- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004


By Andrew Borowiec

Praeger Publishing, $67.95, 145 pages


By Fergus Fleming

Grove, $26, 349 pages


Andrew Borowiec, in his new book “Taming the Sahara,” follows up on his “Modern Tunisia” of a few years ago, arguing that the small country that is the lineal descendant of the mighty commercial empire of Carthage presents a Third World development model well worthy of, if not emulation no two places are alike, or are they? at least respect.

@Text.normal:”Modern Tunisia” was an apology for the governing style of Zine El-Abinine Ben Ali, who recently won the presidency (again) with about 99 percent of the votes. (Who knows?) What is certain is that Tunisia and its 30 million people are doing well by regional standards, and Mr. Borowiec gives some of the reasons why. Among these are a willingness to invest in human capital. One of the urgent tasks of human capital in this part of the world is to find a way to co-habit with the Sahara desert just as, if you were Alaskan, you would have to find a way to live with the ice.

There is a place in southern Tunisia called Rjim Maatoug, a sandy junction in a sea of sand called the Sahara, and it is one of the triumphs of human resourcefulness and creativity. In a region devastated by aridity and drought, agronomists, geologists, and engineers brought life here and showed that what is called “the desertification of the desert” is not a fatality.

Desertification is not, as is usually thought, the encroachment of the desert upon the lush green valley. The desert, properly understood, is a living ecosystem, albeit a harsh one. Desertification occurs when this system dies; when it becomes impossible to sustain life in the desert.

To address this problem, which affects the vast half of Africa called the Sahel and the Maghreb, and ultimately challenges the quality of life on both sides of the Mediterranean, is the mission that the specialists at Rjim Maatoug and the nearby small city of Tozeur have undertaken. The coordination of their efforts, as of others in southern Tunisia, is at Medenine, 200 kilometers to the east, the seat of the Institute for the Study of Arid Regions. The research undertaken at Medenine is tested at places like Rjim Maatoug and Tozeur.

Tozeur is one of the places where the Tunisians have been demonstrating, for the past 10 or 15 years, that the Sahara, though one of the great forces of nature like the oceans to which it is so often compared need not spell our doom, or at least, the doom of the people who live around it, which is quite a few people since the Sahara is about the size of the United States west of the Mississippi.

At Tozeur, the Tunisians decided to make a stand. And they did it through an alliance of modern environmental science and one of the desert’s precious gifts: the date. The Tunisians found water deep under the surface of this dusty town, brought it forth, and created a modern oasis, a large town by the neighborhood’s standards, with date trees lovingly husbanded by nomads, whose ancient patterns of life were subverted by the encroaching and advancing desert, and were induced to settle down and become farmers.

They have themselves become more civilized in the process, losing perhaps some of the rustic romance that appealed to a idea of life in the desert, but forsaking also such quaint practices as ambushing visitors and slicing them up like sausages.

It could not happen in a nicer country. It has to be said that Tunisia ought to be better known. It is a model of a small country with few resources other than its human capital, stuck in a rough borough and making the best of it and to a significant degree succeeding. First they liberated their women, now they are trying to tame the Sahara.

Thus Tunisians: aiming for two endeavors that, in the neighborhood whereof we speak, are reputed to be difficult, if not impossible. Tunisia, a French protectorate until 1956, is the geo-political descendant of Carthage, Rome’s overseas rival. The story of this rivalry should be known to every American, for as a great commercial republic and the known world’s foremost military power, enforcer of an open-ended pax, we are heirs to both.

Modern Tunisia benefited from the modesty and sagacity of a man named Habib Bourguiba, who had an authoritarian streak and who believed that for a country like his, investment in education made more sense than in weapons, even of limited destruction.

His successor, Zine Ben Ali, has followed the same pattern, imposing his authority, keeping a close watch on political activity and the press, but otherwise leaving people a good deal of freedom to do their things.

Though not friendly to the PLO, Mr. Bourguiba’s military weakness kept him from protesting the presence in his capital of Yasser Arafat’s high command, even though it opened his territory to Israeli attacks. Today, the United States is popular in Tunisia, though as elsewhere in the Arab world there are mixed feelings, admittedly contradictory, about the idea of the United States leading a liberation war against an Arab dictator like Saddam Hussein.

The peoples of the Maghreb have all, in different ways, been shaped by the world’s greatest desert. According to Mr. Borowiec, a veteran foreign correspondent familiar with this part of the world, the Tunisians are the only ones who have tried to tame it to the degree such an undertaking is even conceivable. Perhaps this has to do with their literacy rate.

Mr. Borowiec himself is eloquent, poetic even, on the human response to the desert: “Thousands of intrepid travelers have struggled against it in man’s permanent quest to conquer the unconquerable.” Although the book would have benefited from a certain amount of blue-penciling, “Taming the Sahara” contains an encouraging theme that is well worth listening to.

It is true that men seek to “conquer the unconquerable,” and in this regard, Fergus Fleming’s engaging history of two Frenchmen who believed, to their peril, that the Sahara could be tamed, is an interesting addition to the literature on European colonialism in Africa.

“The Sword and the Cross” consists of parallel biographies of two of France’s most adventurous africains, Charles de Foucauld, and Henri Laperrine. Both were soldiers formed in the traditions of late 19th-century militarism, but Foucauld gave up his career to become a priest and a desert ascetic; Laperrine remained a soldier to the end, dying on his last trans-Saharan mission near the end of World War I, to reassert French dominance in the desert.

Neither the sword, however, nor the cross, dominated the Sahara. Foucauld made no converts, and control of the desert, by military or any other means, is a temporary proposition at best. The Tunisians may have the better idea: to use the desert’s wonderful fruit to tame it.

Roger Kaplan is the former editor of African Geopolitics.

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