“Ships in the Desert” by Jeff Fearnside

Moynaq, Aral Sea (photo: 
Arian Zwegers) Moynaq, Aral Sea (photo: Arian Zwegers)

The world would likely be a better place if there were more people like Jeff Fearnside in it. Ships in the Desert is a collection of essays based on and informed by four years that Fearnside spent in, mostly Kazakhstan early in the century, first as a teacher for the Peace Corps and later managing a fellowship programme. He comes across as concerned, thoughtful and, above all, tolerant.

The title essay, the longest by some margin, is a combination of travel-writing, reportage and research on the Aral Sea—or what’s left of it. Drained of water by Soviet attempts to develop a cotton industry


the Aral Sea disaster is one of the worst human-caused environmental catastrophes of the past century, perhaps the worst. In only four decades, what was the world’s fourth-largest inland body of water shrank to a mere 10 percent of its former volume.


This has left, in addition to poisoned land and winds full of toxic dust,


a fleet of rusting Soviet fishing ships, hammer and sickle still clearly discernible on many, sitting bolt upright in desert sands as if plowing through ocean waves.


This disaster is perhaps not as “little-known” as Fearnside says it is, but he importantly makes every effort not to merely write it off, as many do, as the sort of problem inherently embedded in the Soviet system:


While it’s easy, even comforting, to criticize the Soviets for all this, it’s no different from the Ford Motor Company conducting its infamous 1970s analysis that determined it would be more cost-effective to pay off lawsuits over people killed and burned in their lethally flawed Pinto automobiles than to fix the problem …


Or, one might add, global warming. “America has its own Aral Sea,” Fearnside adds. “It’s called the Ogallala Aquifer.”


Ships In The Desert, Jeff Fearnside (Santa Fe Writers Project; August 2022)
Ships In The Desert, Jeff Fearnside (Santa Fe Writers Project; August 2022)

A second long essay is titled “The Missionary Position: A Personal Exploration of the Politics of Persuasion in Central Asia” in which Fearnside tries to work out the difference between his work as a Peace Corps volunteer and that of a growing number of Christian missionaries who, his attempts at tolerance and understanding notwithstanding, he found annoying and highly questionable. But, he notes, he also went to Central Asia out of belief and value.

Fearnside makes rather heavier weather of this than necessary. While it is true that the Peace Corps is not, from the US policy point of view, entirely disinterested, and some introspection is therefore probably healthy, teaching English nevertheless does not have as its objective the uprooting of other people’s and societies’ belief systems. One can draw a parallel, as Fearnside does: “As a teacher there, I was a missionary, an educational missionary.” But this seems an exercise in semantics; he goes on to explain why educational missionaries are not religious missionaries:


When I taught Emerson and Thoreau in my advanced American literature class, I taught about more than the stout American individualism they espoused—I exposed the transcendentalist ideas that lay behind this, the German and Indian philosophy which informed it all (both authors were ardent students of the Bhagavad-Gita, the cornerstone of Hindu spiritualism).


Fearnside asks “How does one distinguish between the broadcasting of constructive new ideas and the subversive undermining of existing traditions?” It may be hard to define a rigorous paradigm that holds in all situations, but the distinction in this case seems pretty straightforward. Languages are not religions: one can practice more than one without risking damnation.


Fearnside is at his best with descriptions of the people he met and places he visited. After a friend, his first host, dies suddenly, all he has to remember him is a handkerchief:


There’s nothing obviously extraordinary about it. It’s just a simple piece of cloth, probably bought at the local bazaar for a few tenge coins. Yet when I look at it, I see pictures woven into the cotton: I see laughing, light green eyes and in them the reflection of lush green foothills, snow-peaked mountains, dusty pastures, hazy steppe sunsets. And darkness. But in that darkness rings the clip-clop of horse’s hooves, the trill of Uyghur wedding music, a voice booming “Jeffrey!” and I feel that at any moment, I might stand up and dance.


There are several such passages in the longer essays, but although the broader historical international contexts he includes are well-written and perhaps necessary background for an American readership, anyone at all interested in the region will presumably have absorbed much of this from other readings. The other essays, considerably shorter, heartfelt and with less attempt at analysis, are more immediate. The lead essay, “Itam”, is a touching account of the man and family who were his first hosts in Kazakhstan: it could easily have passed muster as a short story.

Ships in the Desert is a relatively short book. Its collection of essays which, while loosely linked (most if not all had appeared independently elsewhere), make no attempt to provide a composite whole. As a work of literature, though, it (somewhat surprisingly) makes little reference to literary voices from the region, such as Rollan Seisenbayev’s novel The Dead Wander in the Desert about the collapse of the Aral Sea.

Quite a few people who have spent a number of their formative years overseas never quite recover from the experience. Fearnside is clearly one of those but somewhat rare in being able to write about it and write about it well.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.