VICIOUS VICARIOUSNESS 


ANGRY WIND:
Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and Camel
By Jeffrey Tayler

(Houghton Mifflin, 272 pages)

The best of the elusive genre known as "travel writing" ensues when good writers visit bad places. Not "bad" as in "a nest of evildoers," but as in countries that lack amenities like ATMs, Internet cafes and, uh, roads. Places where Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, have no business being, especially after Sept. 11, or worse still, during the run-up to the Iraq war. This was the less-than-ideal time Atlantic Monthly correspondent Jeffrey Tayler decided to journey south to the border … the Saharan border.

Angry Wind is a travelogue, with intermittent history and political and personal riffs thrown in to boot. Its focus is the Sahel, a 2,600-mile swath of African desert and badlands that stretches from Ethiopia to the Atlantic coast, and includes some of the world's most impoverished and corrupt countries. A land of brutal winds and seemingly endless civil war, it's also a quieter stage upon which the struggle between Islam and the West is being played out in countries split between areas ruled by Shari'a law and others hanging in a precarious secular balance.

Many of the people Tayler meets have rarely, if ever, encountered an American, not to mention one who speaks their language, or at least a lingua franca. (A linguistic wonderboy, Tayler speaks French, Arabic and English.) Much of Angry Wind is about how the people of the Sahel perceive America and interact with Tayler as an American. While many are quick to rip into George W. Bush for attacking Islam via Afghanistan, most don't let their politics get in the way of treating Tayler with dignity and respect.

America is understood, first and foremost, as the leading Christian nation. That it remains, at least for now, a secular capitalist democracy, does not compute. When Tayler explains that though he was raised Christian, he no longer practices it, as far as some of the people he encounters are concerned, such laissez-faire religiosity is the equivalent of having "Save Me!" stamped on his forehead. Once by a small fundamentalist Christian church in the Nigerian city of Maiduguri, and again by a Muslim man who happened to be sharing the same bush taxi, Tayler is subject to intense, thuggish demands for on-the-spot conversion.

"I could see why religion sparked slaughter here," he writes.

Angry Wind is also about a region suffering acute historical growing pains that are unlikely to abate soon. As one educated Nigerian explains to the author, "We are at heart tribal and religious, more than Nigerian." And yet the prospects for prospering without a nation-state, however contrived, seems highly unlikely; the most disturbing irony Tayler puts his finger on is that the more education people of the Sahel receive, the more likely they are to become deeply anti-Western.

Where most travel writing hovers between chuckle-inducing personal essays and outright vacation porn, Angry Wind has depth and relevance. It's a vicarious journey you're glad someone else has taken for you in a place you might, quite understandably, never want to go.

More by John Dicker

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