Noirs du Sahara’ then). And last but not least is the Encyclopaedia Britannica (online version…) for all those last-minute queries. What a give away. Elsewhere the embellishment is irritating if to be expected – though you would have thought not in the “moonscape” Aïr, one of the few places in the Sahara where one suspects the authors have actually been. They certainly do not appear to have visited the desert areas of Morocco, Chad, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania or even Egypt, or have nothing accurate to say about these places. But I liked the section on weather and also got a better understanding of the eminence of Old Ghana in the heyday of the trans-Sahara trading caravans.

In the end though, the authors prove that they too are outsiders – overlooking or skimming vast parts of Saharan geography like the Gilf Kebir (and not just the ‘Western Desert’), the Tassili and Akakus, the distinctive Moorish culture and the Reguibat and the ongoing Tubu rebellion. They extrapolate from maps whose context they misunderstand: we learn that “dunes cover most of Western Sahara” and long-abandoned Tagheza somehow overrules Taoudenni today as a source of salt. They miss out on contemporary political upheavals too, as if they wrote the book 20 years ago. So it is that comprehending the Tuareg rebellion in Niger, (something which has set these people back years and was one of Micheal Buckley’s better achievements in Grains of Sand) isn’t allowed to interfere with eulogies on their preternatural guiding abilities, etc; the same, tired old Tuareg schtick.

The trouble with making stuff up or guessing is that, besides making a fool of the authors, the reader does not know what else is fictitious and so the book’s value is lost. Europe is the source of the greatest works on the Sahara, either through direct historical connection or learning. The definitive work on the Great Desert will, or may already be, written in French or German. This book certainly is not it.