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A British teacher's eight journeys in the Sudan desert

A Desert Dies, by Michael Asher. New York: St. Martin's Press. 330 pp. $19.95. Michael Asher has written a remarkable - if perhaps prematurely entitled book - ``A Desert Dies.'' He provides us with the names and personal stories of the same people whom we, as television viewers, watched starve and die anonymously on 60-second news spots during the 1984 Sahelian drought.

Renewed rains in 1985 and 1986 have alleviated the famine conditions somewhat. This relief has permitted our collective attention to turn to other locales of human suffering.

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But Asher takes us back to places TV crews have long since left. He recounts stories of his friends among the Kababish tribe, a confederation of nomadic Arab clans in northwest Sudan, with which he traveled on camel and afoot from 1982 to 1985.

Asher, a British subject and former paratrooper in Northern Ireland, had worked as a teacher for four years in Darfur, Sudan's westernmost province. It was an area already racked by tribal conflict and the spillover of the Chadian civil war.

He resigned in order to keep company with the nomadic tribesmen who periodically would pass through his town. He already spoke fluent Sudanese Arabic and quickly learned the dialects and the basics of camel craft.

He recorded his first journeys in ``In Search of the Forty Days Road,'' published by Longman in the United Kingdom.

``A Desert Dies'' tells the stories of his eight journeys with several of the Kababish clans to the northern salt mines, oases, winter pasture - and along the camel trade route to Cairo.

Useful appendixes provide lists of the clans, the names of his companions on each journey, a glossary of key Arabic words, botanical species of the desert, a family tree of the Nazir of the Kababish, and detailed location maps.

Asher's book is not like the many recent self-proclaimed epic accounts of desert expeditions - all ridiculously overequipped and along routes chosen more for how challenging they appear to a map reader at home than for the logic they have for a native traveler. ``A Desert Dies'' fits squarely into the tradition of Wilfred Thesiger. Thesiger traveled in these same parts before World War II, gaining the esteem of Arab companions simply by being at one with them, traveling their routes in their manner.

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Asher's prose has the same ring as Thesiger's classic ``Arabian Sands'' - understated, true to experience, and respectful of the words and wisdom of his companions. He notes, for instance, that the Arabic word hurr, meaning free, is used to denote human generosity, freedom from servitude - and, among camels, the finest of physical attributes.

He writes eloquently about how a man of the desert responds to a campfire at night, a cup of tea when thirsty, a shade tree at noon, or the reassuring plunk of a pebble dropped into a deep desert well when all else is still. All of these things firmly anchor and center a man in an environment that has little shape, no dimension, and an endless flow of time.

Asher's facility with the language, his tribal friendships going back several years, the protection offered him by the Kababish Nazir, and, most important, his physical endurance and toughness of spirit - all earn him the respect of his fellows.

We trust what he says because of his honesty in describing the few incidents that reflect badly on him. This degree of circumspection should be a point of reference for all travel writers who fancy themselves having ``gone native.''

This is no self-absorbed book. His richest description is of the personalities of companions on the pack caravans and camel drives that he joins as an extra working hand. He accompanies a tribal official into the northern pasture lands to collect a camel tax from each household for the building of a local hospital. He sees the illogic of depriving a family of the extra animal that may be the only thing standing between subsistence and starvation.

Indeed, later when a man's hand is mangled by a bull camel and he travels three days to reach the hospital, he dies at its locked, never-opened door. Asher places himself, in one instance literally, in the cross fire between the Nazir enforcing his authority and the tribesmen desperate to hold onto their livelihoods.

Asher next rides with a salt caravan, getting the chance he thinks will prove his worth when he outdigs his fellows at the mine. Only later does he realize that for a camel man physical labor is something to be scorned and can never compensate for an elementary knowledge of the camel.

On a camel drive to Cairo he performs all of the chores expected of him, including keeping all-night vigils against thieves, until the herd is stopped by Egyptian border guards and he is taken away from the drive. Only then is he candid, and somewhat critical, about his naivet'e in thinking he might pass for just another Kababish camel man.

Asher's early witness to the drought, already imminent in 1982 with late and scarce rains, earned him no favor from the authorities. By 1985, he had been banned from Dar al-Kababish because of his insistent appeals for outside relief. Three years before, he had noted the Arabs' concern about their sparse winter pasturage that forced an early return to summer wells before the camels were sufficiently fattened to survive to dry months.

Asher sees the causes that led to the famine as multifaceted and interactive - cyclically failing rains, government bore wells that permit larger year-round animal populations in the area, and indiscriminate grazing and tree cutting.

Not that these factors, and especially the last, were unrecognized. One tribesman tells Asher, ``Remember this. Whoever destroys a tree in this land destroys life itself.'' It remains unclear, however, if even with renewed rains the Kababish can replenish their herds and survive as subsistence pastoralists.

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