by Jeffrey Tayler
by Joel Smith
The wind blowing through the long-winded title of Jeffrey Tayler's travelogue (subtitled Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and Camel) is the harmattan, a gusting, parching easterly wind that picks up in the Sahara desert and, as Tayler notes in his prologue, "fills the sky with reddish-brown dust, reduces the sun to a pale orb [and] cracks the trunks of trees."
From the beginning to the end of his travels through the under-reported Sahel - a 3,000-mile-wide band of semi-desert dividing the Sahara from the African sub-continent - Tayler is buffeted and choked by the angry wind. It gets him wondering: Why - how - do people live here?
It's a tough question when you consider that the harmattan isn't the only calamity plaguing Sahelians. For centuries, they've been pounded by the winds of trade, slaving, Arab control, Islamic rule, Christian missionary zeal, Western colonialism, failed African democracy and the steady invasion of the Saharan sands.
Still they remain, poverty-stricken, clinging to tradition, desperate, angry.
The mostly Muslim, post-9/11 Sahel might not be the best place for a white American journalist to go poking around. But Tayler, who speaks French and Arabic, is suited to the job. If the accounts of his travels occasionally lose the reader's attention, his fluent conversations with ordinary Muslims about the relationship between the United States and Islam rarely do.
Osama bin Laden and the imminent invasion of Iraq are on everyone's mind. "Bin Laden is a religious leader, therefore he couldn't have done September 11," Tayler is told, frankly, by a guide in Nigeria. "The real terrorism comes from Bush: He invaded Afghanistan, and now, to get Iraq's oil he's going to invade Iraq. That's terrorism."
Tension runs high. An engineer in Niger warns Tayler that "all it would take is for one Arab to find out you're here, and he could toss a bomb at you."
And yet, aside from the blunt haggling of truck drivers, and the pleas for payola from corrupt government agents, Tayler is welcomed warmly by Muslims from Chad to Senegal. The same peaceful, radical, sometimes confused, always fervent religious beliefs that give the Sahelians a sense of purpose, clinging to life out in the dust-battered desert, compel them to treat Tayler the interloper with care and compassion.
That Muslims aren't all violent psychopaths is not news. But these days, it's a point well worth repeating.
Publication date: 04/21/05