BOOK REVIEWS: Best Books on Africa
Well Read: Travel writer and publisher Barnaby Rogerson selects his favourite books about Africa
I first travelled into the Sahara desert and the castle-clad peaks of the Atlas mountains in my mind, lead astray by a handful of books that I still treasure. It was not until I was sixteen that I first caught a ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar and took my first steps into North Africa at the wicked old port of Tangier. Twenty six years later I am still exploring this same landscape, though new obsessions have opened up now that I have finally made it south of the Sahara to Mali and Ethiopia.
It all began with Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas. This dangerously romantic portrait of the Glaoui, a dynasty of Berber chiefs who dominated southern Morocco from 1912-1956, had me enthralled with its eloquent description of their kasbah-castles, tribal armies and ruthless power politics. Only later did I realise that the page turning edginess of Maxwell’s book was in part the creation of his own idealisation of his mother’s aristocratic Percy family and his love for a young Moroccan combined with a nervous breakdown.
One of Maxwell’s principle historical sources was Walter Harris’s Morocco That Was. This stands on its own as a bewitching evocation of old, pre-colonial Morocco, full of that unique blend of romance, splendour, cruelty and humour that wafted around the unfettered Sultanate. Unlike Maxwell, Walter Harris knew the land like a native, was a personal friend to three Sultans, the longtime Morocco correspondent to The Times and also seemed to act as Britain’s freelance spy –albeit unacknowledged and unrewarded.
Then it was the turn of E.V.Bovill to weave his enchantment. I must have reard, re-read and noted his historical study of the trans-Saharan caravan trade, The Golden Trade of the Moors, a dozen times by now. It is one of those books that draws together a dozen academic disciplines whilst yet retaining all the passionate enthusiasm of an amateur. Just to list the trade goods of these caravans: bales of ostrich feathers, gold dust, ebony, ivory and the sad columns of slaves, gets me reaching for my tattered Michelin map.
The red city of Marrakech, its ancient walls set against the magnificent backdrop of the blue-white peaks of the High Atlas, has always acted as a lodestone to travellers. I first approached the city through Elias Canetti’s The Voices of Marrakech, a slim but astonishingly powerful collection of essays that cuts like a knife into your memory. To balance this at times disturbing book you should dip into some warmer memories. Either Esther Freud’s evocation of her hippy childhood, Hideous Kinky or Peter Mayne’s effectionate and hilarious account of street life, A Year in Marrakech.
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by Barnaby Rogerson