Michael Asher (explorer)
Michael Asher is an author, historian, deep ecologist, and notable desert explorer who has covered more than 30,000 miles on foot and camel. He spent three years living with a traditional nomadic tribe in Sudan.
Michael Asher was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, in 1953, and attended Stamford School. At 18 he enlisted in the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, and saw active service in Northern Ireland during The Troubles there in the 1970s.
He studied English at the University of Leeds, at the same time serving in B Squadron, 23rd SAS Regiment. He also studied at Carnegie College, Leeds, where he qualified as a teacher of physical education and English.
In 1978-9 he worked for the RUC Special Patrol Group anti-terrorist patrols, but left after less than a year. He took a job as a volunteer English teacher in the Sudan in 1979.
The author of 21 published books, and presenter/director of 6 TV documentaries, Asher has lived in Africa for much of his life, and speaks Arabic and Swahili. He is married to Arabist and photographer Mariantonietta Peru, with whom he has a son and a daughter, Burton and Jade. He currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya.
Desert Travels and Life with Desert Nomads
Disillusioned by his experiences as a police anti-terrorist officer in Northern Ireland, Michael Asher went to the Sudan in 1979 to work as a volunteer English teacher in remote regions. In his first vacation he bought a camel and rode 1500 miles across Kordofan and Darfur, joining up with a camel-herd being taken north to Egypt along the ancient caravan-route known as the Darb al-Arba'in (Forty Days Road). This experience was the basis of his first book In Search of the Forty Days Road (Longmans, 1984)
It was while teaching at Dongola, on the Nile in northern Sudan, that Asher conceived the idea of travelling on foot and with camels the entire breadth of the Sahara from the Nile to the Atlantic - a distance of 3000 miles at its narrowest point. This journey had never been achieved and was later described by Reuters as 'the last great journey man had still to make.'
In 1982, Asher went to live with the Kababish – a traditional nomad tribe - as one of them. At this time, elements of the tribe were almost entirely isolated from the outside world. He remained with them over much of the next three years, learning their dialect of Arabic, travelling thousands of miles by camel, working as a herder, accompanying nomad migrations, and salt-caravans.
On a visit to Khartoum, Asher was asked by UNICEF Sudan to organise a camel caravan in the Red Sea Hills to take aid to Beja nomads cut off by drought and famine. On this expedition Asher met UNICEF publicity officer Mariantonietta Peru, an Italian: they married in 1986. A graduate of the University of Rome, Peru was a fluent Arabic speaker who had studied at the White Fathers institute, and at Ain Shams University in Cairo: she was also a UNICEF-trained photographer. Together, Asher and Peru planned to realize the vision Asher had conceived years earlier - the first ever crossing of the Sahara breadth-wise, by camel and on foot. Influenced by the work of British author Geoffrey Moorhouse, who had unsuccessfully attempted this crossing in 1972 (The Fearful Void, 1974), Asher decided, contrary to his original idea, to make the crossing from the Atlantic in Mauretania to the Nile Valley in Egypt.
In 1986, Asher and Peru arrived in Nouakchott Mauretania, and spent 3 months training with camels and learning the Hassaniyya dialect of Arabic, living in a traditional Moorish house in Chinguetti oasis. Setting off in August 1986, with 3 camels, they passed through Mauretania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and the Sudan, and finally arrived at the Nile at Abu Simbel in southern Egypt in May 1987, having made a journey of 271 days and 4500 miles by camel, the first recorded crossing of the Sahara from west to east by non-mechanical means.
In 1992, Asher crossed the Western Desert of Egypt, by camel, from Mersa Matruh on the Mediterranean coast, to Aswan in southern Egypt. He travelled with a single Bedouin companion: for almost a month the two travellers did not see another human being, and two of Asher's five camels died on the way. Asher commented that this journey was '"as near as one could get to travelling on another planet."
Asher and Peru crossed the Thar desert in India by camel, and travelled with nomads in Cholistan, Pakistan. They also crossed the Uruq ash-Shaiba, the highest dunes in the Empty Quarter of Arabia and trekked by camel in western Australia. In the course of his research for various books, Asher reconstructed T.E.Lawrence's camel-journeys in Jordan and Sinai, trekked in the Hoggar mountains of Algeria, and the Aouker valley of Mauretania. Asher and Peru also trekked on foot through the rainforest of northern Papua New Guinea and canoed by dugout down the Sepik river: Asher has visited Mount Kailash in Tibet, where he performed the sacred pilgrimage on foot.
Asher's early writings were influenced by Arabian Sands, explorer Wilfred Thesiger's account of his travels among the Bedouin of Arabia's Empty Quarter in the 1940s. Like Thesiger, Asher admired and even idealized the nomads: he claimed that while living with them he wanted simply to become one of them, but realized that this was ultimately impossible, as their world too was on the brink of change. In Thesiger and Last of the Bedu, Asher rejected what he claimed was Thesiger's 'paternalism', citing the questionable spectre of 'a rich man telling poor men that they are better off poor.' Asher declared that it was for the nomads themselves to decide their own future.
Asher later revoked this attitude entirely, and came to believe that industrial society destroys the environment and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and forces them into civilization, where, having been deprived of their sustainable way of life, they become dependent on an unsustainable system. He claims that this system is currently disintegrating as a result of overshooting the earth's carrying capacity, and that the ecological crisis has already gone beyond tipping point.
Asher maintains that the key to understanding the relationship between non-industrial and industrial peoples is the concept of 'poverty'. Though the nomads lacked material goods, he has said, they were not actually 'poor' - they had all they needed for a sustainable life. Poverty, he says, is a product of civilization, in which some groups have more wealth than others, maintaining their access to benefits by the threat of force.
In 2000, Asher was commissioned to go to Iraq with a film crew to investigate the story of the ill-fated SAS patrol, Bravo Two Zero, celebrated in the popular books of two of its members, under the pseudonyms Andy McNab and Chris Ryan. Following in the patrol's footsteps in the Iraqi desert, Asher interviewed many eye-witnesses in Arabic, and was able to cast doubt on the authors' sensationalised accounts.
The results were published in his book The Real Bravo Two Zero, and in the Channel 4 TV documentary of the same name, and serialised for 4 days in the Daily Mail. Asher's book reached No.5 in the Sunday Times best-seller chart, and raised a storm of controversy. Asher claimed that his main achievement, though, was in exonerating Sgt. Vince Phillips, who died on the mission, and who had been blamed for its failure. Phillips' family received an official letter of exoneration from the Ministry of Defence as a result of Asher's work.
Following the success of this book, Asher was commissioned to write a number of other non-fiction works combining military history with North Africa, the Middle East, and the desert environment. These include Get Rommel, about Operation Flipper, the British attempt to assassinate Rommel in Libya in 1941, Sands of Death, about the Tuareg and the ill-fated Mission Flatters of 1883, The Regiment, a history of the SAS Regiment, and Khartoum, the Ultimate Imperial Adventure, the story of the Gordon Relief Expedition and the reconquest of the Sudan. Asher has also written a biography of T. E. Lawrence - Lawrence - the Uncrowned King of Arabia, and a 4-part a military adventure series entitled Death or Glory, set in North Africa and Italy in World War II.
In 2002, Asher became committed to deep ecology, an eco-philosophy based on the idea that all life is of intrinsic value, irrespective of its value to human beings, and that humans have no right to interfere with nature except for essential needs. Asher claims that, like all non-industrial 'non-civilized' peoples, the nomads he lived with held this world-view. He claims that unlike members of industrial society, the pastoralists did not destroy their landbase, being aware that the sustainability of their society depended on it, and that their way of life had thus remained viable for millennia. He has said that his commitment to deep ecology was the culmination of ideas formed during his life with the Kababish. Asher opposes the Hobbesian view that selfish individualism is inherent in human nature, citing his direct experience of nomad society, in which community values and sharing are paramount and selfishness virtually unknown. Asher writes regularly on deep ecology for the Nairobi daily newspaper 'The Star.'
Work for the United Nations, Human Rights, and Education
Michael Asher worked as Project Officer for the joint WHO/UNICEF Joint Nutrition Support Program, among the Beja nomads of the Red Sea Hills, eastern Sudan. He later returned to Darfur, western Sudan, with a team working under the aegis of UNEP, to make a study of the Janjaweed horsemen-militias involved in the civil war. Asher has been employed by the British Council, to train the police in Nyala, Darfur, the Sudan, and in Wau & Kwajok, Republic of South Sudan. More recently he worked as a consultant for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on human rights and the handling of disengaged guerilla fighters, in keeping with International Humanitarian and Human Rights law. Asher has also taught courses in 'Feudalism, Absolutism and Democracy' at the International School of Kenya (ISK)
Awards and Acclaim
- 1996 - Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
- 1994 - Awarded the Ness Award of the Royal Geographical Society, for desert exploration and work with camels
- 1997 - Awarded the Mungo Park Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for desert exploration on foot and with camels
- 2008, US author and historian Dean King, author of Skeletons on the Zahara and Unbound, wrote of Asher, "Having walked the entire breadth of the Sahara himself & examined the lives of Wilfred Thesiger and T. E. Lawrence, 2 of the greatest desert explorers of the past century, Asher understands this passion, this place and these people as well as any Westerner alive."
- The Eye of Ra (1999)
- Firebird (2000)
- Rare Earth (2002)
- Sandstorm (2003)
- Death or Glory 1: The Last Commando (2009)
- Death or Glory 2: The Flaming Sword (2010)
- Death or Glory 3: Highroad to Hell (2012)
- Death or Glory 4: Codes of Combat. (2014) Publication date TBD
- In Search of the Forty Days Road: Adventures with the Nomads of the Desert (1984)
- A Desert Dies (1986)
- Impossible Journey – Two Against the Sahara (1988)
- Shoot to Kill: A Soldier's Journey Through Violence (1990)
- Thesiger (1994)
- The Last of the Bedu: In Search of the Myth (1996)
- Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia (1998)
- The Real Bravo Two Zero: The Truth Behind Bravo Two Zero (2002)
- Get Rommel: The British Plot to Kill Hitler's Greatest General (2004)
- Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure (2005)
- Sands of Death: An Epic Tale of Massacre and Survival in the Sahara (2007)
- The Regiment: The Real Story of the SAS (2007)
- Sahara (with Kazoyoshi Nomachi) (1996)
- Phoenix Rising – The UAE Past, Present & Future (with Werner Forman) (1996)
Various of Asher's books are published in 12 languages, including French, Italian, German,Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, Polish, Chinese, Arabic, Hungarian, Czech and Korean.
Asher has contributed frequently to leading newspapers including The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Washington Post, The Observer, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and magazines including Reader's Digest, The Geographical Magazine, Hello, Conde Nast Traveler, and many others.
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Asher and his wife Mariantonietta Peru follow in the footsteps of T.E. Lawrence by camel in Jordan, Israel and Egypt, in an attempt to test some of the claims made in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, including his apparent crossing of Sinai in 49 hours. The film was shown on Channel 4 and NatGeo TV, and won a BAFTA award.
Reconstructing the 1856 expedition by Burton and Speke to discover the source of the Nile, Asher and Peru travel by sailing dhow from Zanzibar to Bagamoyo in Tanzania, and with donkeys to Lake Tanganyika, ending their journey at Lake Victoria. They examine the mystery of Speke's betrayal of Burton's trust, and why he apparently shot himself dead on the eve of their final showdown. The film was shown on Channel 4.
Asher follows in the footsteps of the ill-fated Bravo Two Zero patrol in Iraq, interviewing Bedouin witnesses in Arabic. He locates the LUP Ryan and McNab mention in their books, and meets the herdsboy they claimed spotted Vince Phillips. He traces the Bedouin who found Phillips' body in the desert, and is rewarded with Phillips's binoculars. He erects a small monument to Phillips in the place his body was found, and brings back the binos to his bereaved family in the UK.
Shot in Libya just before the fall of Gadaffi, this documentary is partly based on Asher's book, Get Rommel and is about the 1941 attempt to assassinate the 'Desert Fox', Erwin Rommel, by British commandos, all but 3 of whom were captured or killed. The second half of the film, with a different presenter, deals with the successful kidnapping of General Kreipe by SOE agents, including Paddy Leigh Fermor, in 1942. Shown on NatGeo TV.
Directed and presented by Asher, the film looks at the lives of survivors of the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi by al-Qaeda, including Muslim families indiscriminately targeted. The film was shown on Nation TV, Kenya
Asher talks to survivors of the bombing of the Paradise Hotel, Kilifi, Kenya, by al-Qaeda. Shown on KBC, Kenya.
- "Michael Asher – Penguin UK Authors – Penguin UK". Penguin.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-01-17.
- Arts: Who's been here: About the University: University of Leeds[dead link]
- Dean King. Introduction to Death in the Sahara by Michael Asher, 2008.