Talk of the Town - Under the Sahelian Sun March 09 2005

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, but bad. Think military dictatorships, no infrastructure, lots of tribal animosity, sectarianism and charming cultural practices like female genital mutilation. These are countries where, outside of the odd dignitary and Peace Corps volunteer, Americans have no business being, especially after Sept. 11, or worse still, during the prelude to the Iraq War. Naturally, this was when Atlantic Monthly correspondent Jeffrey Tayler decided to journey south to the border ... the Saharan border.

Angry Wind 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, and is home to some of the most impoverished, corrupt and - Sudan notwithstanding - ignored countries on the planet. It's also a quieter stage upon which the battle between Islam and the West is being played out in countries torn between Shari'a law and an austere post-colonialism.

Sahelians understand America as a Christian nation. That it remains, at least for now, a secular democracy does not register. Tayler explains that, though 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 thuggish demands for on-the-spot conversion.

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

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.

Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and Camel by Jeffrey Tayler. $25. Houghton Mifflin. 256 pages.

Other Worthwhile Words this Week

Gary Mex Glazner, 1998 winner of the Poetry Olympics, producer of the first National Poetry Slam in San Francisco, and author of How To Make a Living as a Poet, discusses his new book at Sylvia's this week. Sycamore Place Gallery, 120 Sycamore Place, Decatur. (Time TBA.) $10 suggested donation. 404-352-5938.


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