The Sahara: a dream-like, far away landscape of Lawrence of Arabia and Wilfred Thesiger, The English Patient and Star Wars, and home to nomadic communities whose ways of life stretch back millennia. Today it's a teeth-janglingly dangerous destination, where the threat of jihadists lurks just over the horizon. Following in the footsteps of 16th century traveller Leo Africanus, Nicholas Jubber went on a turbulent adventure to the forgotten places of North Africa and the legendary Timbuktu.
Once the seat of African civilization and home to the richest man who ever lived, this mythic city is now scarred by terrorist occupation and is so remote its own inhabitants hail you with the greeting, 'Welcome to the middle of nowhere'.
From the cattle markets of the Atlas, across the Western Sahara and up the Niger river, Nicholas joins the camps of the Tuareg, Fulani, Berbers, and other communities, to learn about their craft, their values and their place in the world.
The Timbuktu School for Nomads is a unique look at a resilient city and how the nomads pit ancient ways of life against the challenges of the 21st century.
Jubber (Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah's Beard) journeys through Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, and Mali in this insightful, warm, and humorous account of his travels with and among North African nomads. Underscoring "how complicated life can be when the margins of survival are so tight," Jubber enlists locals from a variety of nomadic communities to teach him basic skills, including goat-milking, navigating dunes by starlight, preparing tea, and saddling a camel. Even in the most isolated villages, he finds environmental pressures and climate change threatening the inhabitants' way of life, and Saudi-trained clerics importing interpretations of Islam that conflict with ancient indigenous traditions. Jubber's travels to Timbuktu bookend the militant Islamist faction Ansar Dine's violent occupation of the region, and his guides are on edge and divided among themselves. But Timbuktu is no stranger to turmoil; in the 19th century it "earned the nickname White Man's Grave.' " The contrast and subtle interplay between the region's earthy ethos and its distinguished intellectual history offer an unexpected takeaway. The desert outpost of Chinguetti is home to a handful of libraries, whose extant volumes are now moth-eaten and yellowed, that for centuries surpassed anything found in Europe. Jubber's serious engagement with nomadic cultures is a welcome addition to an underwhelming body of literature on North Africa.