Tahir Shah’s Timbuctoo has arrived with eerie, serendipitous, timing. In the months leading up to its publication, a coup d’etat and ensuing power vacuum in the West African nation of Mali has resulted in extremists taking over the country’s north (where Timbuktu is located). Islamic militants, said to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, and who have piggy-backed on a long-running Tuareg rebellion, have since been busy consolidating their Taliban-style rule. Although the larger episode has received little coverage from Western news organizations, famous for turning a blind eye to African affairs, the most recent twists in the Malian plot have managed to focus the world’s attention, if only for a brief moment, on a forlorn corner of the world which Shah reminds us was once the obsession of Europe.
Just as Timbuctoo was being released a few months ago the Salafist militants began defiling and destroying Timbuktu’s cultural heritage of Sufi shrines and mosques. In 1988, UNESCO designated World Heritage status to over a dozen religious sites in the city. Many libraries containing a wealth of Islamic manuscripts have also been reportedly attacked. The grim episode harkens back to the Taliban’s destruction of the stone Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001. With the area lacking strategic value, the destruction of the relics of Timbuktu’s enlightened past are likely to continue without action from the international community.
Of all the distant, far-flung cities of the world, none has personified remoteness, inaccessibility and the promise of exotic riches more than the fabled metropolis of Timbuktu. Situated deep in the Sahara, this erstwhile centre of Islamic learning remained well out of reach of westerners for centuries. So little was known about Timbuktu that not even far-flung Tibet or Samarkand was able to compete with its sense of allure. It maintained a unique ability to stoke the desires of explorers and the men of influence who bankrolled them, taking on grossly fictitious dimensions in the minds of those who coveted experience of it. Timbuktu was the stuff of legend, and as is always the case, the legend was built with illusion.
Just how powerful and enduring that illusion would prove to be is something easily gaged by a simple audit of our associations with the name “Timbuktu” today. It remains the exotic locale beyond all roads, the royal city in the desert, the caravansary at the end of the world, the image of veiled otherness. A memorable moment of disappointment came for me two decades ago when I saw a television report that featured the former Saharan crossroads town. All notions of grandeur and high material culture were shattered. A few camera pans yielded little more than a dust-blown village with some low, unimpressive buildings. The dissonance lingered. Even today, while we watch in horror as religious extremists enact their brand of fanatical Islam, it remains hard to reconcile the physical reality of the place with the mythological clichés we’ve inherited.
At the heart of travel writer Tahir Shah’s newest book, Timbuctoo, is this incommensurability between the mythos and the reality. Shah’s first work of fiction is based on a book of travel literature, published in 1816, entitled (take a deep breath): The Narrative of Robert Adams, A Sailor, Who was Wrecked on the Western Coast of Africa, in the Year 1810, was detained Three Years in Slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert, and Resided Several Months in the City of Timbuctoo. The book is one of a handful of so-called “Barbary captive narratives” written by Europeans who claimed to have been kidnapped along the North and West African coasts between the 16th and 20th centuries.
Shah, whose recent nonfiction works The Caliph’s House and In Arabian Nights deftly explore the cultural nuances of life in Morocco, is an outspoken proponent of travel and cultural immersion. He stumbled upon the Robert Adams book in the basement of a London library many years ago. The story, which became his lifelong obsession, remains today as fantastic and controversial as it is little known. Paralleling the original narrative, Shah’s Timbuctoo breathes new life into the tale with lively characters, interesting subplots and piquant insights on life and the human condition.
Controversy surrounded Robert Adams’s book and his own bona fides. His story was attacked by a society eager to overturn his accomplishments and maintain its own delusions. The campaign to discredit him peaked with an essay published in the North American Review in 1817, written by Jared Sparks, which concluded that Adams and his story were a sham. That, and subsequent attacks, have influenced modern academics and Timbuktu enthusiasts who assert that although Adams may have had a captivity experience, he never quite made it to Timbuktu. One recent work entitled The Narrative of Robert Adams: A Barbary Captive by American English Professor Charles Hansford Adams argues that Robert Adams had either embellished the Timbuktu part of his narrative, or had been to another town and mistook it for the golden city.
Shah for his part, in a brief forward to the novel, politely asserts his license to blur fact and fiction and wisely distances himself from the mire of historical debate. But that may not dissuade pundits, skeptics, literalists and those who relish the endless (and often unsolvable) controversies of history. Whatever the truth of Adams’s experience, the controversy and mysteries surrounding the American wayfarer only serve to make Shah’s Timbuctoo more — and not less — fascinating.
In Shah’s version an impoverished and illiterate American sailor is found lying near death on the streets of London in 1815. Robert Adams has nothing to show for himself except for the tattered clothing on his back, and he brandishes a travel yarn so fantastic as to be nearly unbelievable: he claims to have been shipwrecked on the west coast of Africa and, after being carried through the Sahara as a slave by desert tribesmen, found himself as the guest of the King of Timbuktu. Following a brief respite in the town, which Adams describes as “a low and wretched capital,” he is enslaved again and traded from one vicious master to the next, until, after enduring appalling ordeals, he is able to secure his ransom from the British Consul in Mogadore (modern day Essaouira in Morocco).
Adams’s remarkable claims manage to attract a group calling themselves the Royal African Commission — a gaggle of politically connected merchant intriguers involved in contraband trade. Both fascinated and threatened by his story, they compel him, in return for a boat ticket to America, to relate the details of his trip. Adams agrees to cooperate, as he is eager to return to Hudson, New York, and to his beloved wife. That is the goal Adams had pursued single-mindedly from the moment he was shipwrecked. From the perspective of his time in captivity, he seemed all but home free in London. But unbeknownst to Adams, he would be dealt one more grueling test: to face an English society unwilling to accept, and come to terms with, his description of Timbuktu as a largely unremarkable place.
During the time of Robert Adams, and for centuries prior, Europe was obsessed with finding Timbuktu and plundering its reputed riches. Vague but sensational accounts of the city by eastern travelers (like Leo Africanus who visited Timbuktu in 1510 and whose descriptions would later reach Europe) depicted a place of the most extreme opulence. Though Timbuktu had achieved relative material affluence as a crossroads town by the 16th century, there was no basis for the belief in Europe that it was a place literally fashioned from gold. Successive attempts by western explorers to find the city and return alive all met with failure.
The original testimony of Adams — reworked by Shah into the first person and interspersed throughout the novel — was an affront to English high society at almost every level. The idea that an American had succeeded (and without trying) in such a prized endeavor where the English had failed was a huge blow to English pride. If that wasn’t enough, his description of the fabled golden city as a lackluster place was tantamount to sacrilege. Adams’s Timbuktu is a city of squalor ruled by a moody tyrant with a fetish for decapitating his subjects, and a city containing virtually no riches. It was a point he would drive home to his hosts who were eagerly awaiting a story of fairy tale wealth:
Contrary to popular belief, the roofs are not tiled in gold, nor is there any wealth of any kind, that is, what we might comprehend to be wealth. Most of the jewellery is made from shells, taken from the river, or made from camel bone. The houses are crafted from blocks of mud, and the majority of the townsfolk live a most squalid existence… I say it once again: there is no gold in Timbuctoo. Not an ounce of it.
That part of the testimony, woven by Shah into a super-charged moment of expectation, reaches its climax when Adams tells his audience that despite the absence of gold in Timbuctoo there was still one form of mineral wealth to be found there: salt. At once a backlash of sighs, expletives and catcalls erupts. Adams’s revelation not only contradicts one of British society’s most cherished illusions, it also reveals the absurdity of Regency England’s broader assumption that it could walk into another culture and seize its endowments.
The person with the most to lose from Adams’s unveiling is the man who heads up the Royal African Commission: Sir Geoffrey Caldecott. This dark, ruminating creature of empire is the antithesis of the sincere, straightforward, and charming Adams. Unhappy except when in the throes of his own manipulations, Caldecott is imperialism incarnate. He is a being of pure hubris, oozing greed and self-interest, and practicing every conceivable vice. If Adams can be seen as a kind of Odysseus hell-bent on homecoming, then Caldecott is the monster obstructing Adams’s path. Adams’s narrative threatens Caldecott who, the reader discovers, is cooking-up a convoluted James Bond-style plot to control England.
Caldecott has dispatched an army major and 200 veterans from the Battle of Waterloo to find and plunder the golden city of Timbuctoo. Milking society’s Timbuktu delusion for all its worth, he solicits investments for the ill-fated expedition and diverts the money to bankroll a palace coup whose leader would repeal a recent law abolishing slavery — a lucrative trans-Atlantic trading commodity for the Royal African Commission. Adams and his narrative, which become the talk of London, threaten Caldecott’s plan, and for that Adams must be eliminated. And so a struggle of cosmic proportions ensues between Caldecott and his henchman on one side, and Adams and his English allies on the other.
Timbuctoo’s multifold themes and ideas radiate outwards like concentric circles from its rich and briskly moving epic tale. The novel’s commentaries on colonialism, imperialism, slavery, human suffering, endurance, survival, love, cultural conflict, and truth versus delusion — just to name just a few — give it a degree of profundity that is almost tangible. The story’s crafting is no less impressive. It reads with cadence and ease, employing the language and historical details of England’s Regency period with naturalness and plausibility.
Shah, who has of late become an indefatigable proponent of self-publishing, has captured an added flavor of the 19th century by printing his book in the style of publishers from that period. He follows the old practice of including a paragraph before each chapter cataloguing the main topics or plotlines of that chapter, and the physical book itself has an antiquarian feel: a lengthy title in gold lettering, marbled end papers, a silk bookmark and several large fold-out maps all evoke the novel’s historical setting.
Although fiction, Timbuctoo is similar to Shah’s other work in that it cleverly lays bare for the reader the idiosyncrasies of both cultures and individuals. He portrays the backward aspects of Regency England as poignantly as the brutality suffered by Adams and his cohorts in the Sahara. The constant irony running through the novel depicts imperial England as a broken place, with its attitude of racial superiority, its abject poverty, inequality, political corruption, and rigid social caste system. It is in some ways as barbaric as the wild foreign lands which it hoped to conquer and civilize, personified in the character of the Prince Regent, who, cut off from life and society in his palace prison, focuses obsessively on building his “African savannah scene,” using a collection of poached big game, including, among other creatures, a polar bear. Other bizarre characters appear: a collector of shrunken tribal heads, professional gravediggers, and a doctor that performs dissections as a kind of entertainment for the public. These strange details leave us with the impression that Adams is in a country far, far different from its own self-image.
Some of the most insightful and humorous moments of cross-cultural head-butting take place between the upstart American and his English hosts. Adams’s nascent America, still on the upswing and burning with a raw developmental freshness, clashes with an uptight, prudish, adventure-starved culture enslaved by a set of protocols and conventions to which its citizens were largely oblivious. At one point, completely exasperated by the lack of emotion in English culture, Adams declares to Simon Cochrane, a paper-pushing administrator:
My travels have been limited to barbarian regions of Africa, to England, and to the land of my birth, but I declare that in my journeys I have never come across — nor imagined — a less passionate race.
Shah’s jabs against the Regency are more than just a cultural critique of English society, though. He is aiming much deeper. The England of his novel — whose citizens live self-restricted pseudo-lives — is meant to be caricature of our own modern world. Shah, a modern day explorer who is descended from a noble Afghan family tied to an age-old philosophy of experiential learning, often urges his readers to cast away their overly safe, dependent, cage-like existences and strive for the kind of insight that a real journey far outside one’s comfort zone might provide.
Robert Adams encapsulated that dynamic ad extremis by way of his epic travails. He suffered horribly, but learned first hand what his supposedly all-knowing English hosts had barely any notion of:
Spend months and years enslaved on the sands of Africa and you begin to regard what is important, and what is not. I do not pretend to you that I am wise, but I have learned to discern true worth.
By way of travel, suffering, submission and persistence against all odds, Adams extirpates his own Timbuktu delusions and manages to attain the loftiest of all homecoming goals, self-realization.
A version of this review was published in The Los Angeles Review of Books on September 6th, 2012.