South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara

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9780006531173: South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara

The stunning debut of a talented young travel writer.

‘South from Barbary’ – as 19th-century Europeans knew North Africa – is the compelling account of Justin Marozzi’s 1,500-mile journey by camel along the slave-trade routes of the Libyan Sahara.

Marozzi and his travelling companion Ned had never travelled in the desert, nor had they ridden camels before embarking on this expedition. Encouraged by a series of idiosyncratic Tuareg and Tubbu guides, they learnt the full range of desert survival skills, including how to master their five faithful camels.

The caravan of two explorers, five camels with distinctive personalities and their guides undertook a gruelling journey across some of the most inhospitable territory on earth. Despite threats from Libyan officialdom and the ancient, natural hardships of the desert, Marozzi and Ned found themselves growing ever closer to the land and its people.

More than a travelogue, ‘South from Barbary’ is a fascinating history of Saharan exploration and efforts by early British explorers to suppress the African slave trade. It evokes the poetry and solitude of the desert, the companionship of man and beast, the plight of a benighted nation, and the humour and generosity of its resilient people.

Written with infectious wit and insight, and a terrific historical grasp, this is a superbly readable travel book about a rarely visited but enthralling and immensely beautiful region of the world.

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The stunning debut of a talented young travel writer.

Review:

Camel journeys may belong to a bygone era, but the British have long had an affinity with the resilient animals. With South from Barbary, Justin Marozzi becomes the latest writer to follow in the tradition of Wilfred Thesiger and Michael Asher. Having known Libya since a young age, Marozzi set out two years ago to cross the Libyan Sahara by camel. Travelling with a friend, Ned, five camels and a succession of guides, Marozzi crossed 1150 miles of the great desert.

Travel books usually benefit from the author having more than a passing knowledge of a place. Unfortunately, however, although Marozzi's debut is strong on Saharan cultures and early European explorers, he has an awkward prose style that tends to be over-laden with adverbs, adjectives and discordant similes. He also has a rosy-eyed view of the history of British involvement with the slave trade, waxing lyrical over 19th century attempts to suppress the trade while largely ignoring the fact that Britain was the leading beneficiary of the Atlantic trade throughout the 18th century.

That is not to say that the book is without merit. In the second half the story picks up, and the prose becomes less stodgy. The desert journey appears to improve Marozzi's qualities of empathy, and he is never less than honest about the behaviour of Ned and himself. In the end, though, South From Barbary seems to be an opportunity missed. Although Marozzi's work is erudite on Libya's history, room remains for a book that deals more richly with the nature of modern Libya. --Toby Green

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