The Sahara is sui generis. The word alone is one of those rare, magical names we know even before we know we are learning. The Sahara is a vast and distant desert. After this, most people’s idea of the Great Desert is imprecise. In spite of figuring prominently in the popular imagination, the Sahara is not a place about which most people have any first-hand knowledge. The ‘I never knew that’ feedback from readers has, for me, been the most gratifying part of writing The Sahara.
Upon completion of The Sahara there existed a sense of achievement that made me glow with something akin to pride. Here was a lifetime’s research, collected both in the Great Desert and elsewhere, and much writing. Before printing the file, I asked the computer how many words were in the completed manuscript. Agreed, a hundred and thirty thousand was more than the publisher and I had agreed on, some years earlier, but what of it? This was a cultural history of the Sahara and there was a great deal of ground to cover, literally and literarily.
Who could say no to more of a good thing? In this instance the publisher. I was directed to the introductory paragraph of our contract, wherein it said, in bald, legal language, that I – ‘hereinafter called “the Author”’ – was to deliver a manuscript of ‘approximately eighty thousand words in length’. The Author had to concede that a hundred and thirty thousand words was not approximately eighty thousand. And yes, that was The Author’s signature.
A keen ally, with a wry sense of humour, my American wife wondered if the publisher might like to publish The Sahara as two volumes in a slipcase. I didn’t ask. Having promised my wife that once the book was finished we would go to Boston for a week’s holiday, the planned journey went ahead; we just ignored the vacation side of the equation. Instead of making the most of Restaurant Week, and the promise of culinary delights, I spent seven days and nights with an overweight manuscript and a red pen.
The verb ‘to desert’, from the Latin desertus, left waste, means to abandon, with the act of desertion, whether of someone or something, a spouse or a regiment, connoting an act of treachery. The image of land abandoned by rainfall neatly conjures up the Sahara: a desiccated land; a camel’s skeleton, sun-bleached and picked clean; heat; a mirage; a voice crying out in the wilderness. Many people, if they think of it at all, imagine that to be the virtual sum of the Sahara.
Wondering whether it makes more sense to ask, ‘What is in the Sahara?’ rather than ‘What’s missing?’ only betrays the sceptic’s ignorance. There is a great deal in the physical and imagined Sahara that belies any suggestion of an empty place. Michael Palin wrote of The Sahara (mine, not his own very readable book) that it was, ‘A succinct and successful summary of the past, present and future of this surprisingly busy desert’. There is the two- word key: ‘surprisingly busy’. When researching and writing The Sahara there was no paucity of material but rather a surfeit.
Over the course of twenty-three million years, from the withdrawal of the Tethys Ocean, via tectonic activity, and millennia of luxuriance to the final desertification that took place only a few thousand years ago, the Sahara has experienced more distinct periods of life than much of the earth. Roughly the size of Europe, all the way to the Urals, or the United States, with Alaska (and Hawaii), the Sahara covers a third of the African continent. It is the world’s largest hot desert. If ‘hot’ feels redundant, it is used simply to distinguish the meteorological conditions of North Africa from the cold desert that is Antarctica. Deserts, geographers tell us, are characterised by a lack of rainfall, rather than high temperatures.
Since the rise of Homo sapiens, the varieties of human experience have been as many and varied as the earth has geographical forms. The roll call of civilisations that have seen some of their story formed by the Sahara is equally impressive. Ancient Egypt is probably the best known of these, in part for its longevity, and the seeming immortality of its monumental architecture. Knowledge of pre-Pharaonic civilisations, such as the Capsians and Kiffians, is limited, frustrating archaeologists and feeding dreamers who both wonder what life was like before the desert was.
After Ancient Egypt one must mention the Phoenicians, later Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Arab and European invaders. Certain other indigenous peoples, including the Garamantes and the Berbers, long ago made the desert’s heart their home. Aquifers fed the oases, and local knowledge harnessed the life-giving resource. Today, there are eleven Saharan nations, including Algeria, Africa’s largest nation since the creation of South Sudan tipped Sudan off the top spot. Each of these contemporary nations has a multitude of cultures to mull over, even before one begins to consider the histories. The Sahara is not an encyclopaedia and, so, lines were drawn across the sands and time, whole peoples unwillingly removed from the desert’s story.
The first cut is said to be the deepest. This was not the case with my excisions. Deleting ‘The End’ from the foot of the document left me forty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight words short of the target. Returning to page one, I trawled the text, picking off single words, purging redundant adjectives and adverbs, but this was not enough. Soon, paragraphs were cut, pages run through in bloody red ink, and then an entire chapter was felled, gone even before a critic could get to work.
From the Ancient World, I removed some details from the story of Osiris and Set; cut mention of a Roman troop surge in North Africa being forced on them by the Numidians; reduced to a rump the story of early Christianity in the desert; and withdrew talk of Garamatean charioteers, whose prowess with wheeled-mounted troops proved to be of major annoyance to the might of Rome.
Also taken out was an account from the Persian conquest of Egypt under Cambyses. In one of the most original stratagems ever employed in warfare, Cambyses released cats and dogs in the face of a defending Egyptian army. Viewing the creatures as sacred, the Egyptian archers refused to let fly their arrows, leaving the defenders no option but flight from the nominative battlefield, handing victory to the Persians before battle was engaged. The story of what transpired when Cambyses sent his forces into the Sahara is still in the book.
The Egyptian Jewish writer and poet, Edmond Jabès, once wrote, ‘You do not go into the desert to find yourself, but to lose yourself’. This moving, twentieth-century, meditation on the place of the desert in mysticism is not in The Sahara: it was lost from the heart of the text, but not its soul.
The days passed and the words crashed. I stopped at eighty-three thousand. Death by forty-seven thousand word cuts was painful enough. Tough authorial decisions and cuts made, the manuscript was re-sent to the publisher, leaving the in-house editor to make his or her own revisions.
Later in the week, when my work was done, my wife and I were out with her uncle Charlie and aunt Esther. Driving into Concord, Massachusetts, we passed Orchard House when Esther said, ‘That’s Louisa May Alcott’s house’.
‘I just cut her out of my book,’ I replied.
The outraged stereo response from the front of the car was a single, extended and disbelieving ‘What? She must be put back!’ Everyone, it seems, was missing someone.
Louisa May Alcott, like many others, contracted a serious case of Egyptomania. When Egypt was ‘discovered’ by the West in the nineteenth century, the craze for all things Egyptian was absolute. One result was many prominent authors of the day, whether in rural America or smoke- choked London, penned stories about mummies – often cursed – to satisfy hungry readers. Sadly, like some infamous literary feud, I am sorry to report that you will not find Louisa May Alcott in The Sahara’s index.
Adlai Stevenson once defined an editor as, ‘someone who separates the wheat from the chaff and then prints the chaff’. Or, putting the case less acerbically, The Economist Style Guide tells us that, ‘The moral for editors is that they should respect good writing’. While the entry on editors in the Devil’s Dictionary says, ‘… so charitable withal that he tolerates the virtues of others and the vices of himself; … the editor spills his will along the paper and cuts it off in lengths to suit’.
Naturally, in any consideration of The Sahara I cannot agree with Stevenson’s assessment, but as I read the newly re-edited text, I bridled to see what the editor had seen fit to remove. Gone was all reference to The Alchemist and Dad’s Army, while the exposition of Carry On … Follow That Camel was so brief as to be close to pointless, if one was not already familiar with that glorious comedic gem of late twentieth-century British cinema.
Opinion on Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is divided. Critics complain that this re-telling of the universal pilgrimage story, which here has a young Spanish boy searching his way across the Sahara to Egypt, is trite or superficial; others defend the use of simple language as entirely appropriate in the best traditions of parables, and for making the story accessible to a wider audience. Having sold more than sixty-five million copies in a hundred and fifty countries (making it one of the best-selling books of all time), it may not be to everyone’s taste but this is hardly sufficient reason to exclude it from a cultural history of the Great Desert.
The cut that hurt most was the unpardonable removal of Dad’s Army, and not just because this long-running sitcom was my late father’s favourite television programme, and the best among an inestimable writing career for Perry and Croft. Surely one must argue that the vocal, and freely offered, insights of Corporal Jones on the late-nineteenth-century irregular forces loyal to the self-proclaimed Mahdi in the Sudan, a.k.a. the Fuzzy-Wuzzy, mark a highpoint in cultural studies of Saharan natives. Where else would viewers learn that, when it comes to the enemy confronting the cold steel of a British Army bayonet, ‘They don’t like it up ’em’?
And, frankly, who would not have wanted to read just a little more about the varieties of bestiality found in prehistoric Saharan rock art?
Am I bitter? Certainly not. I am delighted with the final product, and for all the edits made, most of which were insignificant flesh wounds. The Sahara contains so many stories and such a wealth of facts and fictions that one cannot possibly feel hard done by. The histories of wars and peace, the conquerors and the vanquished, lost wisdom and re-discoveries, the philosophers, poets, novelists, film-makers, dreamers and madmen; there is room enough to accommodate them all in the Great Desert, real and imagined.
As a parting shot, we must remind ourselves of the importance of editors in the writing process. Mentioned above, Bierce’s entry on editors in the Devil’s Dictionary closes with a few lines of verse by the now sadly neglected, J. H. Bumbleshook. Others may argue as to whether his assessment is unduly harsh or overly lenient. This author is of the opinion that it offers some useful thoughts on which to close the question of editors and what is missing from The Sahara:
O, the Lord of Law on the Throne of Thought,
A gilded imposter is he.
Of shreds and patches his robes are wrought,
His crown is brass,
Himself is an ass,
And his power is fiddle-dee-dee.
(That’s more than enough. Ed.)