Friday, 28 March 2008

Lost in the Sahel

The Sahel itself is a line.

The word means “shore” in Arabic, which implies a continental margin, a grand beginning and a final end. Stretching across northern Africa roughly along the 13th parallel, the Sahel divides—or unites, depending on your philosophical bent—the sands of the Sahara and Africa’s tropical forests. It is a belt of semiarid grassland that separates (or joins) Arabs and blacks, Muslims and Christians, nomads and farmers, a landscape of greens and a world of tans. Some 50 million of the world’s poorest, most disempowered, most forgotten people hang fiercely on to life there. And for 34 days in Darfur we joined their ranks.

and later

Even as the gunmen sauntered up, their hair matted in dreadlocks and their chests slung with small blackened things that looked like dried ears but which were Koranic amulets, we still hadn’t grasped that we had crossed a threshold where it no longer mattered what passport you carried, that you were young and loved, that your skin was supposedly not of a torturable color, or that you were a noncombatant. Words had lost all currency as words, and by the time the grinning teenager with the Kalashnikov reached for my door handle, we were condemned to live and die according to choices made by others. We had become truly Sahelian.

The Sahel is a line.

But it is also a crack in the heart—a tightrope, a brink, a ledge. See how its people walk: straight-backed on paths of red dust, placing one foot carefully before the other, as if balanced upon a knife edge. The Sahel is a bullet’s trajectory. It is the track of rains that fall but never touch the sand. It is a call to prayer and a call for your blood, and for me a desert road without end.

More from Paul Salopek

Stories like Salopek's are intriguing, not just for the artistry of his prose or the impressive setting in which his story takes place. Adventure reporters like Salopek (for what else should he be called?) fascinate by the claim of legitimacy they make. Far from gesturing toward the journalistic ideal of objective detachment, the journalist-qua-artist presents a very personal meditation on a complex situation. Fragmentary interviews and evocative descriptions of an alien landscape weave together with bread-and-butter facts and history to form a narrative elegy to those left behind by the homogenizing force of globalization but who are still with us.

What gives Salopek's words force is not simply the fact that he has been to a place I have not. It is that he expresses a sense of reverie, of thoughtful curiosity, that eludes the breathless reporting of the 24-hour news networks.

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