Book review: Sahara Unveiled ~ William Langewiesche


William Langewiesche (1997)

Having got to know Algeria as a commercial pilot (or so one presumes, we learn nothing about the author apart from the existence of a wife and son), William Langewiesche travels from Algiers to Dakar in the early 1990s, as Islamic revolution and Tuareg unrest spread paranoia along the trans-Saharan Highway.

He revisits old friends, including the neglected and now destitute wife of a once respected Mr Fixit who suffered brain damage following a car crash with his mistress. Along the way we learn about former visits to the Algerian desert town of Adrar as well as Mauritania, some cautionary parables à la Paul Bowles, and deserty topics like dunes, rock art, Tuaregs (including the late Mano Dayak), plus the staple of good old Foucauld.

Langewiesche’s local connections provide him with a unique insight into the bitter unravelling of Algerian society at the time. In Tamanrasset he takes an excursion east to explore some remote art, but is used as an unwitting decoy to enable his truly odious guide to smuggle in Libyan arms for the Tuareg cause. The festering acrimony between the two is laid bare after Langewiesche is abandoned in a canyon for a couple of days where he’s forced to confront his own death.

Mirroring local attitudes, he writes without sentimentality about the Sahara and its inhabitants: wily opportunists, smug entrepreneurs, mendacious braggarts, ‘Camel [cig] commercial’ adventurers and sun-fried ex-pats. There’s a lip-smacking ‘I-told-you-so’ sensationalism used to recount several tales of travellers perishing in the desert, embellishing the deadly glamour of the pitiless Sahara.

Having crossed the Sahara and now without the privilege of local friends, the mood grows gloomier and possibly resentful as the author has to fend for himself and becomes preoccupied with the incompetence and corruption of the desiccated Sahel. Weakened by illness, the book speeds towards a quick end in Dakar. A back cover quote from Newsweek suggests the book “makes the desert’s exoticism bloom…”, a nice idea but not how I saw it. Langewiesche writes unsentimentally and with a sparse, gritty realism, whether describing the futility of the Tuareg rebellion and overseas aid, the short-sighted ‘Inshallah-syndrome’ and, ultimately, the desert’s grinding indifference.

Readers familiar with the Sahara will become easily absorbed with the many familiar characters and situations described during this unhappy episode of Saharan history. While Langewiesche prefers to remain studiously enigmatic and, at his worst, comes across as patronising and condescending (other tourists become an easy target, as they do in so many books like this, such as Quentin Crewe’s In Search of the Sahara). But I found this book is true to its title and will be a worthwhile addition of any Saharophile’s library.