South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara. Justin Marozzi
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Название: South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara

Автор: Justin Marozzi

Издательство: HarperCollins

Жанр: Хобби, Ремесла

Серия:

isbn: 9780007397402

isbn:

СКАЧАТЬ bubbling shisha pipes stuffed with apple-flavoured tobacco.

      My father’s old friend Othman had taken us for a drive around the city in his Peugeot 504, a brave wreck of a car that had somehow survived several decades of neglect. In the squalid port area, men pored over slabs of tuna and disputed prices with the fishermen. One of these, a great hulk of a man, was tenderizing an octopus, throwing it to the ground, picking it up by its tentacles and then hurling it down again and again.

      ‘We call Tripoli ar Roz al Bahr, the Bride of the Sea,’ Othman told me as we drove past whitewashed houses along the old corniche, watched over by the palm trees that swayed in the coastal breeze. There was something unmistakably forlorn and beautiful about this city, a sense of wistfulness and a largely unspoken resentment. For centuries it had been a thriving commercial metropolis – cosmopolitan, elegant and refined. Now there was nostalgia and regret in the peeling paint of the colonial Turkish and Italian mansions that, one by one, were being targeted for demolition as vainglorious symbols of the white intruders onto African soil. Thirty years of the revolutionary regime had almost brought the city to its knees – cars fell apart, homes crumbled away, roads rotted – and now sanctions held the city in a tight and unforgiving embrace. My father knew Tripoli well. He had got caught up in the 1969 revolution and had met the young Muammar al Gaddafi just as the old order of King Idris was being consigned to oblivion, but for me it was all new and instantly, wildly, romantic.

      Before we left, my father took me to one of Tripoli’s few English-language bookshops, where I picked up the book that for the first time thrust the desert before me in all its guises. Here was silence and loneliness, the glory of wide African skies, unbroken plains of sand and rock, loyalty and companionship, adventure, treachery and betrayal. It was an account of the 1818–20 expedition into the Libyan Sahara led by Joseph Ritchie, ‘a gentleman of great science and ability’ – a diplomat, surgeon and friend of Keats – tasked by the British government to reach and chart the River Niger from the north, one of the last remaining puzzles of African exploration. The enormity of his mission was not matched by corresponding resources and eight months after leaving Tripoli disguised as a Muslim convert, the penniless Ritchie had perished from fever in the insalubrious town of Murzuk, leaving his ebullient companion Lt George Francis Lyon to record their adventures for posterity. Back in London, reading his high-spirited tale, I felt the pull of the desert and started to dream of a similar journey by camel.

      Like many ideas, it eventually faded away into a distant fantasy. Six years later, I was working in Manila for the Financial Times, when Ned, an old friend from school days, arrived unexpectedly. During lightning trips south to visit the jungle headquarters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels, and north to go duck shooting with a gun-toting provincial governor, we started discussing a longer expedition. I had spent almost two years in the Philippines and felt it was time to move on. Ned, a Dorset farmer, was feeling equally restless. We had travelled together several times over the years, from Hong Kong to Costa Rica, and knew and got on well enough with each other to attempt a more serious journey. Deep in the tropical jungle of Maguindanao I revived the long-dormant idea of crossing the Libyan Sahara by camel.

      Ned would be the ideal companion. Solid and unflappable, with a keen sense of the absurd, he had travelled widely, was always ready for an adventure, and was practical in a way that I was not. Several years before, he had travelled across the Andes on horseback, and so was probably good with knots and would know what to do if a camel fell sick. At least, that was how I saw him. The truth was that neither of us knew the first thing about desert travel, but with some research in London and a reconnaissance trip to Libya much of our ignorance could be put right. The idea appealed to Ned at once. So much so that he wanted to know whether I was really serious about the expedition. I told him I was going with or without him. He said he was coming. Perhaps he felt the same lure of the desert. His great-uncle David Stirling, founder of the SAS, had fought in the Libyan Sahara during the Second World War, taking men like Wilfred Thesiger, the great desert explorer, on daring raids behind enemy lines.

      From the jungle we returned to Manila where Joseph Estrada, the flamboyant former movie star, hard-drinking womanizer and self-confessed philanderer, had just been elected president in a landslide vote. The country looked as though it was heading back to the extravagant corruption of the Marcos era. Foreign investors cringed nervously on the sidelines, wondering if the currency would fall through the floor again. One by one, the Marcos cronies were welcomed back into the fold. The stock market was plummeting. Watching the rot set in again was depressing. ‘See you in Libya,’ said Ned at the airport. My boss thought otherwise, but it was time to leave.

      Six weeks later I was back in England planning the journey with Ned. Poring over maps of Libya in the Royal Geographical Society, we decided we would retrace the old slave-trade routes into Africa, making our way across the desert in a south-easterly direction by way of Ghadames and Murzuk, two of the three principal slave-trade centres in Libya, to the third, the fabled and inaccessible oasis of Kufra. A brief trip to Libya in September confirmed it would be wisest to start the expedition from Ghadames, an ancient and once prosperous Saharan town 300 miles south-west of Tripoli. Although camels were not as plentiful as they had been 150 years ago, when Ghadames was still a major centre of the slave trade, they would be more easily procured there than in the capital. More importantly, so would a guide who understood, as we did not, the practicalities of desert travel.

      From Ghadames we would head south-east, for the most part skirting the wastes of the Awbari Sand Sea, to the small outpost of Idri. Then it would be several days’ hard going across the mountainous dunes to Germa, which several thousand years ago had been the capital of the fearsome Garamantes. This desert warrior race had once held sway over vast swathes of the Sahara between the Nile and the Atlantic and had, until its final defeat, refused to be cowed by the mighty Roman armies sent to subdue it. Next on our route was the central town of Murzuk, where in 1819 the gallant Ritchie, betrayed by avaricious tribesmen, floundering in delirium and beset by agonizing kidney pains, had succumbed to fever. After Murzuk it would be a week’s march or so to the remote settlement of Tmissah, the last town for 350 miles, and from there a bleak journey to Kufra via a handful of tiny oases – Wau al Kabir, Wau an Namus, Tizirbu and Buzeima – that would test our camels’ endurance to its limits. Kufra, the far-flung oasis town that lay on the most easterly, and least old, of the country’s three slave-trade routes, formerly home of the fiercely ascetic Sanusi confraternity, would be our endpoint. One of the most romantic and elusive Saharan oases, it had remained unseen by Western eyes until the late nineteenth century when the pioneering German explorer Gerhard Rohlfs arrived, only to find a hostile reception from xenophobic tribesmen, from whom he narrowly escaped with his life.

      The best time to start our journey would be in December, to allow us enough time to cross the desert in the cooler temperatures of winter. If we left much later than that, the weather would make travel unrealistically difficult and dangerous. The next thing to arrange was some language training. The Arabic I had picked up over the years from trips to the Middle East and North Africa would not be sufficient for a long journey in the Libyan desert with guides who do not speak English. I duly enlisted for a course in colloquial Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

      Several days later, a small bespectacled man in a thick woollen three-piece suit (tailored in Cairo) greeted me warmly in the SOAS language centre and introduced himself as Mohammed al Mahdi. I had told the school I would be spending several months in Libya and would prefer to learn colloquial Libyan Arabic rather than the more customary and widely spoken Egyptian. Mohammed was my man. An Egyptian who had spent five years in Tripoli in the early seventies teaching Libyan fighter pilots English, he was the only teacher in the school familiar with the dialect. His opening announcement was inauspicious. ‘I felt a complete stranger in Libya for the first ten days,’ he told me. ‘I just couldn’t decipher their dialect. It was like a completely foreign language. I didn’t know what to do.’ This was particularly galling because the little Arabic I knew was Egyptian.

      For the next six weeks before our departure for Tripoli I put myself in СКАЧАТЬ