ANGRY WIND: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and Camel By Jeffrey Tayler (Houghton Mifflin), 272 pages, $36.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Some of the best travel writing results from good writers visiting bad places. Not "bad" as in a nest of evildoers, but bad as in military dictatorships, a paucity of infrastructure and a glut of tribal hatreds and sectarianism.
Outside the odd dignitary and/or aid worker, these are countries Americans have little business being in, especially after September 11 or, worse still, during the prelude to the Iraq war. Naturally, this was when Atlantic Monthly correspondent Jeffrey Tayler decided to journey to the Sahel, the Saharan borderlands of Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Mali.
Angry Wind is a travelogue mixed with political, historical and personal riffs. Its focus is the 2,600-mile swath of African desert and badlands that stretches from Ethiopia to the Atlantic coast, home to some of the world's most impoverished and corrupt countries.
It's also a quieter stage upon which the battle between Islam and the West is being waged in countries torn between sharia law and an austere post-colonial secularism.
Many of the people the author meets have rarely, if ever, encountered an American, not to mention one who speaks their language. While some are quick to rip into George W. Bush for attacking Islam via Afghanistan, most treat the author graciously, often at risk to their own safety.
Sahelians see America as a Christian nation. That it remains, at least for now, a secular democracy fails to register. When Tayler explains that though he was raised Christian he no longer considers himself one, he might as well stamp "Save Me!" on his forehead. On two separate occasions he's subject to intense, thuggish demands for on-the-spot conversion by men of two different faiths. All of which, he says, makes him understand why religion sparked slaughter here.
Most travel writing hovers between giggle-worthy personal essays and outright vacation porn. Angry Wind has depth and relevance. It's a dangerous journey that you're glad someone else has taken for you in a place you might, quite understandably, not want to go.