The best books about Egypt and the Sahara before and during WWII

Eamonn Gearon Author Of The Sahara: A Cultural History
By Eamonn Gearon

Who am I?

Virtually my entire professional life has involved the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). As an author, teacher, public speaker, and historian, I’ve worked with everyone from school children to retirees, via university students and hundreds of American and British diplomats. One era I'm still in thrall to is the first half of the Twentieth century in Egypt, from Cairo to the Sahara. In part because of European involvement in the country at this time, this was a very important period for the country, the wider Middle East, and the post-war trajectory of the region. Taken together, the five books I recommend offer different but complementary sides of a fascinating, multi-faced place and time.  

I wrote...

The Sahara: A Cultural History

By Eamonn Gearon,

Book cover of The Sahara: A Cultural History

What is my book about?

The Sahara is my attempt to produce as accessible a book about the world’s greatest desert as possible. After discussing the history of the desert itself, my work considers how it has inspired and influenced poets, authors, artists, filmmakers, explorers, and a few cranks, from the earliest examples of rock art to empires of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and on through the Arab invasions, to the modern European incursions, from Napoleon to the Second World War and beyond. 

The best books about Egypt and the Sahara before and during WWII all feature in The Sahara, and while each is great in its own right they also complement each other very nicely, from travel and exploration to memoir, two novels, one in English and one by the Arab world’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The books I picked & why

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Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World

By Ralph A. Bagnold,

Book cover of Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World

Why this book?

A unique work, Libyan Sands is the first book to describe the thrills and pitfalls of exploring the Sahara by car: it also inspired me to explore the desert, albeit with camels, not cars. Bagnold writes with verve and passion about his pioneering journeys, in the 1920s and 1930s, driving with colleagues across hundreds of miles of uncharted desert, in tiny Ford Model-T cars, the first people to do so. As he writes, “The fact is we were a little afraid of the desert.” With good reason! During WWII he formed the Long Range Desert Group, which carried out missions hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, and the adventures of Bagnold and his fellow European enthusiasts would later inspire Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel The English Patient

Wind, Sand and Stars

By Antoine de Saint-Exupery,

Book cover of Wind, Sand and Stars

Why this book?

Wind, Sand and Stars is one of the most beautiful and poetically-written memoirs of all time. The centerpiece of the book is a crash-landing made by Saint-Exupéry and his co-pilot in the Egyptian Sahara, in December 1935. Unsure of their precise location, and without means of radioing for help, the two men, seemingly without any hope of rescue, faced desperate fear-filled days in the desert, plus unimaginable thirst, hunger, and imminent death, before their almost miraculous deliverance: “All other pleasures seem trivial to those of us who have known the joy of a rescue in the Sahara.” Saint-Exupéry is the most translated and best-selling French language author of all time, thanks to his charming and fantastical fable, The Little Prince, but Wind, Sand and Stars is even better. 

The English Patient

By Michael Ondaatje,

Book cover of The English Patient

Why this book?

The English Patient is one of the greatest novels of the Twentieth century. It weaves together stories of exploration, of the Sahara, of love, and identity, against the backdrop of the North African and Italian Campaigns in WWII. By turns tender and terrifying, the narrative is driven by the main character, the eponymous mystery man who – spoiler alert – turns out not to be an English patient at all, but a Hungarian, Lászlo Almásy, whose badly-burned face and body, following another plane crash in the desert, left him unidentifiable, until the arrival of someone who spied for British intelligence, who knows the ‘English Patient’ for who he really is. The story draws on real inter-war Saharan exploration, by car and plane, carried out by the real Almaśy, Bagnold, and others.   

Khan Al-Khalili

By Naguib Mahfouz,

Book cover of Khan Al-Khalili

Why this book?

Khan al-Khalili is a famous bazaar in the historic heart of Cairo, and the setting of this powerful and thought-provoking novel by Naguib Mahfouz. One of the most important Egyptian and Arab authors of the Twentieth century, in 1988, Mahfouz became the first Arabic-language writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Mahfouz spent much of his life in and around Khan al-Khalili, which gives this novel an intimacy and sense of place akin to Dicken's writing about Victorian London. It is 1942, and Egypt is tense as the war moves closer and closer to the capital, and Cairenes from different generations thrust together in the crowded neighborhood variously argue for and against tradition, modernity, religious faith, and secularism. This is a great read, and even better if you’re able to read it while sitting in a café in Khan al-Khalili. 

Cairo in the War, 1939-45

By Artemis Cooper,

Book cover of Cairo in the War, 1939-45

Why this book?

Cairo in the War, 1939–1945 is a brilliant, fast-moving, narrative-driven piece of historical writing focussed on the British ruling elite in Egypt, before they won the war and subsequently lost this once vital North African imperial land-holding. The cast of characters reads like a Who’s Who of mid-century literary heavyweights, political operators, and military strategists, including everyone from Lawrence Durrell (whose Alexandria Quartet is also set in this period), Evelyn Waugh, Fitzroy Maclean, Olivia Manning, the brilliant Alexandrian Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, and Paddy Leigh Fermor. While much of the rest of the world burned, the British elite in Cairo partied, and in the process managed to annoy many American, Australian, and New Zealand allies and Egyptian foes alike, while sowing the seeds of an anti-monarchical feeling that eventually saw King Farouk toppled in 1952.

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