Like many people, I like to take a good book with me on trips. For some reason, Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein, was the ideal read for my Magic Bus trip in the late seventies. Much more recently, Ginsberg: Beat Poet, by Barry Miles had me glued during a two-day train journey in China. The books don’t have to be relevant to the trip, but sometimes they are. More often than not, as with Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom, by Andrew Duff, I’ve read books about places before the actual trip.
During the two Exodus trips in Morocco we were too busy walking, and later cycling, to have much time for reading, but in the two weeks in between, which we spent in Taroudant, Afensou and Agadir, there was plenty time to relax and enjoy Journey into Barbary: Travels Across Morocco, by Wyndham Lewis.
Even though this is a peculiar book in many ways, it soon becomes obvious that the chap can write!
“…the great official’s lady was up on the Hurricane Deck. Whatever it might be at ordinary times, it became a Hurricane Deck at least the moment she trod it. Buffeted by a mild breeze – she allowed her spotless garments to billow out gently behind – her arms described arcs which embraced the horizon. And this obese groceress wallowing in the profitable squalors of the Third Republic became symbolic, perched up in that way upon the passerelle of the Algerian Packet. It was a Statue of Liberty. A century and a half after the tumbrels and the guillotine, here stood this bogus butter-and-egg marchioness – this enthroned charlady – being borne in triumph towards a land won for the Third Republic by the great Lyautey – a Christmas present for a regime which could find no better way to thank him for his gift than to dismiss him at last, with an insulting recall, allowing him to leave the shores of Africa anonymously, in the first Packet at hand, much like the one we travelled in – less honoured than this inflated daughter of the democratic bureaucracy, whose husband got the pip in his buttonhole from Herriot, probably, for two decades of dirty work!”
Well, I had to look up a number of words and names before I could understand fully what Lewis was talking about, but it was all worth the effort, and it was great to read about ‘Barbary’ whilst we were in Morocco. He writes in a very exaggerated, and now dated, style, but I found it all very entertaining. He plays on particular words, sometimes extensively. One of his favourites is ‘filibuster’, another is ‘the bled‘. Someone once wrote that he had a ‘sharp wit and sardonic insight’, and this plays out throughout the book.
It’s amazing to think that, at the time he wrote, in the 1930s, much of Morocco was off limits to outsiders, “…it is in fact impossible to enter the Sahara from the west. The occidental Sahara is verboten as far as the Paleface is concerned. No European, I discovered to my extreme astonishment, is able to set foot upon these forbidden sands and steppes…No European has ever been able so far to penetrate it. One rapidly crossed this region in 1850. This was, it would seem, the only European who has done so. His name was Léopold Panet. He started from St.-Louis-du-Sénégal. Wounded and robbed of everything, he succeeded in reaching Mogador. And then last year, in 1930, a young Frenchman made a feverish raid into it from the North to a depth of a few hundred miles. He lies buried in the citadel of Agadir. “Voir Smara et mouris!” is more or less his epitaph.” It was too dangerous a place, and as Lewis writes, “…a land so pregnant with plots and so overrun with lawless outsiders as to make a mere tourist’s hair stand on end…”
I was particularly pleased that the bike trip part of our holiday took us through Aït Baha, which Lewis also reached, and wrote, “Beyond the military post of Aït Baha no European is permitted to journey. He can go there only if his friends or his government are prepared to pay for him a very heavy ransom…”
Beyond Aït Baha it becomes obvious how much of an important route this ‘great entrance’, or Imi Mgorn as Lewis referred to it, is through the Anti Atlas from the Souss to the Sahara. The route was protected by many kasbahs for hundreds of years.
Tafraoute, further up in the Anti Atlas, where we stayed for three nights, still has the feel of a frontier town.
Fortunately, things have changed a lot since Lewis’ day, and neither Lindsey or I were held to ransom.