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Through the Desperate Labyrinth

Smart writer in a bad place


Perhaps the best thing about the ill-defined genre of travel writing is that smart writers sometimes visit bad places. Not "bad" as in a lack of ATMs or dismal standards of customer service, but bad. Think military governments, clockwork coups waged by Uzi-toting 10-year-olds and forced female circumcision. It's enough to make the actual Age o' Empire seem halcyon in hindsight. Outside of aid workers and the odd diplomat, Americans have little business being in the part of the world that Jeffrey Tayler visits in Angry Wind, especially during the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. This was when the Atlantic Monthly correspondent and linguistic wonderboy (fluent in French, Arabic, Russian, English and presumably Elvish) decides to hit the Sahel: a 2600-mile swath of sub-Saharan Africa stretching from Ethiopia to the Atlantic. A land of desert, badlands and brutal winds, the Sahel houses some of the most impoverished, corrupt and, Sudan notwithstanding, ignored countries on the planet. States like Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Mali exist in a constant state of political instability complete with deep-seated sectarianism, entrenched tribal hostility and a fatalism that surrenders self-determination to the maxim of "as God wills it."

Angry Wind is a travelogue with history and political riffs thrown in for good measure. Much of the book is devoted to the bureaucratic hoop jumping necessary to travel not just between these countries, but also even within their borders. Like a schoolyard victim getting shaken down for his cookie cash, Tayler's passport and visa are held hostage by indignant bureaucrats and roving bands of soldiers hungry for bribes. Once the proper palms have been greased, traveling is a maze of hired guides and a chaotic network of perilously crowded bush taxis. Here even an American passport is no protection from roving bandits and the accidents common in a netherworld of unregulated, off-road transport.

The Sahel is not merely a region of inconvenience to foreigners; it's also another staging ground for the struggle between Islam and the West. Evoking uncomfortable similarities with Saudi Arabia, America's potential Africa problem is epitomized in Nigeria. Slated to become our third largest oil supplier by 2007, the country is home to 12 states that have instituted fundamentalist Shari'a law.

The ferocity of faith is a stumbling block for Tayler, who as an American is assumed to be a Christian. While he proffers that he was raised Christian but no longer considers himself one, this is roughly tantamount to inking "Heathen!" on his forehead. On two separate occasions, by men of two different faiths, he endures intense, thuggish demands for on-the-spot conversion. (On the other hand, countless strangers extended him hospitality, often at risk to their own safety.)

As much as any foreign writer might hope to avoid passing judgment on a destitute people, it's difficult for Tayler to duck the role of moral arbiter. How does one remain tolerant, or even open-minded, to such indigenous practices as forced female circumcision, or for that matter, slavery? Both pervade much of the Sahel where even educated people see the forced cutting of girls' clitorides (without anesthetics) as absolutely essential to their identity. In one brief but memorable encounter, Tayler lunches with a couple of American Peace Corps volunteers who dismiss concerns about circumcision as so much Western cultural imperialism. One woman actually compares it to American women wearing high heels to attract men. Her bonehead boyfriend notes, "I was against it too because I thought it was oppressive to women, but now I know that women themselves perform it."

Ahh multiculturalism, such a good idea and such a slick slope to stupidity.

Angry Wind suffers more than its share of overwrought prose. Too many pretentious adjectives are spilled on sunsets and landscapes. Horrific scenes of destitution are rendered in a tone that screams: I've Seen The Face of Poverty!

Fortunately these passages are few and far between and don't get in the way of Tayler's otherwise thoughtful insights. Ultimately it's hard to dispute his underlying contention, which is that America ignores the Sahel at its own peril. As Tayler notes, the more education Sahelians receive, the more likely they'll be to adopt the anti-Western politics of the imams and jihadists.

After spending an afternoon in an underground church run by Western missionaries, Tayler wonders, "Where are the missionaries of the secular culture of democracy and human rights...?"

It's a question that can't be asked enough.

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