Explorer and Sheikh Finally Part

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 302-303:

The packet [Heinrich Barth] gave al-Bakkay to send from Timbuktu included letters for the Foreign Office, the Royal Geographical Society, and many friends. It didn’t reach Europe until 1857, having spent more than two years in Ghadames.

The lull before parting was bittersweet. Barth and his friends from Timbuktu had grown fond of each other. In the mornings, as he took the air outside his tent, they gathered around him for conversation. One morning they asked him to read aloud from his European books, for the sound of the languages. He read the Bible in Greek and some passages in English, and recited a poem in German—the latter a big hit because “the full heavy words of that language” reminded them of their own. Another day they asked him to put on his European clothing, so he dug out his black suit. They admired the fine cloth and the trousers but found the frock coat comical. In Central Africa, wrote Barth, they were right.

As their time left together grew short, he and the sheikh continued their genial wide-ranging talks. They had been almost constant companions for nine-and-a-half months. Finally the day arrived when Barth was to cross the river and continue his journey home. His entry for July 9:

This was the day when I had to separate from the person whom, among all the people with whom I had come in contact in the course of my long journey, I esteemed the most highly, and whom, in all but his dilatory habits and phlegmatic indifference, I had found a most excellent and trustworthy man. I had lived with him for so long a time in daily intercourse, and in the most turbulent circumstances, sharing all his perplexities and anxieties, that I could not but feel the parting very severely.

Barth esteemed al-Bakkay, but couldn’t resist pointing out his flaws. The explorer sometimes judged the sheikh a timid procrastinator, but that seems unfair, considering the violent forces he had to balance. He risked his life by defying Ahmadu Ahmadu. He outmaneuvered not only the emir, but enemies in Timbuktu, including scheming members of his own family, while also dealing with constant threats from bellicose Tuaregs. He was also kind, generous, loyal, open-minded, and invigorating company. Because of him, Barth survived Timbuktu.

When he reached the opposite bank of the Niger, Barth fired two shots in farewell, as al-Bakkay had requested. Then he turned and began jotting notes about the sandy downs of this new shore, and the paths that led away from the river toward the east.

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Filed under Africa, Britain, Europe, Germany, language, Mali, religion, scholarship, travel

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