A DESERT DIES by Michael Asher


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What could have been an intriguing look at a little-known area of the world and the peoples who make it their home fails to live up to its promise largely because of the author's inability to shape and direct his material. The circuitous route ex-teacher Asher followed through the wastes of northern Sudan during his three-year sojourn with the nomadic Kababish tribe is unfortunately mirrored in his aimlessly repetitive narrative line, as monotonous as a sand dune, as plodding as a disgruntled dromedary. Despite run-ins with Arab camel rustlers, clashes with, rival tribes, a devastating drought, and a cast that includes murderers, slave traders, and ornery functionaries, Asher's narrative almost totally lacks suspense. It is the author's failure to individualize either his hosts, his enemies, or the events in which he found himself enmeshed that's to blame. Though Asher explains the familial and tribal relationships among the Kababish herdsmen-warriors in numbing detail--there is even a list of dramatis personae and a genealogical chart--they remain indistinguishable ciphers. Both potentially vivid events and mundane details are treated with the same obsessive thoroughness, and further problems are created by Asher's continuous use of untranslated Arabic words. (If he is sufficiently interested and preternaturally patient, the reader can refer to a glossary tucked away at the end of the text to clear up the matter.) Undoubtedly, Asher's fascination with and affection for his subject is sincere. What a shame, then, that his flat approach causes the reader's interest to die along with this desert.

Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 1987
Publisher: St. Martin's