Michael Asher (explorer)
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 of the 1970s.
He studied English Language & Linguistics 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 English and PE.
The author of twenty-three published books, and presenter/director of six 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.
In 1982, aged 29, Asher went to live among the Kababish nomads of the western Sudan, having previously registered as a Ph.D student in Arabic Linguistics at the University of Ulster at Coleraine. He stayed with them for most of the next three years. During his first year he made an intensive study of their unrecorded dialect of Arabic, while living and travelling with them on migrations, with salt caravans, and camel-herds. After that year, his supervisor wanted him to return to university, but by then he had become, in his own words, so 'entranced by their way of life that I couldn't face returning to civilization.' The nomads had none of the comforts of industrial society, and knew little of the outside world, but Asher felt their life was richer and more meaningful than the one he had been brought up in. 'They lived close to the Earth, and knew they were part of it,' he said. 'They lived by a code which I translate as 'human-ness', consisting of courage, loyalty, generosity, hospitality and endurance.' A person was rated by the extent to which they possessed these qualities. It was a non-materialist, sharing society, in which the community, not the individual, was paramount. 'Most of all, they had a participatory relationship with nature. They felt themselves to be part of the Earth rather than separate from it, or superior to it.' Asher wrote that those three years changed him forever. 'I had learned what I consider to be the most profound lesson of my life - that there are other, more successful ways of living than ours, and that industrial civilization is not the 'best of all possible worlds.
On a visit to Khartoum, after his last journey with the nomads, Asher was asked by UNICEF Sudan to organise a camel caravan in the Red Sea Hills to take aid to Beja people cut off by drought and famine. On this expedition Asher met UNICEF PR 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 realise a 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— Asher decided, contrary to his original idea, to make the crossing from the Atlantic in Mauritania to the Nile in Egypt.
Setting off from Chinguetti in Mauritania, in August 1986, with three camels, they passed through Mauritania, 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: two of their five camels died on the way.
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 with Tuareg in the Hoggar mountains of Algeria, and the Aoukar valley of Mauritania. 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 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 felt that the nomads lived a more meaningful life than people in industrial civilization: he has said 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. Asher later got to know Thesiger well, visiting him often in his wood cabin near Maralal, northern Kenya, where he recorded hours of interviews that formed the basis of the book Thesiger – A Biography In the course of his research for the biography he travelled in Thesiger's footsteps in Oman, Yemen, Djibouti, Ethiopia and the UAE, and crossed the 'Uruq ash-Shaiba dunes of the Empty Quarter by camel. Asher and Peru interviewed all of Thesiger's surviving Bedu companions, including Salim bin Ghabeisha and Salim bin Kabina, in Arabic.
Work for the United Nations, human rights and education
In 1988-9, Asher worked as Project Officer for the 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, in human rights, as part of the SAJP (Security and Access to Justice Programme). More recently he worked for UNPOS (UN Political Office, Somalia), training the UN-mandated peace-keeping forces, AMISOM, in human rights and the treatment and handling of disengaged guerilla fighters. Asher has taught courses in Feudalism, Absolutism and Democracy at the International School of Kenya (ISK), and English Literature, Language & Linguistics, at Hillcrest International Schools, Kenya.
In 2000, Asher was commissioned to go to Iraq with a film crew to investigate the story of the SAS patrol, Bravo Two Zero, celebrated in the popular books of two of its members, Steven Mitchell and Colin Armstrong, under the pseudonyms Andy McNab and Chris Ryan. Following in the patrol's footsteps in the Iraqi desert, Asher interviewed many eyewitnesses in Arabic, whose testimony 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 five days in the Daily Mail. Asher's book reached No.5 in the Sunday Times best-seller chart. Asher claimed that his main achievement, though, was in exonerating Sergeant 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. Asher's book was received indignantly by 'McNab', who described it as 'infuriating', while 'Ryan' made ill-disguised threats of violence against Asher in an interview in The Observer. Threats to sue Asher for libel never materialised.
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 Erwin Rommel in Libya in 1941, Sands of Death, about the Flatters expedition of 1881 and the Tuareg, The Regiment, a history of the SAS Regiment, and Khartoum, the Ultimate Imperial Adventure, the story of the fall of Khartoum, the Gordon Relief Expedition and the reconquest of the Sudan. Besides his biography of Wilfred Thesiger,Thesiger – A Biography, he has also written a life of T. E. Lawrence – Lawrence – the Uncrowned King of Arabia. As a historian, Asher is noted for his integrity, adherence to fact, forensic approach and iconoclasm, and his distrust of the 'hagiographic' and 'mythologizing' school of historiography.
From 2000-2002 Asher and Peru lived in Rabat, Morocco, where their daughter, Jade, was born. After a trip by camel in southern Morocco, Asher began running camel treks for small groups in the Hammada du Draa. After returning to the Sudan to research his book, Khartoum - The Ultimate Imperial Adventure he planned and carried out expeditions in the Bayuda Desert, in the footsteps of the British Camel Corps expedition of 1885. Asher was the first person to organize and lead adventure camel treks in the Sudan. He later led expeditions by camel in the Ennedi Plateau of Chad, and the Chalbi desert of northern Kenya. Asher cites these expeditions as 'real thing' adventures, crossing true wilderness without the support of motor vehicles, covering 25–30 km a day, carrying everything on camels' back. Asher has said that his main purpose in running these expeditions is to encourage a reconnection with the wilderness that is only possible on foot.
In 2005, Asher became an activist in deep ecology, an eco-philosophy based on the idea that all life is of intrinsic value, irrespective of its value to humans, and that humans have no right to interfere with nature except for vital needs. Asher's commitment to deep ecology was the outcome of his years with the nomads, during which he experienced first hand a life close to nature, without industrial technology, class hierarchy, formal education, or any of the institutions of industrial civilization. His experience of behaviour among the nomads led him to the conclusion that the closer the culture is to nature, the stronger its regard for other humans, and for nature itself. Asher opposes the Hobbesian view that humans are inherently selfish and destructive, noting that, in nomad society, selfishness was virtually unknown. Aware that it is industrial society's fundamental lack of connection with the Earth that has resulted its problems, including the destruction of biodiversity and climate change, and its possible collapse, he advocates a return to the 'narrative of connection' he experienced with the nomads, in line with the deep ecology tenet that the ideological, economic, and technological structures of civilization must be changed. He has written a number of articles on the ecological world view, and was the author of a deep ecology column in the Kenyan national newspaper, The Star.
Awards and acclaim
- 1994 – Awarded the Ness Award of the Royal Geographical Society, for desert exploration and work with camels
- 1996 – Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
- 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."
- 2016 – Awarded the Lawrence of Arabia Memorial Medal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs for “work of outstanding merit in the fields of exploration, research or literature", a distinction awarded only 33 times since it was instituted in 1935.
- The Eye of Ra (1999)
- Firebird (2000)
- Rare Earth (2002)
- Sandstorm (2003)
- The Last Commando (2009)
- The Flaming Sword (2010)
- Highroad to Hell (2012)
- Code of Combat. (2014)
- The Colour of Fire (2018)
- 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 – A Biography (1994)
- Sahara (with Kazoyoshi Nomachi) (1996)
- Phoenix Rising – The UAE Past, Present & Future (with Werner Forman) (1996)
- 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); Penguin Books, London 2006, ISBN 978-014025855-4.
- Sands of Death: An Epic Tale of Massacre and Survival in the Sahara (2007)
- The Regiment: The Real Story of the SAS (2007), republished as The Regiment: The Definitive Story of the SAS (2018)
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.
- In Search of Lawrence (1999); Asher and 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.
- Death, Deceit and the Nile (2000); 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.
- The Real Bravo Two Zero (2002); Asher follows in the footsteps of the 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' 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.
- Stalking Hitler's Generals (2012); 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 three 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.
- Survivors (2008); 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
- Paradise is Burning (2008); 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 17 January 2012.
- Prominent alumni – Writing
- Asher, Michael. In Search of the Forty Days Road. Longmans 1984
- Asher, Michael. A Desert Dies. (1986) ISBN 0-670-81264-1
- Asher, Michael. Impossible Journey – Two Against the Sahara.(1988) ISBN 0-670-81265-X
- Asher, Michael. Impossible Journey – Two Against the Sahara (1988) ISBN o-670-81265-X
- Moorhouse, Geoffrey, The Fearful Void. (1984)
- Hanbury-Tenison, R. & Twigger R.(eds) The Modern Explorers (2013) ISBN 978-0-500-51684-3
- Asher, Michael. Last of the Bedu: In Search of the Myth (1996)
- Asher, Michael. Thesiger – A Biography.(1994) ISBN 0-670-83769-5
- Thesiger, Wilfred Arabian Sands (1959)
- Asher, Michael, Thesiger – A Biography (1994) ISBN 0-670-83769-5
- Asher, Michael. The Real Bravo Two Zero – The Truth About Bravo Two Zero.(2002) ISBN 0-75284-247-1
- Asher, Michael. The Real Bravo Two Zero (2002)
- Deep Ecology for the 21st Century Ed.George Sessions 1995
- Dean King. Introduction to Death in the Sahara by Michael Asher, 2008.