Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Month: October, 2016

‘Some obscure sex twist’ and a lone petrol pump

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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

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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.

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