This is a brilliant book about the recent history of Algeria, France and the Sahara. Recent is in this case since 1830. In those days France started its reluctant relationship with that piece of land and its inhabitants caught between the sea and the sand. The Ottoman-empire had an influence in this area, and slowly French influence entered this area.
This history is told in detail and in the broad picture. Two names are singled out.
One is Count Charles de Foucauld (1858 – 1916), who was a military man, who loved the good life, who ended up in North Africa. Somewhere along the road he decided to leave the army and to join the church and becom a priest. It was his vocation to work in the desert and to start his own order. He was very strict in his convictions on the life of poverty. He studied Tamacheq, he wanted to understand the way of life of the Tuareg. His life was taken in the desert. The first community of the Little Brethren of the Holy Heart was started in 1933, four years later the Little Sisters followed. In 1980 the c0mmunity of Little Brethren was chased from the place where Foucauld was killed.
The other one is Henri Laperrine (1860 – 1920), he was a military man as well. For many years he spent time in the desert, trying to get to know the Tuareg who ruled the sands and the routes that were used by travellers. He was a general in the Great War. He died after a planecrash in the Sahara-desert.
These two men knew one another and they appreciated one another. Both knew what it meant to obey orders, but also how to find ways around these orders. Two men with great gifts who had fallen in love with the desert and its inhabitants.
There are many more characters in this book, both French and Algerian and Tuareg. Many odd ideas emerged in those days. One of these ideas was to build a railroad right through the desert. A railroad to encourage French presence and trade, not so much for the desert-area, but those large stretches of land south of the Sahara.
Fergus Fleming – The Sword and the Cross – 2003