BOOK REVIEWS: Books on North Africa
'Through a Glass Darkly', Art Quarterly
It is not enough for a traveller in North Africa, to sit in the shaded Cafe de Paris, be it in Tunis, Tangier, Algiers or 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 travel book at your elbow. This book should not normally be read at the cafe table, for it’s importance is primarily as a symbol that will not only attract other well-read travellers but help repel the more forward tourists and touts. There is however an odds on chance that your book will be much more harmful than either the money obsessed chatter of either tout or tourist. European attitudes to North Africa have long been composed of a curious mixture of ignorance, fear and fantasy.
In 1370 the North African travels of an English knight, Sir John de Mandeville, was published. Mandeville still makes an enjoyable, if surprising 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 "beacuse 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" or "the lip above the mouth so great that when they sleep in the sun, they cover all the face with that lip". Mandeville is I'm afraid no more real than Mr Pickwick or Sherlock Holmes, for he was the creation of Jehan d'Outremouse of Liege. What is astonishing is not that Mandeville's travels were enjoyed but were believed, in a period that was rich with innumerable everyday contacts between North Africa and Europe. This was a period when the Franciscans and Dominicans ran Arabic speaking theological colleges in both Marrakech and Tunis, appointed bishops to North African dioceses, 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 dates where sold by Moorish merchants in the great fairs at Bruges. There is also surviving literary evidence (from the philosopher-missionary Raymond Lully at the end of the 13th century, from the map maker Carignaano in the 14th century and from the Genoese Malfante in the 15th century) to show that Europe posessed working knowledge of North Africa and its supposedly secret Saharan trade routes. Yet despite all this Mandeville's travels promptly became a European-wide best seller which remained in constant circulation throughout the fifteenth century and was still being poured over by explorers in the sixteenth century! This European desire for a fictional, rather than the real North Africa, is all the more shocking when you compare it with that 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 corpus that must be classed among the treasures of the world.
In 1417, amongst the smoking devestated ruins of the once great North African city of Ceuta, the young, half-English Prince Henry is knighted by his proud and bloody father, King John of Portugal. This successful free-booting hop across the straits of Gibraltar confirmed Prince Henry, known to later generations as "The Navigator", in his life-long mission to explore the coast of the African continent. He hoped to find Prester John, the near legendary Christian King of the South, who could become his ally in a Crusade against the Muslims. In the process of pursuing this quixotic quest for their celibate, knowledgeable but essentially home loving and hospitable prince the Portugese sea captains discovered Brazil, the sea route to India and the profits to be derived from slave raiding. Christendom never looked back but by the time Prester John is finally found in the mountains of Ethiopia in 1520, her soul is elsewhere, forever mortgaged to profit. The accurate and enthusiastic descriptions of Coptic Ethiopia sent back to the Royal Court by such scholarly Portugese envoys as Da Lima were filed and left unread for centuries.
In this very same period there was a positive torrent of published memoirs from Christians made prisoners by Barbary (that is North African) pirates. Many of these accounts were produced by redemption societies who would only free those Christian slaves who were prepared to go on long European-wide fund raising tours dressed in rags and chains. It was the 16th and 17th century equivalent of our own very dear Public Relations and Popular Journalism circus. There was a similar lack of interest in a balanced view that would have revealed the equivalent exploits of European privateers, the state of Muslim prisoners in the slave pens of Malta, Marseille and Livorno, that many of the most successful Barbary pirates (such as Mainwaring, Simon Danser and John Ward) were in fact Anglo-Dutch renegades, that many of the Spanish, Italian and Portugese captives had first come to North Africa as ruthless invaders or that perfidious Albion was upto her habitual trick of conducting an illegal arms trade. Whatever their economy with the truth, no one would wish away the "painful peregrinations", "adventures and discourses" of such bizarre examples of Britishness as "Lugless Lill" William Lithgow, Robinson Crusoe, the Cornish cabin-boy Thomas Pellow or such hard bitten mercenaries as Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame). Sadly the one work who is relentlessly quoted by later generations of English writers, G. A Jackson's "A Picture of the Barbary Coast" was almost certainly written by a man who never set foot in North Africa.
It is only after the debacle of Stuart Tangier (misgoverned by a corrupt, destructive and ineffecient English administration from 1661-1685) is safely over do we enter the great period of English travel writing on North Africa. Such careful 18th century observers as Dr Pococke, John Windus, Dr Shaw, James Bruce and Braithwaite provide us some with the first accurate descriptions of the Roman antiquities and contemporary court life. As the 19th century progresses so does the field of British interest. There is Jackson on natural history followed by Hooker and Ball (of Kew Gardens) report on their botanical expedition, while the detailed studies of native life in the volumes of Budget Meakin (of the Times of Morocco) and Westermark (a close colleague of the pioneer anthropologist Sir James Frazer) are still quoted with authority by modern academics. There is also a good force of impassioned opinion; ranging from the Suffragette Lady Grove, through parliamentarians such as the Scottish reformer Cunnighame Graham, the legal reformer Robert Watson, Wyndham Lewis to such mainstays of British political influence as Sir John Drummond Hay and the maveric journalist, adventurer cum fantasist, Walter Harris. You do not need to be a hard-boiled cynic to realise that it was considerably easier for British writers to defend North African freedom and to delight in its particularism the closer it came to being an area of exclusive French influence.
The actual period of French rule of North Africa (their conquest of Algeria began in 1830, they seized Tunisia in 1881 and Morocco in 1912) produced a flow of astonishingly ignorant English travel books, even from otherwise talented writers. Edith Wharton, skillfully entertained by the French military authorities, rewards them by giving us a totally misguided view of colonial rule in "Morocco". Hilaire Belloc fondly imagines North Africa returning to a spiritual allegiance to Rome, Sacheverell Sitwell seems content to record the benefits of colonial rule whilst on a motoring holiday in his book "Mauretania" while reading Reginald Rankin's twin volumes on Morocco and Tunisia is like being trapped in a gun-room monologue by a sporting and well travelled Colonel. Even Norman Douglas, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley seem to have been seduced into a glib racism that reveals a basic ignorance of Islamic society. Fortunately outside the English language there are some exceptional pieces of descriptive writing on North Africa from the l930's. "Wind, Sand and Stars" by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the pioneer poet of flight, aspires, gives and receives a freedom that is denied to others while also fortelling his own fate. Andre Gide's "Amyntas", collects together a series of hypnotic sensual vignettes from a lifetime of North African travel while Elias Canetti's "Voices of Marrakech" is like hearing the haunted appeals addressed to a compassionate but powerless deity.
Today, Paul Bowles is easily the most popular and influential English writer on North Africa. The North Africa of Bowles’s writing pulsates with magic, violent revenge, sexual intrigue, drug induced madness, plots and an almost routine betrayl 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 into 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 in 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.
Back to Reviews page
by Barnaby Rogerson