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.'”
Holmboe’s book brought to light the violent grip of Mussolini’s new “Romans” in Libya. During his stay in Cyrenaica, the eastern region of the country, he wrote, “[T]hirty executions took place daily, which means that about twelve thousand Arabs were executed yearly, not counting those killed in the war.” Bedouins also saw their wells cemented useless by the Italian military and livestock mowed down by machine gun fire, which forced the desert-dwellers by threat of privation to choose either slow death or humiliation in decrepit encampments. “The land swam in blood,” Holmboe wrote. In the densely populated and well-guarded encampment:
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.
The Italians bizarrely saw their mission in Libya as some kind of restoration of the heritage of the Roman Empire’s senatorial provinces in North Africa, but it really had more to do with the rise of fascism and the dissemination of Mussolini’s cult of personality. Everywhere in Libya, Holmboe wrote,
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.”
When Holmboe arrived in the region, the 28-year-old reporter had no intention of writing an exposé of any kind. He was in Ceuta, a Spanish city on the African side of the Strait of Gibraltar, prepared to travel to mainland Spain and from there set sail to Egypt or Syria before embarking on a pilgrimage. But an English journalist staying in Ceuta suggested that Holmboe, who was interested in learning more about Bedouin life and culture, drive across North Africa himself so he could see firsthand how the Bedouins lived.
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.
Holmboe does not veil his shock at the indelicate treatment the Arabs received, and he is open about his disdain for the presumptions underwriting European colonial expansion in North Africa and its explicit disregard for the lives and cultures of the locals. His journalistic detachment vanishes when he expresses clear sympathy with the Libyan resistance movement, led by the formidable and charismatic Umar al-Mukhtar (later portrayed by Anthony Quinn in the 1981 film Lion of the Desert). But Holmboe was not a self-hating European: he is critical of European theories of superiority and civilization, but he speaks with confidence, if not pride, of his Danish heritage and its values and freedoms. When confronted by Italian officers in the desert, for example, and pressed to explain his clothing, choice of travel destination, and spiritual makeover as a Muslim convert (he had converted in 1925), Holmboe tells them, “In my country a man can have what religion he chooses.”
At another point, stranded in the wilderness without water, food, protection, and working tires, Holmboe finds himself surrounded by Bedouin resistance fighters who take him for an Italian spy. Before they pull the trigger, they ask about his Arab attire. Outmanned, outgunned, and out of luck, Holmboe does not issue some anti-European screed to ingratiate himself with his captors. Instead he tells them, “I have come here specially to get to know your way of living. In Europe nobody knows anything about it.” He then explains that he himself had become a Muslim, and when asked for proof, he recites in Arabic a rather lengthy passage from the Quran.
In more comfortable settings, among fellow Europeans, Holmboe is sharper-tongued. In Merj, the Italian administrative headquarters in the mountain district of Libya, he has a discussion with a fair-minded Italian officer, Commandant Diodiece, to whom he declares:
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.
For the vast majority of people in the West, this Italian-Libyan history is unfamiliar, but along the Mediterranean rim, the story is quite different. In August 2008, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi apologized to Libya for 40 years of colonial rule and committed Italy to pay nearly $5 billion in reparations over time. For the most part, the contrition was met with approval in the region. With the world’s attention now on the strife in Libya and Qaddafi’s desperate call to unite Arabs to resist NATO’s “neo-colonial” aggression, Holmboe’s rare eye-witness account can help us recall why that apology was necessary, and it prompts us to ask whether public confessions and cash can really correct the damage wrought by colonialism, especially in “one of the most extreme of all cases of colonial repression,” as Timothy Winter called it in his 1994 introduction to Desert Encounter.
The factual and evocative strength of Holmboe’s account invites a more thoughtful look at the consequences of colonialism in parts of the Muslim world, particularly the mistrust it engendered and the degree to which it still works on the region’s mind. In stark contrast to the current discussions, Holmboe’s book offers nuance and texture to the so-called East-West divide, which has become hopelessly deconstructed, stripped of history and logic, and is now framed as the rift between Islam and the West, animated by specious essentialist arguments (“Islam is incompatible with democracy,” for instance).
The memory of colonialism in the Middle East has certainly not been erased. This past March, for example, at Al Jazeera‘s annual forum in Doha, Qatar, the Arab Spring was strikingly described as a “post-colonial” affair, and its apparent successes in Egypt and Tunisia declared as the end of “neo-colonialism.” No one batted an eye at this terminology. But reading Holmboe reminds us that making such pronouncements does not change history. In a 2008 New York Times op-ed piece, well-known Lebanese journalist Rami Khouri said:
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.