|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Ibrahim N. Abusharif on Desert Encounter by Knud Holmboe
June 21st, 2011
JUST BEFORE HE WAS MURDERED under mysterious circumstances, Danish journalist Knud Holmboe let loose a damaging eyewitness account of European colonial rule in North Africa. First published in 1931, Desert Encounter (Ørkenen Brænder) became popular in Europe (though banned in Italy) and received favorable comments in European newspapers. It was less popular in the United States, but a 1937 New York Times review of the English translation said the narrative was a "dreadful indictment ... not only because of the injustice and cruelty and oppression which it portrays but because these things are shown to exist behind and beneath so vainglorious a spirit of conquest, so glittering and meretricious a superstructure of material 'progress.'"
The Bedouins gathered round us. They looked incredibly ragged. On their feet were hides tied with string; their burnouses were a patchwork of all kinds of multicolored pieces. Many of them seemed ill and wretched, limping along with crooked backs, or with arms and legs that were terribly deformed.
The executions were held in public, and Holmboe was close enough to describe the faces of the condemned and learn of their preference for a bullet or a noose over Italian rule.
one saw the Fascist symbol, the bundle of rods, and below was inscribed the year of the new Italy: Anno Mussolini VIII. The head of the dictator was painted in black on every wall, giving the appearance of a huge collection of deaths' heads, and underneath blazed posters with the inscription: "Those who are not for us are against us."
Shortly thereafter, the Dane, already conversant in Arabic, aimed his 1928 Chevrolet eastward. As he was about to start the 2,200-mile trek, Holmboe reflected:
This was going to be my last day as a European, my last day for a long time in an elegant, civilized hotel, and my first day with the people I so much wanted to know and whom one can only get to know by living among them. I put on my Moroccan burnous (the Arab cloak), and in a few moments I was unrecognizable.
On four cylinders and inner tubes about to suffer dozens of punctures, Holmboe encountered the diverse and often impassable landscapes of the Sahara, until, arriving in Tripoli, he confronted the brute facts of Italian colonization.
The European race introduces Western civilization in the Orient, and tramples down the culture which already exists. And while civilization and its factories advance, the cancerous sores of civilization follow. The native artisan, who no doubt is an artist in his own sphere and who is content with very little, learns to become a materialist. Just like the greater part of the population of Europe, he becomes discontented, degenerate, drinks spirits, and neglects his religion, which hitherto made of him a very valuable human being.
Commandant Diodiece suggests, somewhat abruptly, "Perhaps there is something in what you say, but I think it is wiser to drop the subject. You know we can never agree." Despite their differences, Holmboe sees Commandant Diodiece as a warm-hearted man with a sense of justice:
Although the Italian colonization of Cyrenaica is such that any European who obtains a glimpse of it must feel ashamed to belong to the white race — for here it is waging a modern war barbarically and ruthlessly — Commandant Diodiece was a rare and redeeming feature, for he possessed that culture which so many think can be replaced by civilization.
History for many in the West — especially the history of West's colonialism and imperialism in Asia, the Middle East and Africa — is something to skim through in a high school class, and then to relegate to the past as irrelevant to today's conflicts and tensions. For many people in the former colonized world, however, history is a deep and open wound that still oozes pain and distortion.
Anyone who spends time in the region will know that it doesn't take much to reopen the old wounds. Holmboe himself didn't live to see the aftermath of the brutality he described, but it's likely he would have reacted with the same mixture of idealism and realism he displays in Desert Encounter. He was clearly an idealist, but his ideals were not the product of long shifts in a library. He enjoyed a privileged, somewhat affluent background, gave up Scandinavian comfort and empowerment and, under his own volition, traveled far to become a borderless man in a waterless land in order to earn the credentials to write about the region without pretension or embarrassment. He witnessed gruesome human behavior in North Africa, which he endured with uncanny forbearance, but throughout this wretched experience, Holmboe managed to continue to view humankind as essentially uncondemned, as creatures originally guiltless and thus redeemable — an ideal he implicitly depends upon as he recounts his story without a hint of despair. He does not fall for the romantic picture of colonial life, what the late Edward Said identified as one of "the pleasures of imperialism." What Holmboe reported (and what eventually cost him dearly) did not suffer from Rudyard Kipling's nanny-reared indulgences or the pretensions of the White Man's Burden. Indeed, Holmboe concludes his narrative with a pointed reference to Kipling:
Surely Kipling was only superficially right when he said, "East is East and West is West." Deep down within themselves the peoples of the East and the West are alike. They are two branches of the same tree. And when man, regardless of whence he comes, seeks deep in his heart, he will feel the longing for the root of the tree.