From Morocco to Timbuktu: An Arabian Adventure – BBC 2


At the start of this programme, I was huffing and puffing about the fact that the BBC had chosen to call it “An Arabian Adventure”. The population of Morocco is largely Berber, and the issue of Arabisation there can be quite contentious.  Mali has a mixed population, of sub-Saharan ethnic groups: it can’t be described as “Arabian” by anyone’s standards.  However, a lot of the programme (this first episode was all in Morocco, so Mali hasn’t really come into it yet) did focus specifically on Berber culture, so I forgive the choice of title.  Just about.

I suppose “An Arabian Adventure” sounds glamorous and exotic. Scheherezade of the Arabian Nights (although her name is actually Persian!).  Lawrence of Arabia.  Is North Africa thought of in Britain as being glamorous and exotic?  The area was once referred to as “the Barbary States” and linked to pirates raiding the coast of Cornwall for slaves … er, maybe better not go there!  How about Midnight at the Oasis?  And that stupid film with Rudolph Valentino as a sheikh?  Oh, and Casablanca, of course, although Moroccan culture doesn’t exactly feature very much in that.  Then there’s the French Foreign Legion, although, unfortunately, any mention of that makes me think of Carry on … Follow That Camel.

Well, whatever! Moving on from the choice of title!  I think most people do have some sort of sense of Morocco, but what about Mali?  It’s the eighth biggest country in Africa, but it’s really not at all familiar to most people in the UK.  There’s that bloke who plays for Crystal Palace … er, but what else do we know about Mali?  But everyone’s heard of the Malian city of Timbuktu.  It’s a byword for somewhere exotic and mysterious.  And, unlike Shangri La and El Dorado and other places with those sorts of connotations, it actually exists.  It’s also a byword for somewhere a very long way away.  I think the only other place name we use in that way is Outer Mongolia, but that really is a long way away.  Timbuktu isn’t, really. And the reason we know the name goes back to the days of the great empires of North West Africa, now long gone.  Timbuktu, back then, was a major trading centre.  One of the major commodities traded there was salt from the Sahara Desert, and, in this programme, Alice Morrison’s following the salt routes.

What we got in the first programme, though, was Morocco. Wonderful Morocco, where I spent a memorable holiday in November 2010.  First up, Tangier.  Tangier actually came to Charles II as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry, along with Mumbai/Bombay, but, whilst British involvement in India lasted almost three centuries, we gave up Tangier pretty quickly!  From Tangier, she went on to visit a number of places which showed how fascinating and diverse Morocco is.  Fes/Fez, with its tanneries … and its amazing bazaars, which I’m sorry we didn’t see more of.  Marrakech, with its wonderful Jemaa al Fna Square.  The Atlas Mountains, which look more like Switzerland than how you imagine Morocco to look.  We saw her spend time with Berber nomads.  And cook camel meatballs … er, hmm, I can’t say I was ever tempted to try those!  And then head out across the desert, visiting ruined cities with their impressive casbahs (I had that song by The Clash on the brain all the way through Morocco!).  It was obvious that Alice Morrison was very familiar with the country and very passionate about it, and she did an excellent job of explaining everything she was showing us.

Tragically, some of Mali’s historic buildings were destroyed by Al-Qaeda during clashes in 2012, and I don’t think that really got as much coverage as it might have done: we hear a lot about events in Iraq and Syria, and, to some extent, Libya and Egypt, and of course the horrific attack on tourists in Tunisia, but the problem of Islamic militancy in Mali, is not as well-known as it might be. However, this series will presumably be focusing on the many positive aspects of the history and culture of Mali.  Going back to the subject of Morocco, there are issues there too, and I think the Western image of North Africa in general has been damaged by recent political events, but I found a week and a half in Morocco to be a wonderful experience.  I’ve got very fond memories of it, and am so pleased to see it as the subject of a programme like this.  And I don’t think I’ve come across Alice Morrison before, but she’s great!  More programmes with her in them, please!