Drivers in parts of Southern England and Ireland have been finding fine red dust on their vehicles – sand blown all the way from the Sahara desert. There is now even a pollution warning because of the stuff. There’s always something intriguing about particles of a distant, vast arid space finding their way to our temperate climes – they remind us of how interconnected our world truly is and bring to mind a landscape that has so often been a source of fantasy.
European explorers have been drawn to the Sahara since the eighteenth century, but it was with French colonisation from 1830 that it began to really capture the European imagination. The writer Isabelle Eberhardt, for example, left her birthplace of Geneva, longing to be “a nomad camped in life’s great desert”, and travelled to Algeria in 1900 where she settled and married an Arab man.
It’s possible her story inspired E M Hull’s notorious best-seller The Sheik (1919), in which a young aristocratic heroine ventures into the Sahara, only to be kidnapped and seduced by a desert chieftain whom she eventually marries. Despite (perhaps even, disconcertingly, because of) its undercurrent of sexual violence, the novel sparked sheik mania in the 1920s. The 1921 film starring Rudolph Valentino sent women across Britain and America swooning. More desert romances from Hull and her contemporaries followed, and to this day, the Sahara remains a popular setting for erotic fiction. (Take, for instance, Loreth Anne White’s Sahara Kings series published only this year.)
But what precisely is so enthralling about the Sahara is difficult to pinpoint. For those early writers, it promised unbridled sexual desire, as well as other kinds of freedom and adventure. There’s the attraction of the wide-open space, “the great, silent emptiness” as Hull’s Diana Mayo puts it, in The Sheik. There’s the retreat from the modern world: what Rosita Forbes, a traveller through Libya in 1920, called “The essence of the untrodden, untarnished earth herself!” And the nomadic desert dwellers too seem to fascinate sedentary folk. Hull, recording her travel experiences in Camping in the Sahara (1927), is delighted to discover “the genuine nomads, the true wanderers of the desert, who live always in the open”.
But those who live beyond state borders have often appeared to threaten the settled nation states, and our visions of the desert are never far from this sense of menace.
Even in Hull’s romance, the Sheik is after all a warlike nomad, and “a man of men” for it. The Sheik’s popularity following World War I owed much to its publication coinciding with public interest in the legendary exploits of T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), who marshalled disparate desert tribes into an army that would overthrow the Turks.
Currently, it would seem our thoughts have again turned to the military might lurking in the desert. The UK Foreign Affairs Committee has just published the findings of its enquiry into the Sahel-Sahara region. The region’s economic and political instability has raised international concerns about “ungoverned spaces”, and the Sahara has been identified as “a new frontline in the global contest with religious extremism and terrorism”.
So do these winds from the Sahara also herald a shift in cultural perception - from erotica to extremism? Will the threat of terrorism diminish the Sahara’s popular appeal? Or has it always been the case that our fascination with it arises from a sense of pressing danger? Curiously, research shows that the popularity of the sheik romance has in recent years ostensibly grown rather than waned with the intensified conflict between Western powers and Arab states.
So perhaps Tade Ipadeola, who was awarded the 2013 Nigeria Prize for Literature (the most prestigious and lucrative literary prize in Africa) last month for his epic poem The Sahara Testaments, offers a timely antidote to our oscillating perceptions of the Sahara as a romanticised and vilified space.
His poem maps the whole geographical and historical span of the world’s largest desert (outside the polar regions), from its prehistoric “verdant furrows” to its current conflicts in which “oil and race yield endless, deadly plots”. Even as he laments its transformation from “silent garden” into a space for capitalist exploitation and war-mongering, “the Golgotha of angry chants”, Ipadeola celebrates the desert’s striking and profound beauty. “What grew the desert was the wind”, he tells us:
Hot and dry and mangosteen – blowing
With hidden answers.
So perhaps when we find dust ourselves this week, and our minds wander far afield to contemplate the secrets of the Sahara, we might well think on these lines from Ipadeola.