IN attempting to reach the valley of the Nile by way of the Libyan desert, Italy took a bold and perhaps reckless step. For those foreign powers, which have made themselves masters of Egypt, have always entered the country either by the Isthmus of Suez or by sea. By the Isthmus came the Assyrian, Persian and Macedonian conquerors in pre-Christian times and the Arab and Turkish ones since the Christian era. By sea came the Romans in s.c. 30, the French in 1798, and the British in 1882.
But it is not only to armies that deserts may be obstacles comparable to seas and oceans. They isolate human groups from each other in the things of the tnind and the spirit also. If it had not been for the vast Sahara wastes, separating the part of Africa which we call Barbary from the Africa of the Blacks, what would have prevented a vast Negro church from coming into existence fifteen centuries ago?
Africa is par excellence the continent of deserts, though Asia has its deserts, and so has Australia, and so has America. Europe alone is without them and so to the European the thought of the desert is tinged with romance. Even before the days of travel by air a tourist might be imbibing the pure air of the Sahara on the third day after he had been inhaling the noisome vapours of a London fog, when his train descending through the gap in the Atlas Mountains, formed by the beautiful gorge of El-Kantara, would take him thirty miles out into the desert and set him down amid the 150,000 date palms which form the oasis of Biskra.
BISKRA is the " Beni-Mora " of the " Garden of Allah ", than which very few novels of the present century have been able to boast greater popularity. Here I saw the desert for the first time and conversed with Larbi, the Arab fluteplayer whom Mr. Hichens introduced into his book without giving him a fictitious name.
Cardinal Lavigerie used sometimes to stay at Biskra and there is a life-size statue of him there, almost in a running attitude so as to convey his eagerness to conquer Africa for Christ. In his hand is an upraised cross, held as though about to be planted in the ground to stake out a claim to property. The property being claimed is the souls of Africa a children. Lavigerie's face is turned towards the south, away from Algeria and towards the land of the Black race.
In the country in which he had laboured for so many years his White Fathers had made little or no headway. The Arabs and Berbers seemed unripe for the Gospel and as St. Paul at Pisidian Antioch turned from the Jew to the Gentile, the Apostle of Africa turned to the millions of pagans on whose bodies beat the fierce rays of a tropical sun, but whose souls were shrouded in the night of superstition.
I AVIGER IE conceived another project " of which perhaps no man had thought before—the evangelisation of the desert. For this purpose he founded a second religious society, which, unlike that of the White Fathers, was not destined to outlive him. At Biskra he inaugurated the Freres Pionniers du Sahara.
This body, whose members were to be half-soldiers and half monks, were, in Lavigerie's mind to be the " police of Christ." Dotted over the vast area of the desert, they were to offer an asylum to fugitive slaves, to provide medicine for sick travellers, and were ultimately to link Algeria with the Sudan.
However the existence of this semimilitary semi-religious body gave rise to difficulties. There was lack of support
from Paris. The founder gave orders that no more applicants should be received and that freedom to leave should be accorded to those already enrolled.
But the idea of evangelizing the desert did not die with Lavigerie. When I was at Biskra there was talk of a lonely priest living far away to the south in the land of the Tuaregs. I did not hear his name; but in later years I read the life of Pere de Foucauld.