Africa's Lumpy Head

The North Coast of Africa.

Africa has a brown lumpy head. Either that or horns. With the Magreb’s Atlas Mountains on the west and the Cyrenian Rise on the east, Africa’s upper corners reach up to hook Europe. Between them sags the Bay of Sidra where the lost sailors in the conclusion of the book of Acts feared submarine sand.

I study these outlines on a map in my complementary copy of Skylife,the magazine of Turkish Airlines. Between this resource and the digital images on the screen (that dance on account of the restless man seated in front of me), I am ready. We are on a bearing that will drive us straight through these northern “horns” of Africa.

Skirting the boot of Italy.

I chuckle. The little white airplane on the screen now has wings as big as Sicily.

Of course, this is almost true. My window is directly over the wing. I look in vain for Malta only to find stenciled letters: “NO STEP.” It screams in all caps to wingwalker wannabees.

I can see beyond the wing’s tip. But not much. It is blue and featureless. Occasionally a wispy cloud goes by, or even a whole herd of wispyness. I had really hoped that Malta would make an appearance and wave as we pass it by, but the pilot makes a course adjustment, swinging the island country even further west. We miss it by a dozen or so miles. I am on the wrong side, anyhow. So I resign myself to visiting Malta in my mind. I think about its funny round busses and the smell of cooking fennik. We bike and swim.

In exchange for Malta, though, I gain the “Ionian Abyssal Plain. It comes up again in the headrest map. There is something extraordinary in this label. I wonder how deep an such an abyss can be, who first called it that, and what life-forms could possibly lurk in a place known as “abyssal.” From way up here, the surface the water looks as inviting as it did when when we skirted Italy’s granny-boot.

Peering south.

As we approach Africa’s brown lumpy head, I think of Josephus. This creative Jewish historian,  a contemporary of the Apostle Paul, suggested that the name “Africa” was drawn from Hebrew root ‘afaror “dust” (I’ll look up the reference later.). Certainly that would be true of the Africa known from a Mediterranean viewpoint. Once past the verdant coastline, the continent quickly dries. It is a dusty place. And sandy. In Josephus’s day there was no awareness that Africa’s heart was deep green.

Africa’s lumpy head.

The pilot makes another course adjustment and now I can see it clearly. I thought at first that the light stripe on the horizon was a cloud bank. Now I know it is Africa’s lumpy head.

I check the seat screen and Tripoli rolls directly in front of us. Actually, it swings slightly to the east. That is good. This one will appear on my side of the plane. I check my camera for power and press it against the glass.

Ancient Libyans depicted in Egyptian art. Image from here.

Click, click, click. I can see the harbor clearly. Streets, buildings, blocks of grey on a brown quilt. Ancient Libyans are pictured in Egyptian portraiture. They wear feathers, have little pointy beads and crazy hair and tattoos everywhere. Like youth ministers.

It doesn’t take long and my elation over Tripoli is replaced by a more somber vista. The coastal plateau abuts a ridge identified as Jabal Nafusah (I must look this up). I see eroded wadis in pastel colors: pink, brown, yellow, orange. These run helter-skelter. It is beautiful and horrible at the same time.

A vast desert.

And then even the ruggedness dies. It fades into a plain of pinkish-brown running as far as the eye can see. Occasionally there is a road, or perhaps a track. These too eventually disappear. The only break in the color are bluish cloud shadows.

We have come to the Sahara Desert, a sea of sand so enormous and so dry that it shapes the climate of the entire globe. It is absolutely humbling. We hang over its starkness, lonely in the sky. The sun falls to the ground and disappears.

The middle of the Sahara.