Book review: The Western Desert of Egypt ~ Cassandra Vivien

cassThe Western Desert of Egypt, An Explorer’s Handbook
Cassandra Vivien,  2000

A niche publication covering the Western Oases (Bahariya, Dakhla etc), the northern coast, Siwa, the Darb el Arbain region and of course the Gilf. It was originally published in the early 1990s as Islands of the Blest; A Guide to the Oases and Western Desert of Egypt which we’re told became an ‘overnight bestseller’.

Sorry to have to say this, but the first thing that strikes you while flicking through this book is a waffle-bound, juvenile, credulous writing style; a complete absence of editing hampered by a muddled hierarchy of headings which have little relation to the ramblings which sometimes follow.

The book starts with the ‘The Natural World’ but includes a patchy, Sahara-wide history using ancient labels like ‘Bilad al-Sudan’ as if contemporary – an example of the author’s limited understanding of her subject. The author witlessly adopts the Bagnoldian declamation that the Libyan Desert and the Sahara are separate natural features because, in her words, “the Fezzan is a fertile plateau corridor that separates the Libyan Desert from the Sahara”. Me, I still think it is an unsophisticated political designation about as valid as the Urals dividing Asia and Europe (as discussed in my Great Warm Deserts of the World review). We do however get a good summary of geological epochs, events and evolution pertaining to the region.

There is a good double-page map covering the book’s region on the prelim pages and a couple of good ones elsewhere, but the half-pager on p.2 is a mixture of ancient, colonial and contemporary place names. It adds up to another of this book’s many grating, literary, stylistic and graphic inconsistencies – you’d think better of the AUC Press.

The Western Oases section looks thorough, this is really where the book is best and was once knowledgeable, though you can be confident that the 100-odd pages which the latest Rough Guide devotes to the area will be more useful.

As for the Gilf (“the top of the Gilf is like the top of the world”); rather tellingly the author admits earlier that her guide in that region, the late Samir Lama “guards his secrets from the prying eyes of writers like me”. So be prepared to accept nothing more than historical accounts retold day-by-day, along with heartfelt observations that Lama could not censor: “Wadi Hamra is red. Red sand dunes are so beautiful. Red drifts of sand cascading down the side of a black mountain are so beautiful”. This is as much as we learn about Wadi Hamra, we learn next to nothing about Jebel Uweinat (apparently the highest point in Egypt) or the riches of Karkur Talh, although we are informed that Aqaba Pass was first ascended by “Ford 2×2 cars”.

The trivial errors, remorseless piffle and batty analogies go on and on and remind me of that other flu-ridden turkey, Sahara, the Life of the Great Desert. A Sahara-based historical novel I’ve just started reading starts in the acknowledgements with the following endearing admission: ‘As a reader I never knew the importance of a book’s editor. As a writer I have learned the truth of it’. Amen to that. While well-intentioned and enthusiastic, Cassandra Vivian seems to have spent too much time in libraries digging up archania but missed seeing the sand for the dunes, and was then let down by her publishers. Watch the binding too; open it too fast and it will explode in your face.

A newer edition was released in 2008 with 60 extra pages. The above review refers to the 2000 edition.