Friday, August 17, 2012

اطلالة على حيوات أخرى...(10) Desert Encounter

“For when man ardently seeks Thy beauty
His soul will joyously go to its death from the midst of richest life”
 Inb Al-Farid  


I had never heard of Knud Holmboe nor of his travel memoires “Desert Encounter” until a friend posted a link to the memoires on Facebook.  I was first drawn by the image on its front page of a young handsome foreign man in Arab dress. Moreover, being a lover of history and travel I was further drawn by the fact that it was not only a travel memoire of “An Adventurous  Journey through North Africa”, but that its events had occurred in 1930.  But what most aroused my curiosity was what seemed to have been a very brief life of the author Knud Holombe, for under his handsome picture was the date (1902-1931) and under it the phrase: “A Martyr of Freedom of Expression”.  So who was he and what was this journey all about??

Knud Holmboe was a Danish journalist and travel writer. Son of a Danish businessman, it appears that his smug materialist middle-class life in Denmark was not compatible with his more adventurous, rebellious and reflective nature. His career in journalism quenched his thirst for travel to remote areas, taking him to Morocco, where he witnessed and wrote about the brutal French colonial war against the people of Morocco, as well as to Iraq, Turkey, Persia and the Balkans.

These travels however were paralleled with a passion for religions and philosophy and an inner quest on issues of faith and identity. At the age of twenty he embraced Catholicism and lived for a while in a monastery in France. However, still restless and searching, his travels to Morocco brought him in close contact with the Muslim population and with their faith, finally leading him to convert to Islam, a faith he believed to be “the true Christianity” and whose people “practiced in their daily life so closely to what the prophet Jesus taught”.

“Desert Encounter” is a gripping account of the journey Knud began in 1930 in his Chevrolet Model 1929 from Morocco in the west across the vast Sahara desert with a plan to reach Egypt. Reading it, one senses Knud’s deep interest in knowing and coming close to the people of these nations: “This was going to be my last day as a European…and my first day with the people I so much wanted to know and whom one can only get to know by living among them”.

His courage is evident in travelling through difficult and unknown terrain, never turning back even when his car broke down more than once, almost lost, and close to dying of thirst. But his courage and humanism are more evident in his account of the atrocities committed by colonial powers in North Africa, and primarily of the shocking treatment of the Libyan population by the Italian Fascist occupation. “In Europe one is told that the peaceful Italians in Cyrenaica have been attacked by the blood-thirsty Arabs. Only I, who have seen it, know who the barbarians are”.

Knud developed a strong sympathy and respect of the Libyan people and their struggle, describing their poor illiterate fighters as “the truest noblemen I have ever met”. However, this sympathy brought on him the wrath of the Italian occupation who finally arrested and deported him before he could complete his journey to Egypt.

When “Desert Encounter” was published in 1931 it became an instant bestseller in Denmark, in many European countries and in the USA, but it was banned in Italy and not translated into the Italian language until 2004.  In the same year Knud was killed at the age of 29 while travelling in Aqaba on his way to Mecca and it was speculated that the Italian intelligence was involved, but this was never verified.

One is often pained when a life is cut so short, especially a life so intense and promising as Knud’s life seemed to be. The only consolation is that his story is still alive 80 years after his death and his humanistic message is still reaching many across the world:

“Deep down within themselves the peoples of the East and the West are alike.  They are two branches of the same tree. And when man, regardless of whence he comes, seeks deep in his heart, he will feel the longing for the root of the tree”.

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