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LOST OASIS: In Search of Paradise by Robert Twigger
Published by Weidenfield & Nicolson

The Lost Oasis of the title is the legendary Zerzura of Egypt's Western Desert. Dozens of explorers, adventurers, journalists, filibusters and free-booters have pretended to search for this Lost Oasis. Though right from the start, the directions that they must follow, as revealed in the key text, a 15th century work known as The Book of Treasures, do not have a geographical location. "Follow the valley until you meet another valley to the west between two hills. In it you will find a road. Follow it. It will lead to Zerzura. You will find its gates closed. It is a white city like a dove. By the gate you will find a bird sculpted from stone, Stretch up your hand to its beak and take from it a key. Open the gate with it and enter the city. You will find much wealth and the king and the queen sleeping the sleep of enchantment. Do no go near them. Take the treasure and that is all."

Zerzura has never been about finding, it has been about the search, the lure of the far horizon. It has also always been about backers. Who can be found to pay for an expedition to find what cannot be found. Zerzura is one of the great baits by which the literary-ligger, the gentleman-explorer, the amateur archaeologist, helps fill the Œfunding gap' for his explorations. It is as well to be fully aware of the nature of the search for the Lost Oasis of Zerzura before you open the first page.

Those readers hoping to find a fluent and accessible study of some of the great themes of the Western Desert: such as the work of the Egyptian explorers set within the frame of their own political and personal motives, or an inquiry into the distinctive Berber culture of the oasis communities of Siwa, Dakhla and Bahariya, or the Coptic origins of Christianity in the monasteries of the western desert, or an informed look at the Senussi Saharan Empire, or an examination of the routes of the thousand year trans-Saharan slave and gold trade, or the habits of the Bedouin Arab tribes and the Tebu of the Eastern Sahara, or the first formation of Egypt from out of the climatic catastrophe that drove the Saharan dwellers east to the Nile, or the minds that shaped the rock carvings and rock paintings of the Sahara, or the men who first spread Islam through this vast landscape, should look elsewhere. Mr Twigger is not the man to guide you along any of these journeys into the rich, fascinating and still only half-explained culture of the Western Desert.

Mr Twigger's preferred reference points for exploring the Western Desert are the familiar caste of European motorized explorers of the 30's and 40's (Bagnold, Almasy and Co), coupled with inspiration drawn from films set in the Western Desert (such as Ice Cold in Alex and The English Patient), a childhood fascination for Autocar, Jaguar and Morgan cars transferred to an adult obsession with the rival merits of various rival brands of Landcruisers. These interests might be harmless enough were they not married to an ardent desire to assemble his own illegal collection of prehistoric shards and fossils from the desert floor. On this account alone many scholars will dismiss the Lost Oasis as a loathsome book, which encourages Westerners to look upon the Egyptian Sahara as a vast sandpit in which to drive their vehicles while looking for ancient treasures to steal.

To do so, they will have missed out on the rich vein of mocking self-humour that courses chuckingly throughout the pages of the Lost Oasis. For Twigger never pretends to be a historian of the early Islam, or an archaeologist working on mapping out the lost lake settlements, but is a man in search of Zerzura. Which is to say that he is a writer looking for a funder, to solve The ignominious, ever-present need for money'. Right form this first line of the book, he is refreshingly candid about the process. Running out of money in Oxford and married to an Egyptian with two small children to look

after, they decide it would be cheaper to live in Egypt. Then he looks to a way to help fund the move. "I could write a book there, which would be cheaper than keeping a house in England and making expensive research trips abroad." So Œthe next day I started researching interesting stories about the desert, found good material about lost oases, threw in more research I had done for my novel, and when the publishers said, Œmaybe' we were set to go."

Zerzura, the oasis that can never be found, or was ever meant to be found, had once again proved its worth as bait. Funded by an advance from London publishers, Twigger is free to live in Egypt. He provides us with a delightful portrait of Cairo, the closed society of the expatriate Petroleum wives transposed against his vivid depictions of his wife's Egyptian family and their internal feuds. He remains honest enough to observe that his quest is dismissed by informed locals. When I met an artist who lived on an island in the Nile he rolled his eyes and said, You're not doing that Zerzura thing too, are you?" This is echoed by the opinion of Uncle Mahmoud, a military man with great experience but very little affection for the desert. He remembered that Œneither the Germans or the British left proper mine maps. It was the Bedouin who made the maps for us [the Egyptian army] by loosing their hands and legs."

Twigger's actual exploration of the desert, like Eric Newby's Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, is relished as much in a series of hilarious training trips than in its actual execution. Be they practice walks up a suburban Wadhi that leads towards the Red Sea from Cairo, day-expeditions amongst a tough crowd of motorbike-loving Scandinavian expatriates, or in the long delayed acquisition of a desert vehicle hampered by using local experts such as Ozman "in his late forties, bald, a heavy smoker" who is in possession of an ageing Buick. Twigger is in his element here, by turns enchanted, bemused and delighted by the workings of Egypt. The Œpower struggles, deceit, creative ways around seemingly insoluble problems" and the Œstrange way an Egyptian can simultaneously like you, want to be your friend and want to rip you for every penny that they can get." But he learns.

Indeed Twigger becomes so much the Zerzura man that he shamelessly attaches himself to other peoples expeditions, such as a group of well-healed Italian adventure tourists led by a charismatic ex-Egyptian officer, disdains any thought of camels while acknowledging that cars aren't good literary companions like donkeys or camels" but will yet arrange to pose for a foreign camera crew, hauling a trolley so that they can film the Œdiscovery' of a desert cave. This is a moment of pure Zerzura artifice' which directly links us up with another great figure of Zerzura lore from the 1980's, Dr Carlo Bergmann. He put forward near fantastic claims to have found the Œoldest stone map in the world" (pointing the way to Zerzura of courseŠ) assisted by his claims to have had his unique discoveries plundered by rival German scholars who stole his manuscripts. His doctorate, as befits a salesman of the Zerzura dream, was not in archaeology but in marketing. But yet this Doctor Bergmann forged a life of adventure for himself, and transferred his desert lore to such real camel-riding adventurers as Ariia Baaijens who he taught in exchange for sexual favours on the dunes. As Hassoum confesses to Twigger, "the desert recharges my soul..I can live better after I come back from the desert.'

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