Gearon, Eamonn. The Sahara: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xx + 264 pages. Paper, $16.95.
Published in Oxford's Landscapes of the Imagination series, this collection of vignettes about the Sahara from area studies specialist Eamonn Gearon has all the brilliance and pathos that can be provided only by someone whose life has been intimately intertwined with a place. Many writers, from Thoreau to Chatwin and Theroux, have successfully let a place emanate through their writings. Others, such as Bowles and Langewiesche, write as true Saharaphiles. But none are as evocative as Gearon, and though his brushstrokes are minimalist, his sketches are more vivid and integrative.
Gearon's cultural history of the Sahara hangs together through eighteen short chapters organized in five parts. This loose organization is nimble and well suited for the stories that this veteran of the region has collected in the course of his own wanderings both on the backs of camels across the Sahara and into the archives, libraries, and museums of Britain and France.
Most texts on the Sahara give the northern region more attention because they rely on the prolific and accessible ancient Greek and Roman writings. Gearon's text engages the entire region and uses a wider range of sources, including less accessible ones, to weave in stories less commonly told. For example, he writes about the time between ancient Egypt and the Arab invasion (an often overlooked period), on early Christianity in the Sahara, and provides (albeit briefly) a discussion of local resistance to the Muslim conquest. His histories of the southern Sahara also shed light on the empires of Ghana, Mall, Timbuktu, the Songhai, and the Sudanic empire of Kanem, showing how each created local perspectives that interacted with Western lust for adventure, mercantilism, and (as ill-conceived as it was) humanitarianism. Here Gearon explains how, for example, the end of slavery meant that indigenous traders sought out other commodities, and that this led to further Western penetration of the Sahara and Sub-Saharan Africa. But there are important gaps in Gearon's tale: there is little about Islam in the region or about how Westerners have understood this faith there. And his cultural history fails to mention the marabout, and the griot, in shaping local societies. And while Gearon acknowledges the "deep and incalculable plunder" (pp. 101-102) of antiquities by Europeans, he overlooks how...