Reading about: The Sahara

The Sahara is a big deal. Geographically, environmentally, psychically; it’s a pivot point that life on this planet revolves around. Huge in scale, it’s the largest hot desert in the world (Antarctica wins the big prize, but that’s all cold, all of the time). If it were its own country, it would be between Brazil and China in size. People have lived there for millennia, but have never conquered it; it’s almost always the other way around. It will absorb you, cover you up, obliterating your presence. Lovely at times, but truly deadly.

Sahara by satellite
Sahara by satellite
(image via NASA)

I think I’ve daydreamed about it my whole life. It’s also been a persistent character in my literary travels. So, with Mali a few stops back, and Niger and Djibouti on the horizon, I figured it was a good time to try to get a sense of place. I couldn’t have picked a better book: Sahara Unveiled by William Langewiesche. Satisfyingly spare prose, and even more sparse emotions. He doesn’t view the desert or the people that live there as enemies, through a prism of exoticism, or as some sort of harsh mystery to figure out; he states what he finds, and is very succinct in expressing his sometimes mixed emotions. I came away still wanting to see it with my own eyes, but with a better sense of what is really there.

Tadrart Acacus, a desert area in south western Libya
Tadrart Acacus, a desert area in south western Libya
(image by Luca Galuzzi, via Wikimedia Commons)

A funny, but telling moment in the book…

The author:”I want to see the desert”.

A local in a desert town: “Why?”

Couscous, Timbuktu-style

Couscous de Timbuktu

Savory yet sweet; spicy, but at the same time delicate – this dish is a bit of a wonder. Easy to prepare, it would be great for a family supper, or a dinner party with friends. The flavors are all there to make everyone happy, just use your creativity with the presentation…

Note: the original recipe calls for 1 to 2 TABLESPOONS of cayenne. I just could not go there…I like spicy food, but that level of heat doesn’t speak to me. If you ever roll out with that, please let me know how it tastes!

Timbuktu Couscous(image by The Global Reader)
Timbuktu Couscous
(image by The Global Reader)

Adapted from a recipe at Celtnet


  • 2-3 lbs. chicken, beef or lamb, cut into bite sized pieces (I used beef)
  • Oil  for frying ( I used unrefined coconut oil)
  • 1 tsp. fennel seeds
  • 1/2 tsp finely ground black pepper
  • 2 14 oz. cans whole tomatoes
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 3 tsp. salt
  • 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/3 Tbsp. ground cardamom
  • 2 tsp cayenne
  • 2 Cups water
  • 1/4-1/2 cup dates, pitted and pureed in a food processor
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 Tbsp. ground cumin
  • 2 Tbsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • 2-3 medium onions, diced
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parley


  1. Season the meat with salt and pepper
  2. Heat oil in a large pot over high heat.
  3. Add the onions and cook until translucent.
  4. Add the meat and garlic and cook until the meat is well browned.
  5. Add the spices and stir-fry for a few minutes.
  6. Add the tomatoes and enough water to just cover the ingredients and bring the mixture to a boil.
  7. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for about 1 hour, or until the meat is tender.
  8. Add date puree and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce has reduced by half its volume.
  9. Adjust the seasonings, transfer to a serving bowl, and sprinkle with chopped parsley
  10. Serve with couscous.

To drink, I made up a batch of West African Ginger Juice. Oh. So. Good

A Mali Dinner(image by The Global Reader)
A Mali Dinner
(image by The Global Reader)

Reading about Mali: Timbuktu and Beyond…

Life for me has been Large as of late. Some good, some bad. Haven’t even had a chance to process it all yet…

I’ve had to leave quite a bit on the side of the road, just so I could keep moving. One thing I dropped was this blog.

I had a really ambitious schedule set from mid-November to the end of 2012: 3 countries, and then a few weeks reading about Mayan history (just to counterbalance all of the 12/21/12 apocalypse nonsense). So many good meals to cook, so much new stuff to learn…

That did not happen. And that’s just how it goes sometimes.

That said…the slow pace allowed things to be all about Mali. And what an interesting time to be tuning in…

The Hand of Fatima, Hombori, Mali(image by By Timm Guenther (Timm Busshaus) (Own work)  via Wikimedia Commons)
The Hand of Fatima, Hombori, Mali
(image by By Timm Guenther (Timm Busshaus) (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons)

Things have escalated since my last post:  tried to turn its attentions towards Bamako, international troops are now on the ground and fully involved in the conflict, the hostage situation in Algeria (that seemed to be directly connected to events in Mali) ended badly, Timbuktu is back under the control of Malian forces…it’s a fluid situation, to say the least.

It’s been interesting to follow the events while at the same time reading more in-depth books about the country. One that I found really informative was Timbuktu: The Sahara’s Fabled City of Gold by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle.

A detailed examination of the history of the city, and Mali as a whole (to a lesser degree), it covers a lot of ground – much of which I knew very little about. The salt trade, the Songhai Empire, the dramatic changes to the environment in the area, Timbuktu’s historical standing as a important center of learning, the different ethic and religious heritage of the people, the city’s slow decline…I seriously want to read a separate book on all of the above. Really fascinating stuff and a little more insight into the conflict that’s happening now: a deeper understanding, beyond a 2 minute TV news story or a few articles on-line…which has been the whole point of this blog.

It’s also helped me to remember that there are real people being affected, right now, by the events that I’m just reading about in my spare time.
If you’re interesting in helping the people in Mali, here’s one way to do just that:
Wateraid Mali.

Sankore Mosque(image by  Baz Lecocq via nl.wikipedia)
Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali(image by Baz Lecocq via nl.wikipedia) 

Country #14 – Mali

Apparently, the Universe wants me to learn about Africa: country #14 is…Mali!

I mentioned in my intro to Guinea-Bissau, that was my first experience highlighting a country that was possibly on the brink of armed conflict; Mali is even closer to the knife’s edge. Smarter voices than mine can give you the details; you should read up on it, because what’s happening there is a big deal.

That said, Mali is an amazing country, and I will not be dwelling too much on the current crisis.