cover image Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert

Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert

William Langewiesche. Pantheon Books, $24 (301pp) ISBN 978-0-679-42982-1

Besides evoking the Sahara's power, majesty, emptiness, heat, beauty and terrors and describing its ecology and meteorology, Langewiesche (Cutting for Sign) adds details that may astonish armchair travelers who still think of the desert as populated by camels and Bedouins. Camels haven't disappeared, but paved roads through much of it support travel by taxis and buses, both of which Langewiesche used frequently. At oases, sophisticated cities offer tourists luxurious hostelries and shopping. Langewiesche, who does not explain how he got to North Africa, or why or when--although his official ID as a foreign correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly suggests possibilities--describes his treks from Algiers to the desert towns south and west of it, stopping at cafes with Parisian friends who trap two scorpions in a box to take home as souvenirs, conversing with locals, visiting a desert zoo with the unhappy wife of a Muslim friend and accepting the favors of a variety of wheelers and dealers, politicos and tribal characters whose portraits are illuminating. He is knowledgeable about the imprint of French colonialism on North African economy and politics, and about Muslim beliefs in practice. Throughout this vivid account, he scatters many charming native folktales. Photos. (Aug.)