Listening to NPR over breakfast last month, I was surprised to hear a story from Western Sahara, a country that doesn’t make the news very often. Formerly a colony of Spain and occupied since 1976 by Morocco, Western Sahara doesn’t take up much space on the bookshelf. Yet it is the focus of one of the most compelling books of African exploration I know.
In 1930 Michel Vieuchange, a 26-year-old Frenchman and aspiring writer, attempted to become the first European to see the ancient desert town of Smara, in what was then the Spanish Sahara. It was a dangerous goal not only because of the desert’s scarce water, poisonous snakes, and extremes of temperature, but because the region was controlled by independent and hostile tribes. French pilots forced down in the area had been held as hostages, or sometimes killed.
For his first “raid” on the city, Vieuchange disguised himself in the stifling robes and veils of a Berber woman. With the help of a “trader in tirza wood” named Ahmed ben Hamou el Mahboul, he set out on camelback with a group of other North Africans, including two sheikhs. A month later, after many hardships, the group was forced to go back when one of the sheikhs hurt his foot on a thorn and refused to continue.
Only about two weeks later, Vieuchange tried again. This time he dressed as an Arab man, but when strangers appeared his companions stuffed him into a pannier on the side of a camel until it was safe to come out. Vieuchange and his companions reached the city of Smara, long deserted and used only as temporary lodging by the nomadic tribes, but Vieuchange had only three hours to look around, measuring and photographing as quickly as possible, before the arrival of a large band of strangers forced him to leave.
“I have seen your two kasbahs and your ruined mosque,” he wrote after his departure. “I have seen you completely, seated on your plinth, face to the desert, deserted in the silence, under the glowing sun. I have seen your palms, to-day half withered.” On the journey back he fell seriously ill, and by the end of November he was dead of dysentery.
Smara: The Forbidden City comprises two months of journal entries as transcribed and edited by Vieuchange’s brother Jean, a doctor who helped organize the expedition to Smara. Translated from the French by Fletcher Allen, the book was first published in English in 1932 and republished by Ecco Press in 1987.
These pages were never intended to be published as is, but perhaps for that reason they have an honesty and immediacy that are gripping. After describing a fit of anger against El Mahboul, during which he threw a pair of slippers at him, Vieuchange writes, “I put all this down because, here, I intend to enter everything, absolutely sincerely. My sincerity in the book will not be the same.”
Hungry, with bleeding feet, knowing only a few words of Arabic and Berber and in constant fear of discovery as a European or of attack by marauders (at one point bullets fly over the heads of his party), Vieuchange is always in the moment, with little leisure for reflection. Reading his entries gives the impression of being inside his head as he struggles to keep going, and to understand what is going on around him.
Two days before his journal breaks off, he wakes in a sweat from a weird dream. On his way to Smara he has met Rene Caillié, the “discoverer” of Timbuktu — like him, a poorly prepared, desert-obsessed young Frenchman — and he enters the city with him, though Caillié is none too pleased at this. But this Smara is a sinister trap: “It was a sort of quarry, cut off from the sky by a peculiar network of threads, like spiders’ webs, which admitted only a little light.” He finds a “repulsive little pygmy” living in one of a number of small excavations, and the air fills with “uncanny life” that obscures his sight.
Then Caillié becomes Rimbaud, the great poet who gave up his art and disappeared into East Africa. Clearly and forcefully he speaks “the most abstruse words,” which Vieuchange understands for the first time, but although he wakes up a moment later, the words and their meaning evaporate before he can write them down.