Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

A dove, Trinity and a clock – or the pecker pecked


A propos of nothing very much, a wonderful story in the paper yesterday about the Cambridge college where my daughter works as a gardener. Alas, it took place a quarter of an hour after she left for home, so she entirely missed the drama, but tells me that the hawk is a familiar figure – a professional bird who does the rounds of several colleges with his handler, scaring the pigeons.

A university clock was stopped for three dramatic minutes yesterday when a bird of prey attacked a pigeon and became trapped behind the minute hand.

The Harris’s hawk swooped as the pigeon perched on the timepiece at Trinity College, Cambridge, but as it went for the kill the clock’s minute hand swung into action pinning it to the clock face for 186 seconds as it ticked towards 4.30 pm.

Staff restarted the pendulum-driven machinery with a “top-up wind.” The clock, which dates from 1910, is housed in one of the oldest buildings in Trinity, King Edwards’s Gate, originally the entrance to King’s Hall.

I like the idea of desperate porters, no doubt in bowler hats and three-piece pinstripes, and perhaps in long canvas aprons if they had been interrupted polishing the college door-knobs, wrestling desperately with the clock-hands as the clock moved inexorably towards half past four. It is a scene at once from Gormenghast and from a Hollywood thriller where the hero watches the seconds ticking away on a digital clock before a massive explosion, and saves the world at the very last moment.

According to the college website, “the running of the 1910 clock has been the the subject of an engineering project coordinated by a Fellow of Trinity, Dr Hugh Hunt, calibrating the clock’s movements against the National Physical Laboratory time signal and various variables, including the amplitude of the pendulum, humidity, air temperature, air pressure, and air density.” Variables which were not, I suppose, envisaged as including a 186-second hawk-stoppage.

But what, I wonder, would actually have happened at half past four: a hawk deafened by the bong? Or a sickening squelch as the hawk was wiped round past 30 at the bottom – more like The Pit and the Pendulum?

I don’t suppose they would have done it for the pigeon.

Stripey Kingship on the Orontes


To the British Museum, to see the scanning of the statue of King Idrimi of Alalakh. The king, pictured above in his livery of scanning-stripes, is a splendidly pop-eyed chap with magnificent hat, who was exiled from Aleppo in the mid-second millennium BC and returned from exile to capture and rule for 30 years or so the city of Alalakh in the Hatay, a little way from the Orontes river. He died in about 1450 BC and is a rather a poignant symbolic figure at the moment, as an exile from Aleppo (albeit quite a privileged one) who came back as a relatively junior king, vassal of King Parratarna of the Mitanni, who was an altogether bigger fish. King Idrimi, once scanned and then perfectly reproduced, will form the centrepiece of an exhibition on the long history of Syrian culture and its dismal but proudly defiant present – an antidote to the devastating news and awful imagery that we see constantly in the media, and a hopeful note, perhaps, for those leaving Aleppo now – testimony that three and a half thousand years ago people were exiled from the same city by war, and came back. The exhibition, called Making Light, is being developed by a small charity of the same name, of which I am privileged to be a trustee.

20170131_165203A wonderful foundation – the Factum Arte Foundation – based in Madrid and run by its remarkable British founder, Adam Lowe, is generously doing the scanning for Making Light, and it is fascinating on many levels. Factum had an exhibition at the Royal Academy late last year, which then moved to Waddesdon Manor, of its amazing technical procedures. Heads – those of visitors and security staff – were recorded in an elaborate rig that had cameras moving slowly around them like planets in an orrery, establishing a very high level of minutely recorded detail. The photographs were then turned into computer coding and the file was used to drive a 3D printing process that produced images of astonishing fidelity in materials from resin to glass and chocolate.

The exhibition began with a three-dimensional image in wood, made by an early version of the same process – in about 1850. Less sophisticated cameras took multi-angle photographs which were then used to make slim slices of wood, which once bound together, made a faithful reproduction of the subject’s head. Deliberately provocative in asserting that this extraordinary high-tech process has its roots in the early days of photography and chiselled craftsmanship, it set the tone for an hour’s thought on what constitutes the recorded image, why photography is different (supposing that it is) from more ‘creative’ representation, and what these superb, fine-grained images, existing as coding on a file, and stepping out from the virtual world when summoned, as infinitely reproducible, but utterly eloquent avatars, actually are.

In practical terms, the technology has been used to make three-dimensional images of extraordinary precision – including the full scaleanatol_1 reproduction of Tutankhamun’s tomb which visitors now enter, preserving the fragile fabric of the original. But there has also been work in Iraq, West Africa, Dagestan and elsewhere, a voracious recording of the world’s material heritage made ever more urgent by the wholesale destruction of recent years. Factum has brought together the fragments of Nimrud scattered across the world’s museums, and pieced together many parts of works separated for centuries. It trains local technicians to operate the equipment, with a centre developing in Upper Egypt at the Stoppelaere House (a mgnificent building by Hassan Fathy which they have restored with love and precision) on the West Bank of the Nile near Luxor, where the recording of the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I is currently being undertaken. These enterprises are imagined and created as self-sustaining, the copyrights in the precious data files owned locally, their commercial exploitation funding the continuing charitable work of saving, recording and publishing. And the staff chosen not for the bureaucratic positions they occupy, but for their aptitude – so that many of the best are site-labourers and  drivers chosen and trained. It is a very good, and very impressive project in human as well as historical terms.

Idrimi is symbolic too of that drive to preserve, because although himself now as safe as houses in the British Museum, he is achieving today a different and more reliable immortality – a virtual existence in binary code from which he can be recalled at will, and reproduced perfectly. In this he is a demonstration of the potency of the project and its technical magic – an extraordinary testimony to man’s ability to reclaim and preserve his own past.


Saddam Hussein – ‘A murderous Horatio Alger’


Saddam Hussein has been on my mind lately, owing perhaps to a confluence of reading and film, and the recent publication of a book of my own about my family’s time in Iraq at the beginning of the first Gulf War. The reading was of an interesting book by a former CIA officer and Iraq Leadership Analyst called John Nixon, entitled Debriefing the President – Nixon (who made the formal dentification of Saddam) was the first debriefer to get access to the ex-President, between October 2003 and the end of that year. The film was National Geographic’s The Real Saddam Hussein, which told the story, breathlessly and rather superficially, through the interrogatory eyes of George Piro, the FBI agent who took over interrogation on New Year’s Eve 2003. And the cherry on the icing was a second look (with all due filmic caution) at the Sean Penn film Fair Game, about the blackguarding of Joe Wilson, who had pointed out that George Bush’s evidence of Iraq’s acquisition of yellowcake uranium from Niger was a deliberate fake. Taken together there’s an interesting story here, and it’s only tangentially about Saddam (interesting though some of the tidbits are): it’s about US intelligence. Or rather, the absence of it.

I claim no expertise in the intelligence world, but there are some pretty obvious conclusions to be reached. First of all, Nixon (who mentions Piro only twice, once to tell President Bush that he has never met him) talks about the rush imposed on him by the need to debrief fast, before the ex-president was handed over to the FBI, just as Piro (who doesn’t mention Nixon at all) talks about the rush imposed on him by the need to debrief fast, before the ex-president was handed over to the Iraqis. Actually they talk about the FBI and the Iraqis in pretty similar terms: the person telling the story is always the one with the background, the empathy, the technique and the cunning to extract crucial information from Saddam. The people waiting in the wings have no idea. (“Our CIA team,” writes Nixon, “knew far more about Saddam and Iraq than the FBI debriefers who followed us, but we ended up getting far less time to question him. George Tenet and his cronies on the seventh floor of the CIA in Washington just didn’t understand what went into a successful debriefing.”)

On the other hand, Piro, an Assyrian-American, did at least speak Arabic, while the CIA team used an interpreter (“Ahmad, our interpreter [was] the only Arabic speaker in the interrogation facility”). There was clearly a serious case of inter-agency (not to mention intra-agency) hostility, presumably not good for intelligence, particularly since the Plods got the lions’ share of the time, and the Spooks were trying to “get inside Saddam’s head” without speaking Saddam’s language. The whole thing seems staggering amateurish. “The CIA was woefully unprepared on Iraq.” So it appears. The CIA’s Iraq Survey chief Charles Duelfer comments without apparent irony: “As an intelligence community, analysts in Washington, we failed to appreciate what role Iran played in Saddam’s picture of the world.” Bit of an omission that, after an eight-year war between the two neighbouring countries. “As Americans, we tend to want to see things in black and white,” which is of course fine, but Duelfer, Nixon and Piro were not just Americans, they were intelligence agents.

And what was the crucial information that they were both determined to get? It boils down to the two simple questions to which Washington was desperate for answers: did Iraq have Weapons of Mass Destruction? And did Saddam have a relationship with al-Qaida? These were certainly pretty crucial questions (the President of the USA had staked his personal credit on the answer to both questions being Yes – because this had been his justification for going to war) though of course as we know now and many at least suspected then, the answer to both questions was actually No. Odder still is the huge excitement about what were negative answers. When Piro extracts the answers to the two questions – No and No – he seems to believe them and, as he puts it of Question 1: “Saddam told me he did not have weapons of mass destruction.  I couldn’t wait to get out of the room … he had solved the mystery of Iraq’s WMD.” Doh? Because Saddam said so? If it was that simple, I am not clear why they hadn’t reached the same conclusion before the war. It would have saved a great deal of blood and treasure. Similarly for Question 2: Saddam opined sagely “Osama bin Laden is a religious zealot, George. Politics and religion should remain separate.” That’s it? Well that certainly solved the mystery of Saddam’s relations with OBL.

The White House was not asking ‘open’ questions: desperate for answers Washington may have been, but only if those answers were Yes. As we know from the Joe Wilson story, certain of the President’s very senior staff were entirely happy to lie, bully, forge evidence and break federal law in order to keep alive the fiction of WMDs. So why should a negative answer, inferred but undocumented, have the slightest purchase? Who was going to tell the president? Joe Wilson’s experience suggests that the Emperor could get quite snotty about being told that he had no clothes. Wilson at least knew what he was talking about on yellowcake – but you have to be pretty brave to challenge the forceful views of the White House on the basis of an unsupported assertion in the negative by an imprisoned war criminal. On this subject Nixon is restrained, but notes that “the policymakers at the White House and the leadership on the seventh floor at the CIA didn’t want to hear that many of the reasons for going after Saddam were based on false premises.” I suppose that would make telling them quite difficult, so what was all the revelatory interviewing actually for?

What is going on? The product of the interviews with Saddam seems largely banal (though it is of course quite possible that he was voluble and revealing on all sorts of subjects that the interrogators don’t report at all). The redaction of Nixon’s book with black blobs suggests saddamcapture(as is presumably intended) that the juicy bits have been removed and there’s lots of ‘real’ stuff that we can’t see, though quite a lot of the blobs clearly conceal nothing more than names, embarrassment and paranoia. Nixon’s account has some interest and many small gems: Piro’s (at least on the evidence of the National Geographic film) very little at all.

What they both do is a good deal of “getting under the skin,” apparently believing that Saddam actually liked them, and that they were too clever for him. Piro describes it as “a psychological chess match,” and Duelfer says a little melodramatically, “How do you get into the head of Saddam Hussein? The person who was going to do that was George Piro.” Piro in turn quotes with pride Saddam’s saying to him “You are a tricky bastard.” Nixon and Piro both worked obliquely through conversations on poetry and history, and lots of cross-checking of speeches and accounts of the same incidents that Saddam described. Disappointingly, Saddam turned out to have forgotten a good deal, to have been rather detached. “… in his final years Saddam had begun to disengage from running the country and was mainly occupied with non-governmental pursuits, his writing chief among them … as the U.S military prepared to invade Iraq … Saddam was sending the latest draft of a novel he was writing to Tariq Aziz to critique.”

And of course the interrogators were adept at barking up the wrong tree. There’s a nice moment described by Nixon, who has just told Saddam how US analysts looked with special attention at editorials in the newspaper Babil, owned by Saddam’s revolting son Uday, because he was obviously a key source of insight into his father’s thinking: “What does it matter what my son says?” answered Saddam. “Was he a member of the governent? No.” And when told that “some people in our government still thought that Uday spoke for him … Saddam just laughed and rolled his eyes.” As well he might.

We have always known that Saddam – with a short exile in Cairo in the late 50s and two visits to Paris as Vice-President – was dangerously ignorant of the world. I described him in my own book as “a geopolitical autist,” and this turns out not to be far off the mark. Nixon has this fascinating and extraordinary anecdote:

Saddam made a comparison between the Iraq War and the American Civil War, explaining that the reason the South lost to the North was that the Confederates had to fight going uphill. I could not understand what he meant and asked him to clarify. He pointed to a map and said that because the South was below the North, it meant the Southerners were always fighting a foe that was literally above them.

20161027_112904Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, in other words, died in a war instigated by a man who thought that the topography of the battlefield was determined by the compass. He must have viewed Kurdistan with some apprehension, both geographically and metaphysically uphill as it was from Baghdad. But ignorance was a common commodity in Washington as well as in Baghdad, and Bush was more like Saddam than he would have cared to be told: “One of the great ironies of the Iraq War was that brutal dictator Saddam Hussein and freedom fighter George W Bush were alike in so many ways.” Both were “fairly ignorant of the outside world and had rarely travelled abroad;” both were solipsistic, ideological leaders who were by their own admission, “gut-players, politicians who trusted their instincts rather than their intellect.” And of course each was a disaster for his country.

This story is one of the perversion of intelligence-gathering to support ideologically driven preconceptions and decisions taken without rational underpinning. It illustrates with awful clarity what happens when intelligence is sought and interpreted simply to support policy that has already been made. But it seems to be the way of the world.


John Nixon’s book is published by Bantam; mine – There and Back by Candle-light – is published by the Cygnet Press, and is available from a select few London bookshops, including Heywood Hill and John Sandoe.

Trevor-Roper on Chauvinism


In 1956, watching the gadarene rush towards the disastrous Suez War, Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote to his friend Bernard Berenson of “The world of lower middle-class conservatives who have no intelligence but a deep belief in violence as a sign of self-importance; who hate foreigners, especially if they come from ‘inferior’ races; and who [are] gratified with the spectacle of violence against such people, even if it fails in its object … In ordinary times, and given good politics by their leaders, these people remain below the level of public notice, quietly reading the Daily Telegraph and cultivating their gardens. But these are not ordinary times, and the politics of our leaders is not good.”

Trevor-Roper, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

‘Some obscure sex twist’ and a lone petrol pump


Turning to Willie Seabrook, a couple more of whose books have landed in my letter-box this week, I find a curious, unattractive, enigma. His books are enjoyable, self-regarding, mostly light-hearted journalism. They record his extensive travel in some of the remoter regions of the world in the 1920s and 30s. The time of which he writes, the time in which he travelled, makes for excellent stories, though he is always the external, often patronising, sometimes cruel and never self-effacing white American observer. One writer called him an “expert for the common man, or the basic middlebrow reader,” which may have been true in the 1930s, but which has to some extent been balanced by the evidential value of his middlebrow expertise, and its undeniable period charm. Another called him “old Willie Seabrook, the lost King of the Weird.” He wrote of journeys in the Caribbean, the Middle East and the Old Soudan – the southern shore of the great Sahara desert.

I shall focus on Air Adventure (1933) because it touches on some of the same people and places as The White Monk of Timbuctoo (1934), and the earlier trip was undertaken to collect manuscripts and other material from Père Yakouba for the biography. Air Adventure is an enjoyable, if undemanding, book, a sort of airborne Dornford Yates, telling of adventures in a Farman 190 monoplane criss-crossing the French Sahara. Seabrook sets out with an American novelist, Marjorie Worthington, on a carefree series of hops through the infrastructure of French inter-war aviation. His pilot is a French air ace called Flight-Captain René Wauthier who pilots them, “glass-aluminium-enclosed in the long, narrow body of an aeroplane so scientifically built and so beautifully equipped that, while permitting perfect visibility for both pilot and passengers, it was almost as comfortable as the cabin of a small but expensive speed-yacht or the compartment of a de luxe Riviera express train.”

scan_20161009-2After leaving Paris they stopped for lunch in Poitiers, and headed south with a wave to their hostess far below.  At Toulouse they landed at the hub of

the French Aero-Postal, with its concrete runways swarming like the docks of a great seaport with lorries, motor-cars, men in overalls, its half-mile of enormous hangars, its mighty, heavy-duty monsters of the air, aerial locomotives, winged leviathans which transport not merely bags of mail, but tons of it, from far-off Patagonia and Chile up to Buenos Aires, and then from Central Africa, up along the West Coast, via Dakar, Casablanca and over Spain to this monstrous central depot in France, from which it is re-distributed through Europe. It has cost human lives and millions, but it is worth it. The French Aero-Postal stands today as the world’s greatest monument of organized, sustained long-distance flying. There has been no other organized flying so dangerous, so adventurous, so epic, as theirs since the World War.

This still-heroic moment in aviation history is engagingly portrayed, the refuellings, the long lunches, the men in oily overalls waiting at desert airstrips, the Tuareg with their ‘crusader swords’ and their Bellah slaves, the champagne, the storms and the hasty landings on gravel; but also the sense that vast and sometimes hostile as the Sahara undoubtedly was, it was largely known territory where rescue was – generally – assured in case of accident. “The desert,” says Seabrook ruminating on a wrecked plane near Bidon 5, “is like the mighty ocean. It is safely navigable, but it does not forgive mistakes.”scan_20161009-3

They flew to Oran and then Colomb Béchar (where they were detained for an enormous luncheon by a colonel in a scarlet tunic) and on over the desert, stopping at Reggan and at Bidon 5. These were both way-stations on the land-crossing, too, and surprisingly comfortable. Reggan was a fort, fitted up for travellers and known as Bordj Estienne, “the principal hotel of the Trans-Saharienne Transport, founded by the two sons of the late General Estienne, the younger of whom, René, gave his life, massacred by the Tuaregs, in blazing the Trans-Saharan motor trail. The elder brother, Georges, who was the pathfinder for the famous Haardt-Citröen caterpillar expedition, still carries on as Trans-Saharan president.” At Bordj Estienne the travellers found “whisky and sodas at the bar, American cigarettes, a French table d’hôte dinner, illustrated French and English magazines less than ten days old in the lounge library, and bedrooms with electric lights, modern art curtains, and counterpanes.”

At Bidon 5 in the lonely and lethal Tanesruft, they landed more out of curiosity than necessity, to see the famous petrol pump. It was “a white-enamelled pillar identical with those you see along any road in Long Island, except that it stands there in the sand, in the midst of nothingness, in the almost exact geographical centre of the Sahara, stuck there like a pictorial infantile North Pole – the most lonely and isolated petrol pump in the world or the universe.” It is accessible only by air and truck: “No man on foot or horseback, no camel, no gazelle or jackal, can even today reach Bidon 5 alive.” Unsurprisingly, therefore, its guardian turned out to be stir-crazy and frightfully constipated (they “gave him some castor oil from the aeroplane engine”), tormented by a phantom Tuareg flautist with a long white beard. Bidon 5, despite all its odd glamour, “turned out to be rather a bore.” Well, what did they expect?

scan_20161009-4Shortly after leaving Bidon 5, the Farman was forced by a sandstorm to land on the desert. Waulthier, Seabrook and Marjorie secured the plane, anchoring it with a dozen huge sandbags, strapping  a cover on the engine and plugging the exhaust pipes, before digging a trench in which they took cover with their emergency rations for a gritty night in the open. A day later they dusted off their plane and flew on to Gao.

The details of their trip once in the Niger valley are diverting, but unimportant, including much society at Gao, Timbuctoo and Bamako, the collection of papers from Père Yakouba, and an irresistible hunt for armoured ducks in the lagoon near Timbuctoo: “The armoured ducks of the Niger are,” Seabrook tells us, “ornithological monstrosities. They are as big as a full-grown sheep and so thick-boned, so heavily feathered, that ordinary buck-shot won’t even ruffle them. But they are worth trying to kill, for they are magnificent eating. A fillet from one breast makes a flank steak for a whole dinner-party.”

Their return trip, though, was eventful. They were swept up in the search for a lost aviator called Reginansi whose plane had come down in the desert near Tamanrasset, and who walked and crawled 140 kilometres in search of water while some unknown mischief-maker radioed false co-ordinates for his position. Marjorie was left at Gao to cross the desert by lorry, courtesy of the Trans-Saharienne which laid on a special run for her (“They would shoot her straight up across the desert, following us by fast motor-lorry, to Reggan … where we would pick her up and all return to France together.”) Once Reginansi was found, in parlous state – and not by our hero – Seabrook returned to Reggan to await Marjorie, where he met Georges Estienne, “that is to say, ‘the Pope,’ the big boss of the works, founder, president and Director-General of the whole bordj-eTrans-Saharienne.” This character sketch is worth quoting – Estienne was the grand old man of trans-Sahara travel. “He wore baggy tweeds, a golf cap, tan shoes and an Army shirt … He was a big, muscular fellow, youngish – that is to say in his healthy early forties – with a clean-shaven face that was boyish, friendly, and at the same time as hard as granite. Though the son of a French general, he was not Latin; though now a Saharan, he was a man of the North. He suggested very strongly a certain type of American or English empire-builder …”. With Estienne, Seabrook visited and crawled along a fougara, a subterranean water feed that supplied the oasis, and discovered (almost predictably) a thriving temple to a phallic cult on a cliff at the edge of the Ahaggar, on which he supplies much information of a Reader’s Digest sort.

But then things began to go wrong. Marjorie’s soft-topped Renault lorry did not appear on schedule, and it became clear that it was lost, probably off-trail somewhere between Bidon 5 and Reggan. Estienne organised a search (“We’ve had casualties among ourselves – you know about my brother René – but we’ve never lost a passenger”) while Seabrook fretted. An English film company appeared heading north in “a big, grey-white. shining autobus de luxe of the Trans-Saharan, not unlike those of the PLM that ply between Paris and Monte Carlo,” giving Seabrook much to complain about, and later to be slightly ashamed – but entirely unrepentant – at having written.

Arrivé du car au bordj de Reggane en 1926 avec les représentants

It was three difficult days before Marjorie returned, and Seabrook was increasingly worried despite Estienne’s reassurance. Finally her truck was sighted on the horizon at night, distant headlamps blazing. He heard what had happened. “In brief they were lost, totally lost, circling blindly for three days and nights in that worst of all deserts, the Tanesruft, the traditional ‘Desert of Thirst’ the heart of the Great Sahara. And then, after they had finally picked up the trail and found Bidon 5, ‘the God-damned fool’” – she had a hastily impressed mechanic, who had never driven the route before, rather than a trained desert driver – “’lost the trail again.’” A search party found them and brought them in, a little traumatised but safe, and the last leg of their journey, north across the desert, the Mediterranean, Spain and France, to Paris, could begin, back to whisky-and-soda and counterpanes.


It is a slight surprise to discover in accounts of Seabrook’s life that the long-faced and long-suffering asylumMarjorie, who became the second Mrs Seabrook in 1935, was a regular accessory of his more recondite carnal self-indulgences. There is photograph by Man Ray (part of a curious series called The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook) which is said to be of Marjorie in an all-enclosing, skin-tight, unperforated black leather hood that he called ‘the Justine mask’ (though the nature of the tenue clearly makes definitive identification tricky). Marjorie “willingly bore the marks of Willie’s whip and proudly wore his collar and chain to parties in Paris and New York,” even attended the launch party of one of her own books thus curiously clad. It is perhaps not entirely surprising that she found herself “in her later years, appalled by her own history” and divorced him in 1941, exasperated by his sadism and alcoholism, and later wrote a book about him, The Strange World of Willie Seabrook (1966). His own life ended in 1945, in a not unpredictable implosion, preoccupied with extra-sensory perception, casting magical curses on Hitler and “tying his mistresses up in chains on his New York farm.” He killed himself with a drug overdose.

m-islandThat’s probably enough about Seabrook’s personal life – as he wrote of Koupery, the French owner of a Timbuctoo trading-post, whose servant was kept dressed as Napoleon from the waist up, but naked from the waist down, “Koupery was queer and disturbing. I sensed something unnatural, abnormal. I wondered whether it might be opium, hashish or some obscure sex twist.” Indeed.

Oddly though, Seabrook’s slender claim to fame is not primarily through his florid sadism or his adventures in the Middle East, or Timbuctoo, but comes from other episodes in his life. The first was an experiment in cannibalism, which he described in unpleasant detail, at a Paris hospital: he wanted to write about a supposedly cannibal tribe which had denied him the experience on his travels but needed – for purely scientific reasons, you understand – to be able to describe the taste. The second was his self-committal to an asylum in 1933 – the year he published Air Adventure – an episode which he turned into a best-selling book called Asylum. And the third was an odd interest in Zombi-ism, which arose from a trip to Haiti and was written up in The Magic Island (1929), a book which made him a lot of money and set in motion the global obsession with zombies that seems still to be with us today. He was a hanger-on of the ‘Lost Generation’ poets, sneered at by them but persistent. His friends included Man Ray, Cocteau, the occultist Aleister Crowley and – perhaps – H P Lovecraft. Triangulate that lot and you have a very peculiar man. He would – as I concluded my piece on his biography of Père Yakouba – not have made a very good bishop.

The celebrated ‘marabout-cognac’ of Timbuctoo


I have always believed in serendipity, particularly when it comes to books. A few years ago I came across a book called The White Monk of Timbuctoo, bought it and put it unread in a shelf. A week ago it caught my eye and I took it down to read: it is a wonderful story, of how a peasant priest from Gland in the Aisne valley with an uncanny gift for languages got himself sent by the Pères Blancs to open a mission in Timbuctoo. How he fell in love with the city and many of its black ladies; how he walked away from the priesthood and married a Peuhl girl (“that mysterious race, sometimes ivory, sometimes black, supposed to have the migratory blood of ancient Egypt in its veins”), fathering a dozen children on her; how he became an intermittent, unreliable and rather resentful French colonial official in splendid uniform, though he was not unacquainted with the bottle and seems to have lived on the roof of his mud-palace with a generous supply of Pernod; how he was the greatest African linguist and ethnographer of his generation, and principal of the first institute of higher education in Timbuctoo since the University of Sankoré – although he never really bothered to publish anything very substantial beyond pamplets and ethnographic notes; and how he became the grand old man of Timbuctoo, a “robust, red-cheeked old man, stocky and powerful, with twinkling blue eyes and a great white beard, the benevolent patriarchal bull disguised as Santa Claus … the city’s one remaining mystery.”

But as though the old priest, Auguste Dupuis, later known as Père Yakouba, were not enough, the writer of the book was almost as surprising in a different vein, as its subject. An American adventurer, as given to drink as he reported Yakouba – perhaps exaggeratedly – to be, but much preoccupied by sado-masochism, alcoholism and black magic; a friend of Aleister Crowley, the discoverer and populariser of Haitian Zombi-ism and a casual cannibal who ate (or claimed to have eaten) human flesh out of curiosity, William  Seabrook was no stay-at-home himself, travelling in Arabia and the old Soudan and many other remote parts. He too is a part of this strange story, though I propose to start with Père Yakouba, and to return to Seabrook later. Yakouba was much the more interesting and appealing man: Seabrook was frankly a shit, though an intriguing one, and it is important to remember that any account of Yakouba is at least in part filtered through Seabrook’s unreliable pen.

Dupuis was the son of a barkeeper who sent him off as a boy, with some relief, to study for the priesthood. He distinguiscan_20161006-4shed himself at the more conventional languages, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. As a parish priest he had several run-ins with the church authorities, beginning with his throwing an intruder out of an upstairs window (“the French people, high and low, have always loved a fighting priest”), and continuing with his unblushing sexual relations with several women of the parish, to the discomfort of the diocese. Early on he decided that his future lay in mission work (the diocese concurred), and in 1890 he arrived in Algiers as an Augustinian novice in the Order of Our Lady of Africa in Algiers – the famous ‘White Fathers’ – and added Arabic, Bambara and Kabyle to his stock of languages. By this time he had decided that Timbuctoo was his final destination, though the only two groups of White Fathers to have attempted reaching it had been massacred by Tuaregs. He did eventually get there, a member of the first mission to reach the city, in May 1895, across “the forest of Kambara, wavy sand-dunes smudged with thorn-tree thickets, fit for robberies and murders, dotted with the graves of many travellers who had seen but not entered Timbuctoo.”

He and his fellow-priest Père Hacquard settled quickly in, building a wildly successful clinic and pharmacy and later a church. “Yakouba seems to have been filled with a spontaneous, almost childish delight in Timbuctoo from the morning when he awoke in the strange house and walked out into the strange city … He simply seems to have fallen in love with it on sight and to have had a wholly irrational premonition that it was his city, his place.” Irrational perhaps, but correct. He made a couple of resentful visits to France to show it to some of his children (he had a good many by his wife Salama, including “Diara, Youssoufou, Paul, Asher, Marcelle, Adah, Seir, Charles, Bashemath, Henri, Louis, Nabaroth, Gertrude, Bilhah and Issachar”). But he didn’t like it, returned as soon as he could, and spent the rest of his life in Timbuctoo.

Going back a little, to place the horse before the cart, Yakouba left the priesthood sometime before 1905, simply walking out of the mission in civvies and was found that night naked in the lagoon looking for crawfish. As he put it later, “A man always does what scan_20161006-3he wants to do. Or at least he always ought to do what he wants to do. If you can’t be true to yourself, you can’t be true to anything. I have wondered sometimes whether the failure to do it isn’t the mysterious sin against the Holy Ghost which damns the soul forever … I quit the Church because I didn’t want to leave Timbuctoo and didn’t want to give up women.” The crisis was brought on because he was threatened with a bishopric, which he absolutely didn’t want – and jealous would-be bishops in Algiers mischievously reported what had been genially concealed by Père Hacquard, that “Yakouba had had to be sent away from Timbuctoo because he had been debauching the native women, sprawling about drunk on jujube-juice and even taking little boys into the lagoon …”.  It was the last straw, and he quietly shed his white cassock, and soon afterwards, married Salama (“she was no Josephine Baker”), a fisherman’s daughter from Kabara. The mission went into decline without him. And the apparently quite innocent fishing-trips with the boys of the town no doubt continued.

He then eked out a comfortable enough living as interpreter to the French garrison, appearing in court in an unusually interventionist role for such an officer, and becoming Adjoint Principale des Affaires Indigènes. He accompanied armed expeditions like one to punish Senussi jihadis for attacking Agadès in 1920; and at about the same time was made Commandant of Goundam and managed to stay there a couple of years in white uniform with epaulettes and much gold embroidery, before he got bored and went home to Timbuctoo. Richard Halliburton describes a visit to Timbuctoo by air in the early 1930s, and a visit to Yakouba:

The moment we sat down in Yakouba’s study, a baby leopard and a monkey crawled into our hostess’s ample lap. But the place was no zoo. All around were shelves covered with pamphlets, books, notes written and about the obscure languages of western Africa – the scholarly library of a hermit-savant. Père Yakouba proved to be an extraordinary source of enlightenment. Every question Stephens and I asked – and they were countless – about the town, the people, their history and culture, Yakouba answered most patiently.

But this wasn’t all. In about 1910 he was instrumental in starting an Arabic madrassa in the city, as much as anything else in protest at the undeserved (as he and his friends at Timbuctoo saw it) intellectual prominence of the university at Jenné, whose Dean he pinched. He supervised the building, appointed the faculty, ruled genially but when necessary with a rode of iron: disciplining a Koran professor for drunkenness he was met with the reproach that he himself drank a great deal. “And that is all the more reason why I can’t afford to have drunkards on my faculty,” he replied. It was funded by the French, headed by Yakouba and became a motor of Timbuctoo’s intellectual renaissance.  “Thus the modern provincial peasant son of a Paris bar-keeper became the turbaned head of a faculty and student body which might have existed at Baghdad or Cairo during the caliphate,” which turned out educated natives in the ancient tradition of classical Arabic and Islamic education, and francophone bureaucrats to serve the French administration.

His was an unusual life, and he became something of a great man, a pillar of Timbuctoo, much visited (to his irritation) by travellers like Halliburton and Seabrook, teaching in half a dozen languages, sleeping about with the complaisance of his long-suffering if occasionally alarming wife, drinking vastly and talking endlessly.

Pernod looms large, though this may be a projection of Seabrook’s own alcoholic preoccupations. Yakouba in fact established a distillery for jujube brandy, but much of its apparently very fwilliam-seabrookine output was traded with the French garrison for more traditional liquors, Pernod high on the list. He describes, memorably, a Pernod drunk on a military expedition into the Sahara: “We poured out three new glasses of Pernod and mixed it with water from the well, which tasted only of goat. The tang which it gave the alcohol was startling, but not repugnant. A piece of camel-dung about the size of an olive, floating in Pépoint’s glass, created the impression of a cocktail. Darkness was falling, and by the light of the photophore we mixed some more.”

What more can I say? I have no idea how well I can trust Seabrook, who was steeped in self-regard, self-glorification and heroic exaggeration (at the very least). One of Yakouba’s daughters said of Seabrook after her father’s death that “. . .  he had pestered her father with questions and made him drink too much when he was ill, had misrepresented Yakouba from start to finish and, futhermore, had violated the contract he had drawn up so that the family never had received a penny in royalties after the publication of the book. She made no bones about the fact that she did not think much of Americans. . . .” But the story, which is presented plausibly enough as being a taking-down of Yakouba’s own convivial and disorganized table-talk, appears largely true, if slanted, and Seabrook sums him up appealingly: “I am not trying to paint Yakouba as a saint, or Tolstoi either. He has never been a champion, leader or protector of the exploited and down-trodden black man. He became one of them himself, but he had no Messianic feeling of humbling himself or lifting them up when he did it. He thinks they are quite all right. He thinks that the French government is all right too. My old friend is not noble. He is, on the whole, pragmatic. I wonder sometimes whether he might not have made a better bishop than he thought.”

As for Seabrook himself, his own story is also too good to skate over, and to him I shall return: cannibal, vodooist and sadist, he would have made a lousy bishop.

Running to Catch the Bus (2) – Africa


Recently I was at a seminar given by Dr Berny Sèbe of the University of Birmingham. He talked about a very interesting research project into the military forts of the Sahara, looking at the way forts had developed and been used, the way they interplayed with mobile military forces and urban settlements, the way they represented continuities with Roman military occupation, their post-Independence uses and so on. At one point he showed a grainy black-and-white photograph of a rather chubby white bus with round portholes, and commented that it was one of the buses commissioned by the Compagnie Générale Transsaharienne to carry its customers across the Sahara from the coast to Gao on the Niger bend. I was fascinated by the idea of a company running white, bulgy buses across the great desert, carrying passengers in air-conditioned comfort, in what looked like the 1930s. So I did a little reading and found that trans-Saharan motor-transport has a very different history from that across the Syrian desert to Baghdad, but an equally fascinating one.

cgs-mapWhere the Nairns built a business on fast, cheap, competitive transport between Jerusalem and Baghdad, carrying the post, bullion and passengers, the French desert convoys had quite another rationale. They arose from imperial amour-propre and a fierce competition between the two major French car manufacturers, Louis Renault and André Citroën. The two episodes epitomise so perfectly the cultural differences between France and Britain that they are worth holding up to the light together: the one pragmatic, commercial, brave and accidentally romantic; the other loftily idealistic, romantic, brave and accidentally commercial.

In the early 1920s Citroën and Renault launched a series of great quasi-anthropological expeditions across Africa, and filmed them, at about the same time that they set about the Sahara. French imperial triumphalism, a lascivious cod-ethnology and intense commercial self-promotion lay behind what were called ‘raïds’ – lavish, expensively conceived expeditions that criss-crossed the continent with ciné cameras running. Citroën filmed La Traversée du Sahara in 1923, La Croisée Noire in 1925 and La Croisée Jaune in 1932, each one “a moving visual catalogue of the French colonies.” Starting generally from Touggourt, to which the Constantine-Biskra railway line had been extended in 1918, they pushed southward, filming as they went, encouraged by the success in 1922 of  ‘Le Raïd Citroën,’ which made the first motorised crossing of the Sahara. In 1925 La Croisée Noire, a massive motorised expedition south from Colomb-Béchar split into four separate columns with very different routes, reuniting at Tananarive in Madagascar.  It was a very French imperial statement.

In 1924 Citroën established a subsidiary called CITRACIT to run regular transport on an Oran-Béchar-Toggourt-Timbuktu route (the first Toggourt-Timbuktu transit ran in the winter of 1923/4). Citroën bought the patent for the rubberised caterpillar half-track capable of driving in deep sand, designed by Adolphe Kégresse, who had worked on tank and half-track design for Renault during the war. Hotels were constructed along the route, “luxurious tent-like structures, each adjoined to an elegant dining-room” – “intended to create an ambience for men in smoking-jackets, women in gowns and dancing to live music under the stars.” Three boats were built raid-citroenand installed on the Niger for travelling between Bouarem, Timbuktu and Gao.

Citroën was in a hurry. Unlike Renault which took almost four years from founding the company to launching a commercial service, Citroën wanted instant results:

Il faut que la réussite de cette entreprise étonne le monde par la rapidité avec laquelle la réalisation aura suivi la conception. A peine la nouvelle du projet sera-t-elle connue, et déjà les bordjs seront sortis de terre en pleine desert; ils seront meublés, organisés, eclairés à l’électricité et fonctionneront. Les voitures munies de chenilles auront tout transporté à travers le chaos des terrains désertiques, tandis que d’autres véhicules appropriés à leur nouvelle destination, rapides et confortables, auront été conçus, construits et expédiés, leur personnel entraîné aux solitudes désertiques et les premiers voyageurs transportés d’une rive a l’autre de la mer saharienne …

halftrack-w-peopleA magnificent launch event was planned for January 1925, a journey from Colomb-Béchar, a military base on the Algerian-Moroccan border reachable by rail from Oran since 1905, through Beni Abbès, Adrar and Gao to Timbuktu. In the convoy were to travel King Albert II of the Belgians and Maréchal Pétain. It is hard to imagine a more grandiose, more prestigious launch event.

Beside Citroën, competing with quiet determination, was Renault, more oblique and perhaps marginally subtler in its approach to publicity. Eschewing the most grandiose self-promotion, it too ran African expeditions, and it too filmed them: the 1924 ‘Mission Gradis’ was filmed, though the film is now lost; and the Oran-Cape Town ‘raid’ of 1926 produced Les Mystères du Continent Noire. For the Sahara run itself, Renault produced La Première Traversée rapide du desert (329 heures), a not-at-all-subtle dig at Citroën’s slower half-track expedition, La Première Traversée du Sahara: Renault ran six-wheeled, double-tired trucks which moved much faster than Kégresse’s quasi-military vehicles.

Aimageslongside both, Peugeot was up to much the same gambit, if in a lower key, with its expedition and film of 1926, L’Image d’Afrique. But the real struggle was Citroën versus Renault. The latter started to push out exploratory crossings of the Sahara with a view to a regular service, just as Citroën did. Much of the infrastructure was already in place. Tourism in French North Africa had grown through the second half of the nineteenth century. Railways ran inland from the coast at Constantine to Biskra (1905), extended to Touggourt in 1918; and from Oran to Colomb-Béchar (though the Béchar line was mostly military). Biskra first, and after it Touggourt, became tourist destinations, Biskra in particular suffering from rampant commercialism and vulgarisation. Desert camping trips became common. The first Cook’s tour to Algeria was in 1875 and Cook’s first desert excursion in 1886; and soon parties were being taken to Touggourt and El Oued.

After the Great War tourism really took off, officially promoted and growing fast. The 1920s and 1930s were golden decades in this respect. The Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, dominant in the shipping of tourists to Algeria, built dozens of hotels in collaboration with Renault across French North Africa – 44 of them by 1930, many luxury establishments like the Mamounia at Marrakech and the Jamai Palace at Fes, but others small fort-like bordj-es deep in the desert, to serve circuits like the 27-day Marrakech to Algiers tour which took tcgs-bus-modelen passengers at a time 1700 miles ‘in armchair seats’ across the desert. By 1926 Renault vehicles were taking parties out into the Grand Erg Occidental on camping and hunting trips from the new railhead at Figuig. Between 1920 and 1925 SVHNA, a subsidiary of CGT, established no fewer than 22 auto-circuits in the desert, on which it ran 270 vehicles.

So when the idea of a trans-Saharan ‘bus’ service began to emerge in the early 1920s, it was not new, and much of the hardware already existed. The railway line came as far south as Colomb-Béchar, an oasis military base on what is now the Algerian side of the Moroccan-Algerian border (later used as a French missile-testing ground), and although the first crossings started in Touggourt, it was from Béchar that regular services eventually ran.

Partnering with Renault, a Bordeaux businessman called Gaston Gradis bought several Renault six-wheelers and established the Compagnie Générale Transsaharienne. The president of the company was General Jean-Baptiste Eugène Estienne, who had been a major force behind the wartime development of French tanks and half-tracks – and thus the boss of Adolphe Kégresse who was developing Citroën’s desert half-tracks. (This double association is a reminder of the close links between desert transport and the military – the great Marmot-Herrington articulated buses that the Nairns operated in the 1930s came from a US manufacturer specialising in armoured vehicles.)

Gradis’s first exploratory voyage (ironically using Citroëns) took place in the winter of 1923-4, andcompagnie_generale_transsaharienne_poster consisted of four trucks pulling an aeroplane from Beni Ouif through Adrar and Tessalit to Colomb-Béchar. He set up the Compagnie Général Transsaharienne, its name chosen deliberately to echo the dream (dating back to the mid-19th century) of a French north-south railway – the Transaharien – which was supposed to meet an equally putative Djibouti-Senegal line at Timbuktu. (Four ‘raïds’ organised by the Commission for the Transaharien had ended in disaster with the massacre of the Flatters expedition in 1881). Gradis ran a number of preparatory expeditions, after the first using Renaults and carrying Renault engineers. The second crossing was from Colomb-Béchar to Gao and back again, in the course of which he marked out the southern sector of the track, known as ‘Bidon V,’ with empty oil barrels. The third ended with an extraordinary journey from Savé in Dahomey to Colomb-Béchar in just six days.

The two companies were running very much head-to-head, though Gradis puritanically disliked the notion that they were in any way racing; and in January 1925 Citroën looked ready to deliver the knock-out blow with its VIP maiden voyage, studded with celebrities and royalty. Alas, the military authorities decided at the last moment that the security situation couldn’t be relied upon: there was tribal unrest in the desert, and a big raid was reported just to the south of Colomb-Béchar. The King of Belgium cancelled. The voyage was postponed several times and then itself cancelled; and CITRACIT collapsed, like an over-inflated balloon, shortly afterwards.

cgs-bus4There is some apparently well-founded suspicion that Renault was behind the convenient and devastating intelligence of rebellion in the desert. Whether or not this was the case, the collapse of CITRACIT left the field to Gradis and Renault, who ran a regular service between Béchar and Gao from the winter of 1927-28, at first fortnightly and then weekly. In 1926 a luxurious sleeping-car was commissioned for the service by Georges Estienne, the general’s son, who became president of the company in 1926. His vehicle, looking like a cross between and ocean liner and a piece of retro-design modern kitchen equipment, was what I had seen in the photograph I mentioned above. “Trans-Saharan Transport,” as one writer puts it, “which annually handles hundreds of travellers and tourists and delivers them at their destination in safety and comfort, and a schedule which may be compared favourably with those of any well-organized ocean line …” and of the buses themselves, they “come through with a kitchenette, steward, wireless operator, compass, like ships on schedule.” Accommodation en route was found at hotels in Reggane – the famous Bordj Estienne – Gao and Niamey, the latter being an optional extension from Gao, mainly for hunters, with many of the tourists alighting at Gao to travel to Timbuktu.

This trans-Sahara service ran until the war. As war approached, the Compagnie Générale Transaharienne found itself increasingly militarised, moving large numbers of troops northwards from Gao to Colomb-Béchar and keeping open the transport line that connected French possessions in West Africa to those in the North. But the World War and the struggle for Algerian independence that followed killed off large-scale tourism, and by the fifties air transport had largely eliminated the need for buses. Gradis was originally an air-man himself, president of Nieuport-Astra aeroplane company, and the Compagnie Générale Transaharienne had been founded to explore the possibilities of both land and air transport. Soon after the end of thcrois-noiree war it was running air services between French possessions in North and West Africa.  Meanwhile Georges Estienne, having left Compagnie Générale Transaharienne in 1933, founded another company, SATT, which operated an eastern bus route, from Algiers to Kano, and he too took his company into aviation.

Much later of course the same sort of mechanical bravado was displayed in the Paris-Dakar Rally, known latterly and with a pleasing symmetry as the Dakar Rally Raïd. Here too the French car companies slugged it out in the sand, Citroën, Renault and Peugeot dividing the honours over the years, though diluted by Mitsubishis and Volkswagens. The ‘Raïd’ hasn’t run in North Africa since 2008, AQIM having played the same sort of role as the revolting tribes of 1925 played then. It now takes place in South America, a sort of Latin Raïd. The Sahara though, remains what one writer describes as “the ultimate testing-ground of the French automobile,” and French troops at least seem able and willing to intervene today in armoured cars, in the stamping grounds of these splendid, ancient hi-tech bus companies.


Running to Catch the Bus (1) – Baghdad


Snaking across the gravel deserts of Syria and Iraq, Algeria and the old Soudan in the 1920s and 30s were lines of oil-drums. Crossing the Syrian desert they were a mile apart: after Adrar, going south across the Sahara, they stood every kilometre along Bidon V, marking water depots, and neatly numbered. They indicated motor-routes, on which first heavy-duty cars and then huge custom-built buses roared across the hard surface of the desert, making unprecedentedly fast land-links across empires and for a couple of decades competing successfully with nascent air services on price (and occasionally on speed). The Sahara was conquered by French entrepreneurs and drivers, the Syrian desert by New Zealanders. It is a wonderful story – or pair of stories. I had been dimly aware of the Amman-Baghdad buses run by the Nairn Eastern Transport Company, but only recently at a lecture on the French forts of the Sahara did I see a photograph of a slightly less massive, elegant and air-conditioned Renault bus built for the Compagnie Generale Transsaharienne, running between Colomb-Béchar and Gao, and I wanted to know more. Both stories are old stories, and I re-tell them with pleasure but not originality.

overland_mail_posterThe Great War saw the Middle East and North Africa overrun with ‘modern’ transport, from aeroplanes to armoured cars and from motor-bikes to lorries. (I wrote a year or so ago about early post-war air transport, the disastrous Aerial Route Number One from Paris to Cairo, in a post called Biffy, the Bombers and Disorganised Morale.) Two of those left behind by the tide of war after fighting under Allenby in Palestine and Syria, with a fascination and an aptitude for motor mechanics, were a pair of New Zealand bothers called Norman and Gerald Nairn. Without capital but very determined, they set up and ran a transport business, first as a cross-country taxi route between Haifa and Beirut – in those days a very difficult journey of 19 hours with no road south of Akka, and stretches of driving along beaches and across ploughed fields – and later as a longer-distance service running to Baghdad and eventually to Tehran. These last became the ‘Nairn buses,’ the famously safe and reliable express mail-coaches of the day which travelled off-road, for long stretches at 70 mph and more, mainly at night, across very hostile terrain and in the early days much attacked by Bedouin and Druze bandits for the gold they often carried – though as they liked to boast, they never lost a passenger.

Interestingly, both routes more or less coincided with projected (but unbuilt) railway lines. The British had planned a line from Haifa to Baghdad (the only other line into Baghdad was an Indian Army narrow-gauge line from Basra), but it was unfinanceable. As for the French, efforts that began in the mid-nineteenth century to build a trans-Saharan line continued into the Second World War, when Jewish slave labour from Vichy France was used, but in the end the line consisted only of two stretches, Dakar to Bamako and Oran to Colomb-Béchar (1905) – with a very big gap in the middle. Cars and trucks made better financial sense.

The Nairn business really got under way with an exploratory drive in April 1923, supported by the British representatives in Beirut and Damascus, the former, Captain McCallum, accompanying the expedition with his wife. Three cars – a Buick, a Lancia and an Oldsmobile – crossed in three days from Damascus to Baghdad, and the Nairns quickly tried more crossings, five that summer alone. The British authorities in Iraq were unwilling to support the service, though Nairn quite quickly won a five-year contract for delivery of Iraq government mail from the Baghdad Post Office, which underwrote a successful business between Haifa on the Palestine coast and Baghdad, a journey of 450 miles or so across some of the more hostile terrain on earth.

The route varied over time. To begin with their cars, carrying three passengers each as well as mail and sometimes bullion, crossed in convoy on a northern route from Damascus via Rutba to Baghdad, but after the 1925 Druze rebellion this anyway dangerous and bandit-infested route became unusable, and the longer southern route from Jerusalem via Amman, Mafrak and Rutba became standard for the Baghdad passenger service. By the end of 1923 the brothers had bought a fleet of six seven-seater powerful and indestructible Cadillac Type 63s, and quickly won the French government’s Damascus-Baghdad mail contract too. They then, over time, upped the stakes by buying larger and more powerful vehicles: six-ton, 16-seater Safeway buses in 1926, which drove at night and cut the time down to 20 hours. These were supplemented in 1932 by specially commissioned 70-foot double-decker Marmon-Herrington trailer-trucks which seated 38 and offered reclining seats, buffet meals and toilets. The buses moved fast, over 70 mph on firm gravel, mostly at night. Finally in 1937, the brothers commissioned two stainless steel Pullmans from Budd of Philadephia, air-conditioned, articulated and fast – they cut the journey time down to 18 hours. The Pullmans ate tires (they used 10 at a time), which had to be changed every 2,000 miles until Firestone developed special rayon-based tires for Nairn that could stand the heat much better than cotton-based tires, and lasted more like 18,000 miles each. These monster buses ran until the company closed in 1959, each clocking up, quite incredibly, over 2,000,000 miles. They were serious vehicles and even leaving aside the details of their mechanical excellence, they set new standards of luxury in surface transport, self-consciously imitating the airliners of the day. Here is a 1937  description of them by Edgar Jones:


The first trailer had luxurious accommodations for 19 seated passengers and the second for 14 travelers who would spend their long overnight journey in private upper or lower sleeping berths.

The plans incorporated Budd’s experience in building streamlined railroad car and auto bodies, with the Nairn need for an economical, speedy, lightweight, rugged bus which could travel the rough terrain with a minimum of difficulty. To guard against the extreme temperatures of desert night and day (zero at times and often as high as 140 degrees), complete insulation and conditioning of air were specified. Leg room to equal Pullmans cut passenger capacity to seventeen in the day bus and fourteen in the sleeper. Extra wide chairs limited double seats to one side of the aisle and singles to the other.

The new buses lop nine hours from former crossing time and make the six-hundred-mile trip over trackless waste in fifteen hours, while passengers comfortably sway on rubber cushions. Coach seats face the front, but the sleeper is divided into compartments with seats facing each other. At bed time, the seat backs swing up to form upper berths supported by tubular frames. The gap between the seats is filled with an extra cushion and the lower is made. Sheets, pillows, blankets and curtains make the berths ready for sleepy travelers. Lighting and adjustable outlets for conditioned air are provided for each berth.

bus-005b_fitzgibbondd2Following a formula akin to the hostess or steward plan on American airlines, an attendant throughout the trip comforts passengers with ice water, tea and coffee as well as box lunches with wrapped sandwiches and fruit. Lockers for storing blankets, pillows, clothing and miscellaneous equipment are in the front of the trailer, while the rear has a dressing room which also contains wash basins and toilet facilities.

In 1926 the Nairns took over their only rival, the Arab-owned Eastern Transport Company, forming the Nairn Eastern Transport Co. The ETC brought with it routes it had developed into Persia, continuing from Khaniqin through Kermanshah and Hamadan to Tehran, though with a rail link from Baghdad to Khaniqin because the road was terrible. This route was eventually abandoned after disputes with the Persian government.

The whole ethos of the company seems to have been one of courage, extreme efficiency and a cowboy swagger. The convoys rode armed, but didn’t normally fight when attacked, putting the safety of passengers first. In the whole history of Nairn they only lost one driver. The drivers were tough men from all over the world. Gerald Nairn described the early Cadillac-drivers as

… a great bunch, tough but good. They never let their passengers down, and their fidelity and endurance were known throughout the Middle East. We all packed a gun in those days. There were New Zealanders, Aussies, British, Americans and Canadians. Among the characters was John Reid, with one eye, who once, in a Cadillac, chased a cheetah down and shot it, and of course Ryan, the Aussie, who was very fond of the bottle. Passengers often complained he had been drinking, but I could never catch him or find liquor in the car. Finmally I discovered that his chargals (water bottles with straws) were full of arak … He had wealthy parents in Australia who wanted him to come home but he refused, and eventually drank himself to death in Persia. Sometimes a car would get shot up by the Arabs and to get drivers to go out with a relief car and bring it in, we would have to drag them out of hotels or brothels. So we gave them a house to live in and a girl each …

They drove very fast into the night following the light of their hugely powerful headlights, coping with appalling conditions (there were impossibly boulder-strewn lava-fields between Amman and Rutba, and in winter, regular floods and snow). They handled their huge vehicles with precision, after long apprenticeships on smaller cars and trucks, and didn’t have careless accidents. There are regular references in accounts of the company to their proficiency at the ‘Gilhooley Manoeuvre,’ which sounds obstetric, but was in fact the emergency control of a vehicle spinning through 360 and more degrees (often several times) at speed on a flat, wet surface – impressive, but it must have worried the passengers.

During the rainy months of January and February, water collects in the hollows of the desert. Puddles and mud, hundreds of yards wide and several miles long, spot the trail. As there is no telling the extent of this area, it is impracticable to detour. Drivers with an acquired Oriental fatalism on coming to mud, warn passengers, then drive at full speed to slide across on the belly of the bus. As a concession to this practice, the new trailers (turtle-like) have completely enclosed bottoms. Sandstorms force a complete stop (seldom over an hour or so). The tight fitting doors and windows prevent discomfort.

That must have shaken the iced water and dislodged the sandwiches.

Like the French in the Sahara, but on a smaller scale, they catered for passengers at their stopovers. But where the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique and CITRACIT built a chain of hotels, known as bordj-es across the interior to cater for tourists on long trips, the Nairn Co. with its much shorter single route needed only one, at Rutba, which like its French counterparts attracted a mixture of spurious exoticism and travellers’ needs:

The one and only scheduled stop between points is Rutbah which is the nearest thing in real life to the movie conception of a desert outpost. Grim walls, radio towers, and detachments of soldiers remind travelers of Beau Sabreur and the Foreign Legion. The hotel, a large restaurant, and an ice-making plant do a thriving business at this meeting point for air and motor travelers. Possessing the only wells which do not go dry during the hot spell, Rutbah attracts the Arabs who camp outside the fort with their camels and livestock. 

Or, as Freya Stark described it,

…. the palace planted in the wilderness when Aladdin’s uncle rubbed the lamp; how else could it have got there? It is 200 empty miles from anywhere. It has beds to sleep in and waiters who spontaneously think of hot water. You walk into a room and dine on salmon mayonnaise and other refinements … the British, returning from summer leave, are all talking shop or shootings and look nice and clean …

nairn_bus_in_the_desert_smallEvery Arabian traveller from Gertrude Bell to Philby, every diplomat and businessman used the Nairn bus. Writing in the 1930s, Stark (Baghdad Sketches) described the journey, with its odd mixture of excitement and banality, though she was travelling “the cheap way, being poor and also democratic by nature,” and her Armenian taxi-driver “spends the twilight racing the Nairn down an open wadi.” into Rutba Wells. The convoy is large and miscellaneous, “the long grey chassis of the Nairn, travelling in respectable seclusion; and in and out of all the greater monsters, the indiscriminate crowd of small cars, Chevrolet, Morris, Fiat, Ford in every stage of smartness and dilapidation, but chiefly the latter …”

Even now the crossing of the desert is an everyday affair, and although the Nairn Motor Transport do what they can, and cook your breakfast-sausage romantically for you in the open desert over a fire of camelthorn, with an old paraffin box ready to help in case of need, they do not quite succeed, one must admit, in giving the true nomadic feeling to any except the most innocent travellers. In the place where the old Arabian singers saw the three blackened hearthstones of the Beloved in the deserted camp, we now pass derelict skeletons of cars …

The Nairns retired in the early 1950s, with pressure building to localise the company. Rather than surrender it to the governments of Syria and Iraq, they left it to their employees and it operated until 1959. They had, as one Beirut newspaper put it, “done more to unite Syria and Iraq in a year than all the politicians in Arabia and Europe had ever achieved.”


Just ash, floating


There’s a rather predictable trope concerning the destruction of cultural artefacts, which essentially asks why it is that we labour and mourn over stones, when human flesh is at risk. To my mind, the clearest symbolic answer to that is given by the death in 2015 of Palmyra’s 82-year old Director of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad, who spent a lifetime working on, and writing about, the ruins of Palmyra and, having hidden from Daech as many of the city’s treasures as he could, died rather than reveal their whereabouts, hanged by barbarians from a pillar in the forum of his ancient city. Here was a man who needed no convincing of the centrality of symbolic cultural artefacts in the humane biosphere.

There’s something seductive but also silly in the ‘why-worry-about-buildings-when-people-are-dying’ argument. Of course, on the one hand, it’s true (a truism indeed): people, as all our mothers said to us as young children, are more important than things and faced with one of those artificial philosophical choices of the ‘Shall-I-shoot-this-child-or–smash-this-statue’ sort, few of us would answer ‘Waste the kid. ’ But the silliness comes from the false binary, the assumption that the world can indeed beruins-1 divided into ‘people’ and ‘things.’ Good enough for children, it won’t do for grown-ups, who understand, sometimes with pain and reluctance, that the two categories are inter-penetrating; that things draw their meaning from people, and people place some of their deepest collective feelings in things. Think of the intense emotional investment in regimental colours or a Roman Eagle; the Ark of the Covenant or the Kaaba; the relics of saints, the Stars-and-Stripes, the Crown of St Stephen or the tombs of ancestors. In all of these, people, blood and manufacture, not to mention God, are blended to make what we call material culture. It is this intense blending, this kneading of emotion, identity and history into the dough of creation that makes things with special power.

And these things are the things that those who wish to destroy whole peoples also destroy, because of the power that they have absorbed from the feelings invested in them, and the feelings they in turn catalyse, often over long periods of time. Destroy them, and you destroy the heart, perhaps even the coherent reality, of a people. Christopher de Bellaigue writes, when travelling in Iran, of a visit to Yazd. He asked a Zoroastrian priest, charged with keeping alight the eternal sacred flame, “what happens if the flame at Yazd goes out?” The priest replies: “Nothing. Except that the endeavours, toil and devotion of our forefathers will have come to naught.” George Clooney, in his otherwise embarrassingly schlocky film Monuments Men, puts it like this, and rather well: “You can wipe out a generation of people, you can burn their homes to the ground, but somehow they still come back. But if you destroy their achievements, their history, it’s like they never existed, just ash, floating.”images

This is one of the reasons why seeing unexplained objects in the abstract is so strange and disturbing: they are without their meaning. We can dig up quantities of Neolithic art, some of it clearly of vital symbolic importance, but we can only guess what these objects meant to their makers, because there is no one to tell us, and no one left whose sense of self and of the universe is wrapped up in it. The destruction of such objects is tragedy enough, but it is of a different order from the destruction of ‘living’ cultural objects – those whose meaning is still alive, supple and real, seeping across the permeable membrane between people and things.

As Robert Bevan has pointed out, this is why the original draft of the Genocide Convention, drafted by Raphael Lemkin, the tormented and eccentric Jew from Lemburg, wrapped the destruction of a people up, so urgently, with the destruction of their culture: they aren’t separable. It isn’t sufficient to say that without the people the stones have no meaning. Precisely the opposite is just as true: without the stones, the people have no meaning. This is uncomfortable, in an age fixated by the primacy of the individual, but true.

And loss of meaning is more than just a cultural loss, in the superficial usage of that word. The Chicago philosopher Jonathan Lear, in a wonderful book called Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, starts from the extraordinary remark of an Indian chief, Plenty Coups of the Crow tribe, looking back on the signing of the treaty which confined the Crow to their reservation in the 1880s. Looking back, decades later, on a long life, he said of that moment, apocalyptically, “After this, nothing happened,” by which he meant not that no events had taken place (he himself was busy and successful), but that they were without meaning – the meaning that is theirs in the society from which they sprang. The loss of this kind of meaning destroys the whole subjective world in which a people live, which Lear compares to the fate of a sentient chess-pieceplenty-coups which he imagines as reflecting, “humans get bored with playing this game, and the game of chess goes out of existence. My problem is not simply that my way of life has come to an end. I no longer have the concepts with which to understand myself or the world … the concepts with which I would otherwise have understood myself – indeed the concepts with which I would otherwise have shaped my identity – have gone out of existence.”

This destruction of significance is what cultural obliteration is all about. When Daech set about destroying the Yazidi temples and people of Sinjar, its black myrmidons knew what they were doing: they aimed to obliterate a people in the way that it was done in ancient Mesopotamia, by destroying every physical trace, killing its menfolk and enslaving its women. And when the tatterdemalion jihadis invaded Timbuktu in November 2011, they quickly began to do the same. In particular, they attacked the shrines of sufi saints, bulldozing and obliterating these ancient religious buildings as a way not just of imposing their iconoclastic, primitivist puritanism on the people of Timbuktu, but as a way of extirpating, as they thought, the cultural memory that they embodied. Attacks on sufi shrines are a widespread manifestation of salafi-jihadism, seen in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt as well as northern Mali. Sheer venom apart, they represent a desire to cut a people off from its religious roots, the more easily to bully them into the bizarre Year Zero devotional habits of their new masters. To knock over the chess board and scatter the pieces.

What marks out Mali is that the commissar responsible for demolishing shrines and sites of more public importance like the 16th century Sidi Yahia mosque,  was not only captured but has been put on trial in the Hague. The International Criminal Court’s very first prosecution for the destruction of cultural heritage saw in the dock ‘Abou Tourab,’ the jihadist kunya of Mohamed Ag Mahmoud Al Faqi, a local salafi quickly drawn into the occupying government in which his own father was a beating-shooting-and-amputating judge of the sharia court. In one sense the trial was a bit of a let-down. Abou Tourab pleaded guilty and apologized. But the principle was established, publicly and declaratively: cultural destruction is a war crime.

The interesting thing is how much anger the trial has aroused. Some say and with justice that more important jihadists got away, some released to facilitate ‘reconciliation.’ That Abou T was by no means the worst. That anyway Abou T should be being prosecuted for the awful things he did to people, not to old brick and pisé walls. All this is no doubt true, but misses the point. The current trial of Mohamed Ag Mahmoud Al Faqi is the first great, public acknowledgement that cultural destruction is as much a war crime as killing. His old teacher wrote recently a rather sad defence of him as a ‘little fish,’ and ended by saying:

The cutting off of people’s hands and the executions that took place during Ansar Dine’s “new style” sharia for almost a year appear to be lesser crimes than the destruction, in which Al Faqi played a part, of Unesco World Heritage sites.

No: apples and pears, M le prof.  This is a point that needed making, and better to do it with a repentant little fish than a sly and unrepentant great shark. But just as important is the fundamental misunderstanding of why it is important. Not because what were destroyed were “UNESCO World Heritage sites,” though those sites are an inexact attempt to record and preserve what is important. What Abou T and his morality brigade did was not an attack on UNESCO, or Western priorities: it was an attempt to derail a set of values and religious practices that were integral to the people of the city – to destroy the embodiments of a collective memory and an ancestral religiosity. To knock the chess-pieces off the board and abolish the rules of the game.

So it is important and splendid that Abou T, a sad little man with unruly hair and a shallowly simplistic understanding even of his own religion, be condemned for this crime. And it’s very important too, that he publicly recognized his guilt. This is what the prosecutor said in her opening statement:


[Timbuktu] was, to be sure, the cradle of education, where enlightenment was nurtured for the benefit of generations of students, attracting scholars from far and wide. Some of these sages would be venerated as Muslim saints, and mausoleums would be erected on their graves to honour their memory as well as the notable contributions they made to the lives of the people of Timbuktu, and beyond. These mausoleums, which survived the ravages of time, have continued to play a fundamental, even foundational, role in both the life within the city’s gates and beyond the city’s borders. These monuments were living testimony to Timbuktu’s glorious past … But above all, they were the embodiment of Malian history, captured in tangible form, from an era long gone yet still very much vivid in the memory and pride of the people who so dearly cherished them. The mausoleums also testify to the historical role Timbuktu played in the spread of Islam in Africa and in the history of Africa itself. They are relics of a great chapter in humankind’s intellectual and spiritual development on the continent, which gave Timbuktu its standing in the world. This is particularly important in a society that is partly rooted in oral tradition. And it is notably for these reasons that they are so precious, and were inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1988. What’s more, the mausoleums of Timbuktu played and continue to play an important religious role in the daily lives of the city’s inhabitants. Mausoleums are sacred places of worship. They are frequently visited by the city’s residents.  Pilgrims would also come from distant places to pay their respects and to pray.  Going to the mausoleums was and still is an expression of one’s faith and religious piety. It is specifically these deeply rooted religious practices and beliefs that Ansar Dine and AQIM wanted to annihilate by destroying these mausoleums. Through their brutal and callous acts, they made it impossible for the inhabitants of Timbuktu to devote themselves to their religious practices during the ten-month occupation of their city.

And the lawyer for this scraggly, banal little vandal, crammed into a suit and tie for the occasion said, in pleading:

He wants to be truthful to himself and he wants to admit the acts that he has committed. And he wants to ask at the same time for pardon from the people of Timbuktu and the Malian people. He regrets all the actions that he has committed.

This is progress.

Of books and bandits


There is an extraordinary and uncomfortably beautiful scene in Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu, in which a camel-herder kills a fisherman, both of them silhouetted at the end of a spit of land in a great inland lake. It is the seminal moment of the film, the moment when one man’s fate spins out of his control and places him at the mercy of the capricious ‘justice’ system of the jihadi-salafi terrorists from the north who have taken over his city with brutal disregard for its culture, history and people. Eventually the camel-herder will die, gunned down in a graveyard by the same foreign thugs, as his wife struggles to reach him, a symbol of lost innocence, goodwill and of the music he loved to play.

I had imagined him to be an emblematic, imaginary figure, and no doubt in many ways he is, but in Joshua Hammer’s new book, called (with a rather silly gonzo vulgarity) The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu, the author picks out a number of vignettes from the barbarian occupation that also appear in the film, including the fisherman’s murder, the fierce regulation of men’s beards and trousers and the spirited resistance of the market’s fishwives to being made to wear gloves and burkas to handle fish at their stalls. The emblematic figure whom Hammer himself chooses is a librarian, Abdel Kader Haidara, a man whose extraordinary story frames the book and provides a fine counterpoint of high civilisation to the barbarism of the semi-literate bandits who take over the town in the name of jihad and sharia.

Haidara was a reluctant bookman, almost dragooned into the book business as a boy and only slowly becoming hooked, until manuscripts became an all-consuming obsession. Deployed at first by the nascent Ahmed Baba Library, he spent years patiently travelling around northern Mali, persuading the owners of countless mediaeval manuscripts to lodge them in the safekeeping of the library. Later he founded another library – the Mamma Haidara Library – for his own family’s great collection, and encouraged the establishment of many other family libraries. He collected grants, built networks, studied and became expert, lecturing across Europe and the US on Timbuktu’s manuscript heritage. And in the city itself, hundreds of thousands of often decaying manuscripts emerged from wooden chests, sackcloth bags and holes in the sand to be restored and protected in climate-controlled environments. Timbuktu became again what it had once been – a City of Books.

When the jihadis seized Timbuktu in November 2011 there was an assumption that the rich heritage of Timbuktu’s manuscripts would be put to the torch, and indeed there were press reports that this had happened. This kind of cultural nihilism was typical of the sub-Wahhabi iconoclasts who bulldozed shrines, chopped off musicians’ fingers, banned the celebration of Mawlid an-Nabi and the famous Festival in the Desert. This was – or would have been – a tragedy of global proportions. Timbuktu had a quite extraordinary manuscript culture. An intellectual centre of huge importance, a pivot in the world of Islam, its scholars and universities had since the middle ages (though with an interruption caused by the annexation of Timbuktu, Gao and the ‘Soudan’ of the Songhay empire by the Moroccan Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in 1591) been a humming motor of international scholarship. To the ignorant modern European, for whom Timbuktu signifies simply the back of beyond, this can come as a surprise. But re-imagining the geography of North Africa encourages us to see the Sahara not as an obstacle but as a thoroughfare – a sea to be navigated in pre-modern times (until very recently) with swaying cargoes of salt, gold, ostrich-feathers, slaves – and manuscripts. Timbuktu, like Gao, Walata and Agades were ports on the southern shore of this ocean of sand, where it met the Niger river; and in our century the Tuareg and Islamist fighters in their 4WD pick-ups are simply desert-pirates who sail the sand-sea, with cargoes of cigarettes, weapons, migrants and drugs.

Books 2

Hammer tells two stories. Haidara’s is the first, a tale of immense personal bravery and obstinate determination in the service of history and culture. The second is that of Timbuktu, seized by barbarians, terrorized by whimsical Islamic courts, and saved by a French expeditionary force which arrived in January 2013 to prevent the invaders capturing Bamako, the capital, in the south of Mali. Hammer’s account of the final battle between French foreign legionnaires and Chadian troops, together attacking the terrorists’ last, remote, hiding place in the Adrar des Ifoghas hills is splendidly dramatic. However, the first story is the beating heart of the whole drama. As the jihadi invasion became inevitable Haidara instigated and supervised the removal of many of the manuscripts from the libraries to safer hiding-places in private homes. Later, when – after a surprising lull – it seemed clear that the city’s rulers would turn at last to destruction in preparation for their own retreat, Haidara ran an even more daring evacuation by land and by river, smuggling vast numbers of manuscripts to safety (in mysterious containers called ‘footlockers’) under the noses of the jihadis, organising armies of men and boys in trucks and pirogues and spending hour after hour himself on his red-hot telephones pleading, threatening, negotiating and paying for safe passage.

He saved 377,000 manuscript books and unbound bundles – and only 4,202 (just over one percent) were destroyed, burned in the courtyard of the Ahmed Baba library by the departing barbarians in a fit of spite. The silent librarians watched in horror, but all too aware of the climate-controlled store-room in the basement where the library’s greatest treasures were stored. The store was never found, and all its contents survived. Haidara has a claim to be the saviour of a large slice of civilisation.

It’s a very good story, and told with pace and enthusiasm; but it could have been much better. Couched in the laborious but careless cadences of middle-brow journalism, it elides and it patronises. To be told – to take only one example – that “Major General Horatio Herbert Kitchener” commanded the relief force at Omdurman, simply because Omdurman is one of many cities that Haidara visited, is irritating: we don’t need to know what Kitchener’s full name and rank were (since this information, like what he did at Omdurman, is the irrelevant accretion of nugatory research); nor the college and NFL football history of “General Charles F ‘Chuck’ Wald, the deputy head of the United States European Command, based in Vaihingen, Germany, on the eastern outskirts of Stuttgart,” (so what?)  nor the completely unmoored and irrelevant fact of one Malian character, Manny Ansar having a “family name that means ‘defenders.’” (Again, so what?) Sometimes, you find yourself wanting to shout that an author is allowed find something out without necessarily having to shoe-horn it into his book.

Perhaps more important is the journalistic sourcing – almost every reference is to an interview. This of course lends immediacy and in dealing with the immediate past of a still largely oral culture is vital; but there is a sense of much (particularly French) written source material having been unconsulted, and much vital background, like the history of Tuareg revolt and the role of the Algerian intelligence services, having been explored only very lightly, if at all. The same is presumably true of local languages and of Arabic – the first few pages offer the bizarre transliterations of tariq for history and fikh for a legal ruling, which suggests that either author or editor doesn’t know the Arabic alphabet and, worse, didn’t care enought to check.

But hey, it’s a good read and I enjoyed it. Though I still don’t know what was so bad about the librarians’ backsides.

AKH books

Arab Hyphen

Arab Arts and Literature


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