Michael Asher (explorer)
Michael Asher (born 1953) 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 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.
The author of twenty-one 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, Asher went to live with the Kababish tribe – a traditional nomad tribe – living in Kordofan in the Sudan, as one of them. 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 people 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 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 Valley in Egypt.
In 1986, Asher and Peru arrived in Mauritania, and spent three months training with camels and learning the Hassaniyya Arabic, living in a traditional Moorish house in Chinguetti oasis. Setting off 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, and two of Asher's 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 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 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 – A Biography  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. Later, as a member of the deep ecology movement, Asher refuted this view, arguing that industrial civilization deliberately destroys indigenous cultures and expropriates their land and resources.
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 also taught courses in Feudalism, Absolutism and Democracy at the International School of Kenya (ISK). Extracts from Asher's books have been used by the Cambridge International Examinations board for their 'Common Entrance' examination, and various English comprehension books for High School level students.
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' sensationalized 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 materialized.
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. His most recent fiction work is a military adventure series Death or Glory, featuring as protagonist an SAS officer named Tom Caine, a former Royal Engineer, who has worked his way up through the ranks. The series is set in WW2.
Asher began running treks by camel for small groups in the desert of Morocco in 2002. He later extended these to the Bayuda Desert of the Sudan, and in 2013–14 led a pilot trek in the Ennedi Plateau of northern Chad. 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.
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 human beings, and that humans have no right to interfere with nature except for essential needs. .
Asher has said that his commitment to deep ecology was the culmination of ideas formed during his life with the nomads. He opposes the Hobbesian view that humans are inherently selfish and destructive, 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.
Asher is an admirer of the works of Baruch Spinoza, Peter Kropotkin, Herbert Marcuse, Arne Næss, Derrick Jensen, Susan Griffiths, Daniel Quinn, Chellis Glendinning, Mary Midgley, Erich Fromm, E.F. Schumacher. Carolyn Merchant, Fritjof Capra, Marshall Sahlins, Terence McKenna, Riane Eisler, and other author-philosophers who have challenged the assumptions of the scientific world view. He is a critic of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, O. E. Wilson, and the school of sociobiology.
Asher has raised controversy through his stance on elephant-poaching and the idea of poaching in general. While he deplores the destruction of any living thing for other than vital necessity, he has pointed out, to some acrimony, that a 'war against poachers' leads only to the persecution of poor Africans: the real villains, he says, are the powerful political figures, who, in cahoots with individuals from foreign states, sponsor the killing of elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife. Asher maintains that elephants and all other wildlife have a right to live unhampered by humans in any way. This includes the current use of GPS tags, which he believes reduces elephants to the status of domestic animals. It is the commodification of wildlife, whether as 'trophies', or as a source of revenue through tourism, he says, that has itself created the concept of poaching.
Asher has also caused controversy through his attempt to ban the Rhino Charge; an annual car-rally through the Kenyan wilderness, whose ostensible goal is to raise money for rhino conservation, and is supported among other organisations, by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Asher has brought to attention academic studies proving that the annual rally – a resort mainly of wealthy motoring enthusiasts – causes permanent damage to the landbase, and has cited the ridiculous and irrational spectre of destroying one part of nature to preserve another, when all parts of Nature are intricately connected. Asher has condemned WWF for supporting this rally, and pandering to the wealthy, when other, non-destructive methods of raising money are available, including marathons, horse-treks, hikes, and bicycle-rides.
Asher has been involved in attempts to prevent the construction of the Gilgel Gibe III Dam dam on Lake Turkana, which he believes will create the biggest ecological catastrophe since the Aral Sea disaster, and has spoken out against the forcible eviction of indigenous peoples in the Omo valley, north of the dam, by the Ethiopian government, to make way for sugar-cane and cotton plantations. He has pointed out that these crops will quickly deplete the topsoil, and result in phosphates being washed into the Omo and Lake Turkana. He has asserted that the forcible removal of indigenous people from their traditional homeland without their consent, is classed as genocide under International and Human Rights law.
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.
Asher is named in the 'writing' section of Distinguished Alumni of the University of Leeds, alongside Nobel Prize Literature laureate, Wole Soyinka, and poet Sir Geoffrey Hill FRSL.
- 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: Code of Combat. (14 November 2014)
- 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)
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 2012-01-17.
- 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, Last of the Bedu – in Search of the Myth (1996)
- Michael Asher's Deep Ecology Website http://www.deep-ecology.com
- 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)
- Asher, Michael. http://www.deep-ecology.com
- Asher, Michael.Why Deep Ecology is Deep.http://www.deep-ecology.com
- Asher, Michael http://www.deep-ecology.com
- Asher, Michael.http://www.deep-ecology.com
- Dean King. Introduction to Death in the Sahara by Michael Asher, 2008.