"Through a glass darkly": North Africa as seen through English travel-writing
Art Quarterly, Autumn 1995
It is not enough for a traveller in North Africa to sit in the shaded Café de Paris (be it on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, Place de France in Tangier or Place Djemma el Fna in Marrakech) and just sip a coffee beside the street theatre of a Maghrebi dusk. You should, in the pecking order of these things, have both an open packet of local cigarettes and a battered classic travel book at your elbow. For the reader of English there is a well-established body of North African travel-writing which remains in print, cheaply and easily available in paperback. Only a specialist would feel the need to range beyond this vivid and highly entertaining corpus of a dozen books, which form a pair of cultural dark glasses through which to perceive North Africa.
The saga of English travel-writing in North Africa begins suitably enough with the fabulous tales of Sir John de Mandeville. Mandeville, first published in 1340, still makes a good read, with his descriptions of the fountain of eternal youth, dog-sized ants that both mine and guard gold, of tribesmen with "a foot so large that it shadoweth all the body against the sun when they would lie and rest them", of the Libyan sea empty of fish "because that the water is evermore boiling for the great heat" and of the various natives who have "no heads, and their eyes be in their shoulders". Sir John is as real or unreal an Englishmen as Mr Pickwick or Sherlock Holmes, for he was the fictional creation of the completely untravelled John d'Outremouse. What is astonishing is not that Mandeville's travels were enjoyed but they were believed, in a period that was rich with innumerable everyday contacts between North Africa and Europe. This was a time when the Franciscans and Dominicans ran Arabic-speaking theological colleges in both Marrakech and Tunis and appointed their own bishops to North African dioceses. It was a time when thousands of Christian soldiers served in the Catalan guard regiments employed by North African rulers, when European merchants thronged the North African ports and when Moorish merchants exported dates to such far-away markets as Bruges. There is also literary evidence to show that Europe possessed working knowledge of North Africa's supposedly secret Saharan trade routes. Yet despite all this Mandeville's travels became a European-wide best seller and they remained in constant circulation throughout the fifteenth century and were still being poured over by explorers in the sixteenth! This European desire for a fictional, rather than the real North Africa, is all the more shocking when you compare it with what was being produced by Moorish and North African writers of the same period. The very personal tone of the travels of Ibn Jubayr (a contemporary of Saladin and William II of Sicily), the world-wide exploration of Ibn Battuta, the exact geographical descriptions of El Idrisi and Leo Africanus (which remain primary historical sources) and the masterly historical-sociological-anthropological study of Ibn Khaldoun create a body of work that must be classed amongst the literary treasures of the world.
During the 16th and 17th century there was a torrent of published memoirs from Europeans who had escaped from captivity in North Africa. Many of these accounts were specifically produced by redemption societies who would only free those Christian captives who were prepared to sign contracts to go on long European-wide fund raising tours dressed in rags and chains. These book and redeemed slave tours were a forerunner of our own circus of PR and popular journalism. There was no interest in a balanced view, which would have revealed the slaving exploits of European privateers, the state of Muslim prisoners in the markets of Malta, Marseille and Livorno, or that many of the most successful Barbary pirates (such as Mainwaring, Simon Danser and John Ward) were in fact Anglo-Dutch renegades. Nor was there much interest in revealing that most of the Spanish, Italian and Portugese captives had first come to North Africa as ruthless invaders or indeed that perfidious Albion was up to her habitual trick of breaking an European-wide embargo and conducting an illegal arms trade with the North Africa states. Whatever their economy with the truth, no one would now wish away the characters that come down to us from this period: of 'Lugless Lill' William Lithgow with his prurient inquiries into "some 12,000 allowed brothel houses in this town, the courtesans being neatly kept, and weekly well looked to by physicians"; of Thomas Pellow, the Cornish cabin-boy made good, with his madcap attempt to steal the golden balls that crowned the Koutoubia minaret but finding "such a dismal rumbling noise and shaking of the tower" he gave credit to the myth that they were protected by djinn. Sadly the favourite source from this period, relentlessly quoted by later generations of writers, is Jackson's A Picture of the Barbary Coast which was compiled by a man who never set foot in North Africa.
Walter Harris and Robert Cunnighame Grahame, who both published books on North Africa at the end of the 19th century, remain among the most influential British travel-writers. Not only are their respective works, Morocco that Was and Mogreb-El-Acksa still readily available, but their influence is tangibly apparent on later generations of writers. At first sight they appear to be poles apart, politically. Harris was a wealthy, flamboyant character, a homosexual who was deeply wedded to the English establishment and who built himself a series of Oriental palaces at Tangier. Cunnighame Grahame was a radical politican, a leading Scottish nationalist who had spent his youth in the saddle as a working gaucho in South America. Yet they refer approvingly to each other in their works and even on one occasion travelled together. Compared to their contemporaries, they both found much to admire in North Africa and they were both concerned to protect its particular culture from the threat of European colonization. They also had political influence, for Harris was the resident correspondent for the Times while Cunningham Grahame was a Liberal M.P. . You do not have to scratch very deeply beneath their writing to realise that both Harris and Cunnighame Grahame aspired to some form of British protection for Morocco, like that which would later be established over the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
The next generation of British writers consciously followed in the footsteps of Harris and Cunninghame Grahame. Wyndham Lewis sites Grahame approvingly in Filibusters in Barbary (published in 1932) while Gavin Maxwell quotes great chunks of Harris verbatim in Lords of the Atlas (published in 1966). Maxwell and Lewis both launched bitter attacks on the French colonial authorities, though their reactionary views, which harked back to a romantic, if not mythical, past filled with tribal lords, mountain castles and feudal levies would have astonished and appalled any of the contemporary Maghrebi independence parties. Maxwell's book, a vivid mixture of history, investigative journalism and anecdote, was destined to take a particularly strong hold over the British imagination. It is an obsessive work, that took the author over a decade to complete and is strongly fueled by his own experience and personal sympathies. Maxwell, who was intensely proud of his mother's family who had once ruled the rough hills of the English Border country, was certainly the ideal candidate to write an apology for the Glouai clan and wax lyrical over their ruinous empty castles. The crumbling mountain kasbah of Telouet is still visited by a steady trickle of British romantics clutching their copy of Lords of the Atlas, though most can wistfully quote from memory the last line, "he looked at them and he looked back at the great silent kasbah, and said, "I do not know - the hand of Allah lies heavy upon Telouet." ''
Today, the American Paul Bowles is easily the most popular and influential English-language writer on North Africa. The North Africa of Bowles’ writing pulsates with magic, violent revenge, sexual intrigue, drug induced madness, plots and an almost routine betrayal of friendship and love. Into this intoxicating world Bowles immerses a variety of Western travellers who, for all their apparent cosmopolitan sophistication, prove to be mere puppets when they enter the passionate storms of native society. It is gripping stuff which often ends with an agreeably horrible murder. If you like the idea of a Jacobean revenger tragedy updated to the 20th century and set in North Africa, you’ll love Bowles. One of my favourites Let it Come Down, seems to stress this connection by taking its title from a particularly blood curdling line from Macbeth. Read Bowles for thrills by all means, which become famously more acute the more North African kiff you inhale, but no more use him as a source for contemporary society than you would use Webster or Shakespeare for understanding the Italian Renaissance. Bowles himself, far from suffering any of his fictional fates, has lived securely for decades in a modern apartment block in Tangier, cherished by his local society, surrounded by loyal Moroccan friends and quietly munching on a tribute of chocolates brought by a trickle of admirers.
The glasses through which an English reader looks at North Africa are highly selective. They peer lovingly on turn-of-the-century Morocco but touch lightly upon Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. They can rarely be persuaded to focus upon the highly urbane and literate culture that stretches back over three thousand years, or the reality of a basically Mediterranean environment with a predominately agrarian landscape devoted to the production of corn and olive oil. There are, and always have been, two North Africa's available to English eyes: one real, the other highly coloured by our collective imagination. As the fly-leaf of Pat Gray's recent novel Mr Narrator acknowledges, it "portrays with documentary accuracy a Morocco which has never existed, but one which has now been colonized by surrealism."
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by Barnaby Rogerson