Francesca Washtell has just finished her second year as an undergraduate in LSE’s Department of International History. Here she reviews a recent event at LSE during which author Eamonn Gearon launched his new book The Sahara: A Cultural History.
As South Sudan enjoys its first weeks as an independent country, it seems an apt time to consider the wider region of the Sahara desert as a geographical, political and cultural entity. Eamonn Gearon gave a recent talk in the Alumni Theatre at LSE to introduce his book The Sahara: A Cultural History, published in June 2011 by Signal Books.
He described the book as neither encyclopaedic in knowledge, nor anecdotal, and his presentation struck a similar tone. At the only event I’ve been to that rigidly kept to the rule of a 30-minute presentation, leaving up to an hour for questions, he took us through a quick overview of the Sahara’s history up to what he calls the “modern realities”.
Two key themes emerged throughout the talk and in thinking about the Sahara as a whole. Firstly, a lot of attention was paid to the “imagined landscapes” of the Sahara. Egypt was one of the first countries that Western tourists were encouraged to visit and ever since travellers have had access to the Sahara.
Gearon was keen to make clear that while the imagined landscapes that have appeared in literature, art and film since these tourist ventures began conjure very specific ideas in our imaginations, there is “so much more” than endless sand dunes.
Sand dunes actually cover a mere 15% of the Sahara, while 60-70% is barren, flat landscapes. Other regions, such as southern Algeria and northern Mali, contain some of the world’s last unclimbed mountain ranges stretching for hundreds of miles throughout the desert.
Gearon is very familiar with his subject, having worked, travelled and lived in the Sahara for much of the last 20 years, and I asked him if one of his motivations for writing the book was his frustration at the misunderstanding and clichéd image so many people seem to have of the region. He agreed, saying it had been his aim to write in a serious yet accessible way to try to explain the Sahara more fully.
Only 12,000 to 14,000 years ago the Sahara was still fertile and green, an image few of us hold of one of the world’s biggest deserts. Beyond the romanticisms of the sand dunes and rock art made famous by films such as The English Patient he is keen to point out that there are thriving poets, rock musicians and a large number of ordinary towns and villages that people call home.
In an area the size of the United States with a small population of 3 – 3.5 million native inhabitants, it is refreshing for a writer to approach the Sahara as an entity of its own and try to dispel the images we hold of an uninhabited, empty space, that in fact has been a criss-crossing hub of trade for thousands of years.
The second theme to emerge from the talk that is particularly relevant at this time was the salience of borders separating the Saharan countries. South Sudan’s independence means that the Sahara now contains twelve, not eleven countries.
While there is clearly no pan-Saharan identity as such, it does seem to be one of the regions of the world where colonial borders are the most arbitrary, for example with residents of the Siwa Oasis in Western Egypt feeling more connected to those in Eastern Libya than the government in Cairo.
The northern countries of the Sahara have been wracked with change during 2011, but the Sahara itself seems largely unchanged.
Think Africa Press have a full review of Eamonn Gearon’s book: The Sahara: A Cultural History.