Travels with Jeffrey

Arguably, the best thing about the ill-defined genre of “travel writing” is that good writers sometimes visit bad places. Not bad as in the weather or the customer service. Bad as in military dictatorships, feeble infrastructures, tribal animosities and charming cultural practices like female genital mutilation. These are countries where most Americans have no business being, especially after September 11, or, worse still, during the prelude to the Iraq war. Naturally, this was exactly when Atlantic Monthly correspondent Jeffrey Tayler decided to journey south to the border … the Saharan border.

Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and Camel is a travelogue mixed with pocket histories and political riffs. Its focus is the Sahel, a 2,600-mile swath of African desert and badlands that stretches from Ethiopia to the Atlantic coast. The vast land is home to some of the most impoverished, corrupt and ignored countries on the planet. It’s also a quieter stage upon which the battle between Islam and the West is being played.

Many of the people Tayler meets in Mali, Niger, Chad and Nigeria have rarely, if ever, encountered an American, not to mention one who speaks their language. Although many are quick to rip into George W. Bush for attacking Islam via Afghanistan, few let their politics stop them from treating the author graciously, often at a risk to their own safety.

Sahelians understand the United States as a Christian nation. That it remains, at least for now, a secular democracy does not register. Tayler explains that although he was raised Christian, he no longer considers himself to be one. He might as well ink “heathen” on his forehead. On two separate occasions, by men of two different faiths, he’s subject to virulent, thuggish demands for on-the-spot conversion.

“I could see why religion sparked slaughter here,” he writes.

As much as any foreign writer might want to avoid passing judgment on a destitute people, it’s tough for Tayler to duck the role of moral arbiter. How exactly does one remain tolerant of or even open-minded to such indigenous practices as forced female circumcision—or, for that matter, slavery? Both pervade the Sahel, where even educated people see the forced cutting of girls’ clitorises (without anesthetics or in medical facilities, mind you) as essential to their cultural identities.

And it’s not just the locals who apologize for it. In one brief but memorable encounter, Tayler lunches with some American Peace Corps volunteers who dismiss concerns about circumcision as so much Western cultural imperialism. One woman actually likens it to 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.”

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

Most travel writing hovers between giggle-worthy personal essays and outright vacation porn; Angry Wind has depth and relevance and a bit too much prose that screams, “I’ve seen the face of poverty.” Witness the following: “The crowd of gimping beggars, noseless lepers, clubfooted hags, and drooling, spindle-legged elders pressed around me on the sun-scorched lot, huffing fetid breath in my face, grabbing at my sleeves with gooey hands.”

The humanity … oh, please.

Nevertheless, Angry Wind contains some wonderful insights and reporting. Ultimately, it’s hard to dispute its underlying contention, which is that the United States 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.