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  1. Leo Africanus

    His name suggests a lion but he thought of himself more like a bird: ‘a wily bird, so indued by nature that she could live as well with the fishes of the sea, as with the fowls of the air.’ Few travellers mastered the art of surviving in different cultures like Leo Africanus. Born in Fez in the late 15th century to Muslim exiles from Andalusia, he grew up as the nephew of a court favourite; but when he was captured by pirates off the Barbary Coast, he found himself a prisoner in Christendom. He managed the rare trick of flourishing both in Muslim North Africa and in Renaissance Italy, where he became a favourite of Pope Leo X. This fluid, ambiguous identity has made him a longstanding figure of fascination – Shakespeare may have been inspired by his writings when composing Othello, and the Irish poet WB Yeats started a bizarre correspondence with Leo after a 1920s séance. Given the troubled nature of identity politics today, this ‘wily bird’ still has a lot to teach us.

    His importance in the history of African exploration can hardly be overstated. It was on Leo’s ‘Description of Africa and the Notable Things Therein Contained’ that ‘geographers and cartographers remained dependent for almost all they knew of the interior of Africa for the next 300 years’*. A big round of applause for Leo, but a thumbs-down for pretty much everyone else, and a reminder of the collective blinders we’re still wearing when it comes to ‘the Dark Continent’. Where medieval cartographers drew mythical beasts or empty wastelands, now as the historian Judith Scheele puts it, ‘in Power Point presentations, the Sahara, portrayed as a homogenous space marked by boundless and arbitrary movement, is easily shaded in as ‘dangerous’, and on the large-scale maps generally used, symbols of threat and random photographs downloaded from the Internet seem to fill it rather nicely.’**

    In my book, I’ll be delving into Leo’s life and writings, from his views on pigeon-keeping to slavery to the uses of an Atlas root as a 16th century Viagra. In a way, I was following Leo’s trail, and in certain places along the way, it felt like he was just around the corner…


    *EW Bovill, The Golden Trade of the Moors.

    **Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara.

  2. Hello! And welcome to my first blog post!

    tim camel

    So… my new book, The Timbuktu School for Nomads, is scheduled for publication this September. It’s about my journeys in and around the Sahara, meeting nomads and learning how their lives are changing. My interest in nomads had been ticking away for a while, but it was jump-started a few years ago when I was studying in Fez and decided to follow the trail of the 16th century explorer-diplomat, Leo Africanus.

    Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting background info, including profiles of some of the most celebrated nomads who feature in the book (such as Yusuf Ibn Tafshin, an 11th century warrior king who fought against El Cid and the Kahina, a 7th century Berber priestess who led a rebellion against the early Muslim army). I’ll also be posting about some of the key issues in which African nomads are inextricably involved – including the Malian peace process, the so-called ‘first climate change war’, and the ever-present issues of migration and jihadism.

    First, though, to explain what the book is about. The ‘school’ in the title isn’t a specific school, it’s about my own education amongst North Africa’s nomads: learning to ride camels, building a fire when there’s no available wood, working the wells, tracking herds when they’ve gone on walkabout. My journey began and ended in Timbuktu (which is where the above picture was taken - at the city's sleepy, but active camel market), but along the way it took in roaming fishermen on the Niger river, cattle herders in Central Mali, Moorish cameleers in Mauritania, Berbers in the Atlas, Saharawi refugees, Tuareg blacksmiths lured into conflict by unscrupulous jihadists. I’ll be posting photos, video clips and more blogs over the coming weeks, starting with a profile of Leo Africanus, the man who unveiled Africa to the west...