Name of the Book: The Lost Kingdoms of Africa—Through Muslim Africa by Truck, Camel, Bus, Boat and Camel
Author: Jeffrey Tayler
Publisher: Abacus, London
ISBN: 0 349 1708 X
Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com
‘Like the emirs of the north, the emirs of Sokoto, desirous of retaining their authority under the colonial systrm of indirect rule, collaborated with the British, all the while dismissing their foreign overlords as short-timers. They were right: the British came and left, and the emir of Sokoto is still the spiritual leader of Islam in Nigeria, presiding today over what is supposedly the strictest of the shari’a states. The masses, however, are as miserable as ever—as the crowds of beggars at the mausoleum suggest.’ [p. 156]
‘Every day in Timbuktu, just before dusk settled over its labyrinthine mud lanes, herders drove sheep and goats in from grazing areas outside town, raising a cloud of dust so choking and dense that I first mistook it for smoke. So it was on the afternoon Ibrahim and I walked out to rolling white dunes marked here and there by the solitary, crooked skeletons of acacias, north of the Abaradiou quarter, at the edge of the Sahara. There we found his sons dressed as he was, in faded blue robes, their heads and faces covered in tougoulmousts of shimmering indigo. Beside them stood the camels, stately and calm, their fluffy hides as pale as the sand beneath their hoofs, their single humps outfitted with high-backed saddles of balsam-light wood stripped blue and red, resting on red carpets that protected the animals from abrasions.’ [p. 227]
‘As populations grow, the desert expands, food and water become even scarcer, and the confrontation between the West and the Islamic world intensifies, whatever peace existing now in the Sahel will probably turn out to be a lull before a regional apocalypse, the course of which is easy to imagine because in places it has already begun: emaciated hordes fleeing south from the encroaching desert, swamping settled communities and provoking their ire and violent resistance: renewed civil war; the further expread of Islam and even Christian extremism […] the infiltration of foreign terrorist groups and criminal gangs; and the rise of Western-backed dictators who promise to stamp them out.’ 
Review by: Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com
Even as a child, I was deeply entranced by Africa, and I still am. The word ‘Africa’ conjured up for me dreams of a ‘dark’, ‘unknown’ continent, peopled by a bewildering number of different tribes, each with their own ‘exotic’ beliefs, customs and dress, unknown numbers of species of birds and animals, impenetrable jungles and impassably lofty mountains. I read everything about Africa that I could lay my hands on. My pet obsession was crossing the Sahara, the largest desert in the world, on camel-back, winding my way through far-flung oases, and then making my way down into the depths of the mysterious ‘black Africa’, land of gold, slaves and ivory.
That dream still remains with me today, and it has not been quite unfulfilled. But the furthest I could manage in that regard was a trip some years ago to the far north-west of Africa to Morocco, where I made my way down the Atlas mountains to the Berber oases of Ouzanne and Ouzazzat that straddle the Mauritanian border, and another sojourn—in a different direction—to Aswan and Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, near the frontier with Sudan. Admittedly, those were not quite the journeys across the Sahara down into the depths of black Africa that I’ve always dreamt of. But one man seems to have undertaken precisely the trip that I’ve always fantasized about, the details of which he relates with great finesse in this remarkably absorbing book.
Tayler’s travels take him to countries I’ve desperately wanted to visit: starting in northern Nigeria, he journeys to Chad, Niger, and then Mali, and finally arrives at the ‘slave coast’ in Senegal. This is a Muslim-dominated belt, where Islam has had a presence of several centuries. Despite this, this part of Africa receives scant attention in ongoing discussions about Islam and Muslims. It is a journey of gripping adventure, undertaken in precisely the way such travels should be. Tayler revels in wildly roughing it out, ready for the most challenging and dangerous adventures. No namby-pamby heavily over-priced, zipping-around package tour stuff here, which, to my mind, is the greatest affront to the real thing.
Weaving together ethnographic details with perceptive insights from local histories, the book is not a run-of-the-mill travel story. Unlike many others of that genre, the author keeps himself quite in the background while using his personal experiences and encounters with people and places to reflect on the societies he passes through. In this way, the book is not just the story of one man’s journey. More than that, it is an informative account of numerous Muslim countries and societies in the throes of tumultuous change as a result of a heady mix of religious, political, economic and cultural factors, both local as well as transnational in origin, as they play themselves out among the mainly Muslim peoples, of various ethnicities, inhabiting this little-known belt of Africa that the book so engagingly describes.
Common themes link the various chapters of the book, and the countries that Tayler travels to: desperate poverty, rampant illiteracy, interminable civil war, foreign intervention, the lingering legacy of Western colonialism, unstable political conditions, dictatorial rule, endemic corruption and banditry, deep-rooted ethnic and religious strife, the rise of radical Islamist movements, and widespread resentment against the West, particularly Tayler’s own United States, for its perceived animosity to Muslims and their faith. This belt of Africa, it would seem, is all ready for the sort of mass upsurges that Arab countries to the north are presently witnessing.
In northern Nigeria, Tayler encounters Christian and Muslim extremists, whose politics of hate in the name of faith have resulted in the deaths of several thousands in the last few decades. He visits emirs, who rule over their subjects like medieval potentates. In Chad, he encounters African Muslims increasingly resentful of their Arab co-religionists for promoting Arab hegemony under the guise of Islam, and who still harbour bitter memories of being poached upon by Arab slave traders. He encounters Muslims who treat others (Christians and ‘pagans’) as despicable ‘infidels’, being bloated with an irrepressible sense of superiority. In Mali, he finds remnants of the slave trade still alive and thriving, and African customs and traditions of the local Muslims being menacingly denounced by Saudi-inspired Wahhabis, who propagate a brutal, drab and fun-less version of Islam in the name of religious authenticity. In Niger, he discovers desperate poverty, hunger and venial corruption. By the time he arrives at the Senegal coast, at the end of his journey, he seems quite glad to be going back home, although with some fond memories of a daunting journey that few outsiders have undertaken before.
In short, the vast belt of Africa—from the Sahara, in the north, through the Sahel, the sub-Saharan semi-desert belt, and down to shores of the Atlantic in the south-west—that Tayler sojourns in is, as he brilliantly illustrates, not exactly an ideal location for a relaxed holiday. But, despite the horrific conditions that he encounters, Tayler does not ignore the redeeming features of the lands he passes through. He speaks of some kind, simple and hospitable souls he meets on the way who help him along, and of the abundant wildlife and the stunning natural beauty of some of the places he traverses, by boat, truck and even on camel-back. Nor does Tayler forget to find humour even in the most taxing of circumstances that he faces. Nor, too, does he hesitate to identify some worth in the brutal past of the societies he describes with considerable empathy. Thus, for instance, he reflects on the considerable heights of scholarship and civilization attained in remote Timbuktu in the Malian desert, that reflected a unique encounter between the Arab Muslims and local Africans, while at the same time not unmindful of the fact that this relationship was also based on bloody conquest and the slave trade, in which Arabs were as deeply implicated as the Europeans who followed in their footsteps some centuries later. Likewise, he favourably contrasts the gentle, compassionate Sufi mystics he meets with hate-spewing radical Islamists, assuring himself that there is indeed hope for Muslims themselves to be able to speak out against and interrogate obscurantist ideologues and activists who seek to monopolise their faith.
The larger story that Tayler describes, and into which his narrative about this slice of Muslim Africa fits, is that of the predicament many Muslims are today faced with in their encounter with modernity. The dismal economic and political conditions in the countries he travels through are not unique, but, rather, seem to be shared by many other parts of the ‘Muslim world’. So, too, are the ethnic and religious strife and the rise of right-wing, literalist and frighteningly supremacist self-styled Islamist movements—in some sense a reaction to Western hegemony and imperialism—that he highlights. Tayler’s narrative very powerfully suggests—although of course this is not something that he theorises about—that neither Islamist radicalism or conservative Wahhabism, nor Western imperialist-backed dictatorial rule provide any hope for these societies, although these are precisely the options that have been tried (and continue to fail) across the ‘Muslim world’, including the bits of it that Tayler writes about.
As this gripping book so powerfully describes, addressing ‘grassroots’ realities, such as structures of poverty, racism, gender injustice, religious intolerance and so on, are the key issues, and these should be tackled with all the seriousness that they deserve if the ‘Muslim world’, including the region Tayler describes, is to wrench its way out of the morass it presently finds itself firmly in. Ideological posturing, whether in the name of Western capitalist, ‘free-market’ ‘democracy’, or Islamist militancy, are definitely not the answer, for they promise to only further exacerbate the pathetic conditions of this part of the world in the name of solving them.
For Africa lovers, as well as readers interested in the sorry way the ‘Muslim world’ is heading, this book will have a ready appeal.
A regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.