Michael Totten

A Journey Across the Desert

Supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi protest on the third anniversary of Egypt's uprising, Jan 25, 2014. (Rex Features via AP Images)

I mentioned that Robert Kaplan almost single-handedly inspired me to visit Tunisia. The reason I say “almost” is because William Langewiesche is the other one who gets credit. He didn’t inspire me to visit Tunisia per se, but while reading his extraordinary book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert — my favorite of all his books — I knew I had to go to North Africa.

Here is a taste:

Do not regret the passing of the camel and the caravan. The Sahara has changed, but it remains a desert without compromise, the world in its extreme. There is no place as dry and hot and hostile. There are few places as huge and as wild. You will not diminish it by admitting that its inhabitants can drive, and that they are neither wiser nor purer nor stronger than you. It is fairer to judge them squarely as modern people and your equals. They were born by chance in a hard land, at a hard time in its history. You will do them no justice by pretending otherwise. Do not worry that their world, or yours, has grown too small. Despite its roads, its trucks, its televisions, the Sahara remains unsubdued.


The Sahara is the earth stripped of its gentleness, a place that consumes the careless and the unlucky. But all you need to navigate it is a suitcase, a bit of cash, an occasional bus ticket, the intention to move on. Such simplicity appeals to me. Wars and borders allowing, I expected now to cross the Sahara in an arc from the Mediterranean south to the African savanna, and west to the Atlantic. The route would make me through the desert’s hyper-arid core — a place nearly sterilized by drought, where bacteria cannot survive, and where cadavers, partially mummified, decompose slowly like sun-dried dates. The Sahara has horizons so bare that drivers mistake stones for diesel trucks, and so lonely that migrating birds land beside people just for the company. The certainty of such sparseness can be a lesson. I lay in Algiers in a hotel room in a storm, thinking there is no better sound than the splash of rain. The desert teaches by taking away.