Travel Book Reviews – Africa And The Middle East

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Mombasa Kenya giant tusks over the street

What Is Africa To Me? – Fragments of a True-to-Life Autobiography
by Maryse Condé (Translated from French by Richard Philcox)

“Why is it that any attempt to write about one’s life ends up as a jumble of half-truths? … In the pages that follow…I shall try…to figure out the considerable role Africa has played in my life and imagination. What was I looking for? I still don’t know for sure.”

Maryse Condé, a Franco-Caribbean writer, spent over a decade in West Africa, from 1959 to the early 1970s. During that time, she lived in the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal and Ghana, during a time of change and the early days of independence. Her volatile relationship with Mamadou Condé, a Guinean actor whom she married as a student in Paris, would provide both joy and sorrow, and a backbone for this book. She would move to Guinea to be with him but the marriage wouldn’t last.

In 1959, just before the country gained independence, Condé got a job as a teaching assistant in Bingerville, Ivory Coast. She went to political rallies in support of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who became the country’s first president. There was hope in the air.

“In the Ivory Coast, I felt that a new Africa was striving to be born, an Africa that would rely solely on its own resources, that would rid itself of the arrogance and paternalism of its colonizers.”

When her daughter was born, she moved to Conakry, Guinea, which she felt was her “real port of entry into Africa”, another country filled with hope after independence. But the hope didn’t last, sliding into brutal repression, during which many of her friends were arrested. 

On an invitation from a friend, the writer and anti-colonialist Edouard Helman (writing under the name Yves Bénot), Condé moved to Ghana with her five children, another young independent African nation with freedom in the air. But life here isn’t easy, she has work permit problems but a family to support.

Eventually, “infused with Accra’s exuberant vitality”, she started to write.

There is so much in this book: she writes about meeting Malcolm X and listening to Che Guevara; being arrested in Accra; and trying to get past the mutual distrust between the French Antilleans working in Africa and the Africans. Condé captures a tumultuous time—not just in the countries she lives in, but also in her own life, as she tries to raise five children (often doubting her abilities as a mother) and has several bad relationships.  

This is also a story about a woman maturing and coming into her own. She says that Guinea changed her: “it was this country that taught me compassion and the importance of the people’s well-being. … I had lost some of my dearest friends here. And it was here I was becoming a very different human being.” 

At the start of the book, Condé promises an honest autobiography. It is a promise she keeps. She does not sugar-coat the truth or try to make herself look good—you get the real woman with all her faults. Like her life, her relationship with Africa is never easy or straightforward. I admire her for her courage and her ability not only to survive but do well. 

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Review: A House in Fez – Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco
by Suzanna Clarke

How many times have you been to a place and dreamed about what it would be like to settle down there? Suzanna Clarke fell in love with Medina, the old part of the Moroccan city of Fez. She decided to turn her dreams into reality, leaving behind the rat race in Australia to move to a place where she found a more rewarding way of life, even though she didn’t speak either Arabic or French.

Clarke and her husband start looking for an old house in the Medina that they can afford to buy and restore. The old houses fall into two categories: riads or dars. They both centre around courtyards, but riads are larger and have a garden, or at least a lemon or orange tree. Clarke and her husband finally settle on a riad.  

Their new house is situated “at the end of an alley in one of the oldest parts of the Medina. You entered a carved wooden door, ascended some stairs in a corridor, and arrived in a lovely courtyard of about a hundred square metres, complete with an orange and a lemon tree and an attractive fountain.” One of the first-floor rooms is over the neighbours’ kitchen: the houses are constructed almost like jigsaws.

However, this dreamy riad needed a lot of repair. Clarke and her husband were determined to restore it using traditional methods as much as possible, and change only what was necessary, which meant putting in plumbing and a new kitchen.

They move in, and the work begins. Things do not always go as planned. Obtaining the necessary permits requires plenty of office visits and much patience. When they find workmen who understand the old houses and are artisans, they don’t always show up when they say they will. Eventually work begins and the house starts to take shape.

Life in the Medina is centred around human contact. Almost as soon as Clarke moves in, she is taken under the wing of Khadija, her neighbour across the road. Although the two women have no common language, they manage to communicate.

Clark hires a translator, Nabil. One day, they are walking with him down the Medina’s narrow streets and pass a 13-year-old girl in a doorway holding a tray of unbaked bread. She says something to Nabil, he takes the tray from her and delivers it to the baker down the road. When asked if he knows her, Nabil responds: “No, but anyone who lives in the Medina and is walking to a bakery will take someone’s bread.” How will the baker know whose bread it is? “Every family makes their bread slightly differently, and the baker will have been baking it for many years, so he just knows.”

Little by little, Clarke puts down roots, getting to know the people and the place, going to the hamman, shopping at the souk and taking part in a Sufi ceremony. She adopts a chameleon, a cat moves in and life starts to take on a rhythm.

Clarke has a way of bringing the place to life: “The henna souk at the bottom of the Tala’a Kbira is a quiet oasis, with a big plane tree shading a small square crowded with tiny shops selling pottery, pot-pourri, henna, argan-oil soap and rose moisturizer. … For all the souks to function, the goods need to be moved around. Making your way through the streets is a constant exercise in avoidance. You have to squeeze into doorways so that you’re not mown down by heavily laden donkeys or mules, or wiry old porters with impossible loads.”

The book gave me a glimpse into another world and dream for a while of moving somewhere so different from where I live now. And I have to say it was good to live Clarke’s experience of renovating a house—stressful at the best of times—vicariously!

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Review – Travelling While Black: Essays from a Life on the Move
by Nanjala Nyabola

Some of us travel for pleasure or work, others have no choice but to leave their homes to try and find refuge elsewhere. In this book, Nanjala Nyabola—a political analyst from Kenya—writes about people on the move, including refugees and migrants, and about what it means to travel as a person of colour.

As she says in her introduction, “This is not a travel memoir. These are essays inspired by travel, about the way it changed what I think matters and about the ideas that come from dislocation.”

She works as a community organizer for a non-profit organization in Haiti. Although, she is Black, like the Haitians, she is quite clearly not from there, so the locals see her as white. As she ventures outside the confines of the world of international organizations, she discovers the real Haiti. She realizes that everything she had read about the country was filtered through the American media and mindset, which focused on “chaos and upheaval”. When she engages with the Haitians, learning the language, she discovers a completely different side to the country.

Nyabola has worked with migrants and refugees, and has seen first-hand the effect of rich countries’ exclusionary policies.

She travels to Palermo in Sicily, with its rich mix of cultures, woven together over the centuries. She heads to the dock to meet a cargo ship that has picked up migrants from the sea. Watching the migrants leave the ship, “stumbling down the stairs, grabbing hold of either the railing or whatever meagre possessions they have on their person”, she is reminded of slaves.

“It’s difficult to put the look into words—a vacant stare screaming that something essential has been taken from them, the shoulders slouched forward with an otherworldly resignation.” However, maybe because of Palermo’s past, they are welcomed and taken care of, and the media doesn’t carry the usual scare-mongering headlines. This, unfortunately, is more exception than rule.

Refugees covered in this collection include the South African writer, Bessie Head. Her writing spoke to Nyabola when she was feeling alienated at Oxford. Head wrote about “what it feels like to lose a handle on reality and on one’s sense of self”. She was born in South Africa with a white mother and Black father at a time when “the regime was concocting its racist violence”. Made stateless when she was 27 by the apartheid government, she spent the second half of her life in Botswana. She wrote constantly, but the world outside was not open to women African authors, and her work was dismissed. She died in 1986 in Botswana, “poor, sick and alone”.

Many of the essays focus on Africa: the way African governments and societies are now reluctant to accept Africans from other countries, unlike the time when Head sought refuge in Botswana. But this is not always the case: when Nyabola visits Burkina Faso, she is taken under the wings of two complete strangers she meets on the bus, who ensure she is fed and taken care of. 

In “Periodic offerings to the visa gods”, Nyabola writes about trying to get a visa for South Africa and being rejected because the applicant in front of her in the queue had been rude to the official. This opens up the question of how efficient visas really are: for example, what kind of a system forces people to pay a large sum of money merely to apply, whether they are accepted or not? Not to mention the extra hoops you have to jump through if you are a person of colour, trying to fulfil “an opaque normative standard in order to gain admission”, trying to prove you are a “good migrant”.

This is such a rich collection of essays that it is hard to do it justice. Nyabola raises questions that are not always comfortable but that need to be asked. One of the rewards of reading is when good writing changes your perspective, making you question assumptions that you barely realized you held. Nyabola succeeded in this, at least with this reader.

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Review – All Strangers are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World
by Zora O’Neill

At a time when media coverage of the Middle East and North Africa is full of images of war, destruction and repression, and Arabic is increasingly associated with terrorists, Zora O’Neill’s book provides another perspective. “It’s about the Arabic language and how it’s used every day: to tell stories, sing songs, and discuss personal troubles, aspirations, friendships and fashion choices… a key to a culture and the three million people who speak the language.”

They say it takes seven years to learn Arabic and a lifetime to master it. O’Neill studied Arabic in university and after a long break, decides to take it up again, focusing this time on spoken Arabic. Arriving in Egypt just after the Arab Spring, she travels to the Gulf (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ras al-Khaimah and Doha), Lebanon and Morocco. She attends Arabic classes throughout, in an attempt to learn the local dialect.

The Arabic taught in university is Fusha, the language of the Koran. This forms the basis of the other dialects—Egyptian Ammiya and Moroccan Darija, for example. O’Neill, having already spent some time in Egypt, speaks Fusha and Ammiya (which tends to the dramatic: “And you do this to me why?”). She finds Darija almost impossible to understand: Moroccans not only talk fast but tend to swallow the consonants.

In Egypt, O’Neill finds herself chatting and making jokes in Ammiya (a sure sign you’ve arrived, linguistically speaking). She loves the flourishes of the language: good morning could be sabah an-noor (“morning of light”) or sabah al-full (“morning of jasmine”). She spends time with young people like Medo, Hassan and Moataza, who talk to her about the revolution. O’Neill remains long enough to watch the initial optimist turn to doubt and disillusion.

Dubai is a big city with a large foreign population, with few opportunities to practice her Arabic. She does, however attend an Emirati poetry festival (and watches the two interpreters in the booths switch off their mikes and collapse with laughter at a particularly bad poet). She meets people from all over the region: her hostess in Abu Dhabi is Farah, a Libyan woman. In Doha, she meets up with Shatha (a Palestinian), Sara and Mariam, a group of students collecting oral histories of Qatar. In Beirut, she has to negotiate the divisions in society that persist even after the civil war.

The trip to Morocco is, in a sense, going back to her origins. This is where her parents spent time in the 1960s, and she was named after one of their neighbours. She arranges for her parents to visit it with her, and sees the country through their eyes.

O’Neill is funny, not least about her own attempts to communicate. She seeks out opportunities for conversation (including going home with a young woman for an afternoon nap), so you get a real impression of the local people. Her love for the language pierces through: Arabic runs through the book, as she explains meaning, structure and the calligraphy. She is never pedantic and I found her enthusiasm infectious.

This is a book that is long overdue.

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Review: The Imported Ghanaian
by Alba Kunadu Sumprim

One way to really know a country is through its people. Alba Kunadu Sumprim’s parents are Ghanaian, but she was born and raised in London. She had decided to move back to Ghana, thinking that as a Ghanaian, she would fit into the way of life. But it’s never really that simple.

Sumprim in Ghana is an insider but also an outsider, as anyone who returns to country of origin after having lived away will find. You understand the culture but you can also see it from the perspective of an outsider. This gives a unique glimpse into a country.

This book grew from a column she wrote for The Daily Dispatch in Accra, after she shared her stories about living in Ghana with a friend who insisted she wrote them down. The book is satirical, laugh-out funny in parts and full of an exasperated affection for her country and its people—and illustrated with cartoons drawn by the author.

One of the things that exasperates her is that many Ghanaians refuse to believe that she is from the country, insisting she is Senegalese, Malian, Ivoirian, Liberian, Zimbabwean—anything but Ghanaian. Two waiters spend a long time trying to persuade her she’s from another African country. Why?, she asks. Because she doesn’t look Ghanaian. What do Ghanaian women look like? They don’t wear her hair like her, her skin colour is different—maybe she is Senegalese?—and her accent is different (well, yes, she grew up in the UK).

She has a wicked streak that I warmed to. She goes with a friend to a restaurant to eat her favourite food, ampesi and palaver sauce (boiled yam and plantain with spinach stew) with tuna and boiled egg.  She finds the last plate has been taken—by the gentleman at the next table. Seeing her disappointment, he asks her to join him. “You’re invited”, he beams. Sumprim immediately hands the waitress a plate for her to collect half the man’s food. Everyone freezes in shock. “You’re invited” is merely a politesse—it is not supposed to be taken seriously. What you are supposed to do is say “thank you”, smile, and move on. Sumprim was perfectly aware of this when she held out her plate.

There are several things she writes about that sound familiar—I’ve come across these attitudes in India. I guess people aren’t that different, after all! Some of the stories of annoying men who don’t understand the meaning of “no” will be familiar to women across the globe.

This is a fun book, perfect for dipping into. And I love the image at the beginning of the book—it’s a stylized drawing of a crocodile, a symbol of adaptability, which is what helps Ghanaians get through life. “It encourages us to adapt to changing conditions, particularly those which appear difficult and out of our control.” Again, a universal thought.

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Review: Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria
by Noo Saro-Wiwa

As a child, Noo Saro-Wiwa used to go to Nigeria for her school holidays. Her father, the Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, had moved his family to the UK so the children could have the best education possible. But he also wanted them to maintain a connection to the country, so he insisted on regular family visits.  Noo remembers hating these trips. The mosquitoes, the visits to endless uncles and aunts, the weeks spent in villages where you had to walk long distances to fetch water—these were not things she enjoyed. And when in 1995 her father was assassinated for his campaign against government corruption, she decided she was never going back.

It was a promise she kept for several years. As a writer of travel guides she went to almost every country in Africa except Nigeria. Then almost twenty years after her father’s death, she decided that she would give the country one more chance. She spent five months travelling through the country, and this is her account of that journey.

The book is a warts-and-all reflection of Nigeria in all its complexity.  In Ibadan, she visits an abandoned amusement park—the Transwonderland of the title—a victim of corruption. In Jos, she sees beautiful terracotta Nok sculptures, made between 1000 BC and 500 AD. Noo also watches a lot of Nollywood films. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a film industry in Nigeria. Today, Nollywood is one of the country’s success stories. She  talks to a Nollywood film director, Teco Benson, who aspires to make films that would become an agent for change in villages.

In the the Muslim north of the country, Noo got herself a black hijab so she would blend in, and then noticed most women were wearing colourful headscarves instead. One of the women she spoke to, Rabi, resisted the pressure to conform to sharia law: she worked, wore jeans and t-shirts, and tried to organize a debate (unsuccessfully) on the possibility of having a woman president. Around 2012, when Noo was there, the government would sometimes step in to rein in the Hisbah, the religious police. Obviously things had not deteriorated quite as much as they in the last year, with Boko Haram wreaking havoc in the country.

I loved her conversations with ordinary Nigerians and their humour and entrepreneurship. They are direct and completely unabashed about making personal remarks about perfect strangers, something that reminded me a little of India. As, unfortunately, did the rampant corruption. And that is what holds these countries back—pervasive corruption on the part of the state undermines any genuine efforts to develop so completely that people either give up or become corrupt themselves. Without that holding them back, there’s no telling how far these countries could go.  

Throughout the book, Ken Sawo-Wiwa is a palpable, and very real, presence: a stern, often distant father who believed in giving his children the best he could. The reader is never too far from Noo’s memories of the past, which makes this an intensely personal account. At the end of her five months, she does manage to make a sort of peace with the country. 

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A Handful of Honey: Away to the Palm Groves of Morocco and Algeria
by Annie Hawes

The book starts unexpectedly with Annie Hawes, an adolescent, imprisoned in a high security prison in Salazar’s Portugal (she never found out why). She was eventually released and deported to the UK. On her trip back, she was shown great kindness by some young men from an Algerian oasis town. She never forgets this, and in the early 1990s—over 20 years later—travels to Morocco and Algeria to look up their family.

Hawes sets off with two friends and very little money, planning to live frugally and travel like a local. This was a period of unrest, with rebellion against the government and rising Islamist movements. Hawes and her companions meet and talk to a wide range of people, from truck drivers to vineyard owners. The resulting story provides a close look at Morocco and Algeria and most of all, it captures the people —their generosity, struggles and hopes. Hawes stays in a fuduq in Morocco, an ancient inn with a courtyard for donkeys. She is warned to be careful of djinns (and discovers that some stalls stay open late to allow the djinns to shop) and finds a hidden Algerian village in an area devastated by napalm used by the French during the country’s war of independence.

What I found particularly interesting were Hawes’s encounters with local women. They were forbidden many things, but they held their own (like the women of my home, India). The book is stuffed with unusual encounters and delves below the surface of the everyday life of women of the Maghreb.

The book also explores food, which, for a foodie like me, is wonderful! Much about couscous, some of it cooked by truck drivers on the roadside; pastila, a pie made with pigeon; mechoui; and olive oil, which one family still presses by hand. And when Hawes does find her family, they live in a paradise of green in the middle of the desert, filled with fruits, vegetables and the all-pervasive scent of henna: a mix of tobacco, chocolates and roses.  It had me dreaming of couscous for days!

When I finished this book, I felt that I had been on this journey too. My only quibble is that there is no map.

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