'Sahara Unveiled' reveals a stark, compelling land

August 18, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

William Langewiesche's second book, "Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert" (Pantheon, 1996, $24), is hard to put down. But this doesn't mean it's a pleasant book. It's neither a feel-good book nor a how-to book.

There's no romance and little mystery. Langewiesche, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, doesn't even like to have "Sahara" described as a travel book. However, there is a happy ending of sorts - the narrator survives.

"It's an austere book about an austere subject containing austere prose," is what he says about it. "My language itself is like a desert," he adds.

He says another book in which the language - or in this case, jargon -- fits the subject perfectly is Michael Herr's "Dispatches" which is about the war in Vietnam as seen from the eyes of an American war correspondent.

Langewiesche's first book, "Cutting For Sign," about life on the U.S./Mexico border, was less stark and a little more chatty.

"The commonality between this book and 'Cutting For Sign,' "said Langewiesche in a recent interview, "is an attempt to be frank and honest with the reader. And that in turn leads to a certain kind of language. The desert invites romantic writing and thinking and I object to that and I think readers object. It lacks credibility when you read someone romanticizing heavily."

So be warned. This long journey from Algiers south through the heart of the Sahara to the northern border of Nigeria then west to Dakar, Senegal, is a dry and thirsty one. Much of it takes place via public transportation in a series of decrepit taxis, buses and trucks that lumber across the desert like so many endangered species.

Langewiesche also describes the many kinds of desert, from barren mountain plateaus to the sandy dunes conjured up by Hollywood. Readers will soon learn that the Sahara is not a place to be journeyed to lightly. It has killed more than one unwary tourist.

"It's the most desert of all deserts," Langewiesche said, "it's the world in its extreme."

As one reviewer put it, we should be glad Langewiesche made the trip because now we don't have to.

But Langewiesche, a writer of national stature who just happens to live in Davis, makes the journey compelling because he adds details - social, historical, agricultural -- that make it more than just a catalogue of names and places.

He includes riffs about scorpions, camels, the nature of sand and what it's like to die of thirst in the desert. He writes about Charles de Foucauld, an army officer turned desert monk who was martyred in 1916, and he writes about a dear friend, Ameur Belouard, who taught him many of the desert's rules before suffering a near-fatal accident.

In a matter-of- fact way, Langewiesche tells the tragic story of a Belgian family - mother, father, and 5-year-old son - who died in the desert after losing their way. Their car broke down and they ran out of water. Each died slowly and painfully. Finally, only the woman was left. She described her last days in her journal, which Langewiesche later read. Their harrowing deaths stayed with me for days.

I asked Langewiesche why the Algerian government couldn't help locate the lost tourists.

"The government doesn't have the money or the interest to track tourists in the wilderness," he said. "You can't imagine the size of the desert. People go out there and make a slight wrong turn and get lost. How could you find them even with an airplane? Plus, there are no phones, electricity or radios."

Langewiesche travels alone, relying on friends and acquaintances to put him in touch with locals.

"I travel like a little mouse," he says. He tries to be as anonymous as possible, wearing his hair neither too long nor too short, not wearing blue jeans nor carrying a backpack, but dressing unobtrusively. He uses public transportation and doesn't travel with an assistant or photographer. He finds the very idea of pack journalism abhorrent.

"I usually pass as French," he said, "which was not an advantage in Algeria."

In fact, despite Langewiesche's local connections, his attempts to blend in, his desire to merely observe, his life was in danger more than once. But it was most spectacularly in danger when a gun-runner abandoned him in an oasis in Libya. He was left alone all night and had long hours to ponder his next move.

"I had a lot of water," he said, "but I never would have made it out (of the desert) alive."

Fortunately, the gun-runner came back for Langewiesche at dawn and the Sahara let another innocent go free. "Sahara Unveiled" is a grim but compelling read.

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