Arguably the best thing about the ill-defined genre of "travel writing" is that good writers sometimes visit bad places. Not "bad" as in the weather or the customer service, but bad. Think: military dictatorships, little infrastructure, and lots of tribal animosity, sectarianism and cultural practices like female genital mutilation.
These are countries where outside the odd dignitary, most Americans have no business being, especially after Sept. 11, or worse still, during the prelude to the Iraq war. Naturally, this was when Atlantic Monthly correspondent Jeffrey Tayler decided to journey south to the border ... the Saharan border.
Angry Wind is a travelogue mixed with pocket histories and political riffs. Its focus is the Sahel, a 2,600-mile swath of African desert and badlands that stretches from Ethiopia to the Atlantic coast and is home to some of the most impoverished, corrupt and, Sudan notwithstanding, ignored countries on the planet.
Sahelians understand America as a Christian nation. That it remains, at least for now, a secular democracy does not register. Tayler explains that though he was raised Christian, he no longer considers himself to be one. He might as well ink "Heathen" on his forehead. On two separate occasions, by men of two different faiths, he's subject to virulently, thuggish demands for on-the-spot conversion.
"I could see why religion sparked slaughter here," he writes.
As much as any foreign writer might want to avoid passing judgment on a destitute people, it's tough for Tayler to duck the role of moral arbiter. How exactly does one remain tolerant, or even open minded to such indigenous practices as forced female circumcision, or for that matter, slavery? Both pervade the Sahel where even educated people see the forced cutting of girls' clitorises (without anesthetics or in medical facilities) as essential to their cultural identities.
And it's not just the locals who apologize for it. In one brief but memorable encounter, Tayler lunches with some American Peace Corps volunteers who dismiss concerns about circumcision as so much Western cultural imperialism. One woman actually likens it to wearing high heels to attract men. Her boyfriend notes, "I was against it too because I thought it was oppressive to women, but now I know that women themselves perform it."
Ahh ... multiculturalism, such a good idea and such a slick slope to stupidity.
Most travel writing hovers between giggle-worthy personal essays and outright vacation porn; Angry Wind has depth and relevance and a bit too much prose that screams, "I've Seen The Face of Poverty."
Witness the following:
The crowd of gimping beggars, noseless lepers, clubfooted hags, and drooling, spindle-legged elders pressed around me on the sun-scorched lot, huffing fetid breath in my face, grabbing at my sleeves with gooey hands.
The humanity ... oh, please.
Nevertheless, there are some wonderful insights and reporting in the book.
Ultimately it's hard to dispute Angry Wind's underlying contention, which is that America ignores the Sahel at its own peril. As Tayler notes, the more education Sahelians receive, the more likely they'll be to adopt the anti-Western politics of the imams and jihadists.
After spending an afternoon in an underground church run by European missionaries, Tayler wonders, "Where are the missionaries of the secular culture of democracy and human rights ...?"
It's a question that can't be asked enough.
-- John Dicker
Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel
by Jeffrey Tayler
(Houghton Mifflin: New York)