Monday, April 11, 2016
Non-Fiction Review: Glory in a Camel's Eye
Two covers, because the image of the one I read--on the left--is so small. Plus, I think the other cover is nicer :)
Title: Glory in a Camel's Eye: A Perilous Trek Through the Greatest African Desert
Author: Jeffrey Tayler
Publisher: Houghton Mifflen Harcourt, 2003. 245 pages.
Hailed by Bill Bryson and the New York Times Book Review as an emerging master of travel writing, Tayler penetrates one of the most forbidding regions on Earth. Journeying along routes little altered since the Middle Ages, he uses his linguistic and observational gifts to illuminate a venerable, enigmatic culture of nomads and mystics.
Though no stranger to privation (having journeyed across Siberia and up the Congo for his earlier books), Tayler is unprepared for the physical challenges that await him in a Sahara dessicated by eight years of unprecedented drought. He travels across a landscape of nightmares - charred earth, blinding sky, choking gales, and what is fittingly called the Valley of the Dead. The last Westerner to attempt this trek left his skeleton in the sand, and even Tayler's camels wilt in the searing wastes.
But his remarkable perseverance, as well as his fluency in classical and Moroccan Arabic, helps him find here a bracing purity. The Saharawi Bedouin among whom he journeys are ur-Arabs, untouched by the modernity or radicalism that festers elsewhere in the Arab world. By revealing their ingenuity, their wit, their unrivaled hospitality, and more, Tayler upends our notions of what is, and what is not, essentially Arab.
For the record, lest you wonder why I chose this book, my younger son is planning to travel to Morocco this summer. I picked up a number of books about the country from the library, and as he elected to read the history of the country, I took this as offering perhaps an interesting perspective on the land. I can only be grateful that my son's trip won't be quite like the author's!
Tayler's journey is challenging in many ways, and makes for an interesting tale. There is a certain artificiality about it--the only reason he is putting himself through some serious danger and privation is for the sake of writing a book. I felt that though he clearly has a good grasp of the politics and culture of the land, and is putting himself out to learn more, something was missing from his motivation (apparently a desire to see more of a country where he had been a rather unhappy Peace Corps volunteer). Maybe it's just that Tayler is more honest than many adventure travelers. After all, he is seeking a "first"--a trip through the desert that hasn't been made by any Westerner, and maybe not by anyone, since his path isn't that taken by the nomadic peoples of the Sahara. But that's not what he talks about, unlike many who are documenting their record-setting journies. He is just telling us about a trip, as though he has no choice but to make it. He does want to get to know the land and the people, and that is what makes the book work.
The author doesn't pull any punches about the conditions he encounters, nor does he set up any simplistic assessments of the people or the politics of Morocco. He may, as the blurb says, find "a bracing purity," but it is a purity that all too often is living in ignorance and filth, as the nomadic peoples have been forced by drought and changing times into settled life in villages that are in turn dying of the drought. These people are far from the centers of power, but the politics practiced in the capitol do affect them, at times disrupting traditions that might serve them better. The long-running dispute with the inhabitants of Western Sahara is acknowledged, but not explored in any great depth (something which would take a whole book; I know this because I found a whole book on it at the library).
What I was left with on finishing the book was both a strong sense of the people of Morocco's desert and an equally strong sense that Tayler and therefore the reader didn't entirely know what he had gone into the desert for. His strong writing just salvages a narrative that probably dwells a bit too long and hard on the filth and flies and his clear lack of pleasure in the land through which he is traveling.
There's no denying that if you want to know what the Draa region of Morocco is like, this book will give you a no-holds-barred view of it. It's 13 years old now, so some of the politics are out of date, but the growing concern even then with Islamic extremists rings true--as does the typical person's repudiation of those extremists. I have read more engaging travel narratives, but this one is worth a look if you are at all interested in the area.
Full Disclosure: I checked Glory in a Camel's Eye out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."