Fiction, Elementary. Picture Book
"Already an old man, desert guide Issa has seen thousands of dawns. One particular morning, however, the desert reveals something new; something that changes his life. Tucked away in a narrow cave, shielded from a treacherous dust storm by a faithful camel, a baby girl lies wrapped in fine cotton and wearing half of a star medallion around her neck. Issa names the girl Mariama. As years pass, Issa loses his sight, and Mariama becomes his eyes. So Issa doesn't see the pattern on the robes of a mysterious young traveler who comes through their village, or the medallion he wears. Who is this young stranger, and what does his arrival mean for the life Issa and Mariama share in the desert?" Publisher
Mysterious Traveler is, curiously, a story in search of a context. The plot bounces us back to George Eliot’s Silas Marner: an old man adopts a foundling daughter and his life is enriched. The old man in this case is a desert guide who discovers an infant girl who has survived a dust-storm that destroyed her escort crossing the desert; the girl turns out to be a lost princess. A secondary theme is support and nurturing: the growing girl learns her adopted guardian’s skills, and is able to supplement his skills as his vision fades into blindness.
As a story, the narrative has a certain basic appeal. Nothing bad — except destructive dust-storms — happens, and there is a happy ending after an appropriate measure of adventure.
The story, enhanced by wonderful illustrations by P. J. Lynch, does capture something of the mystique of the desert: its beautiful and stark contrasts of light and sand and the hues of the different times of day. It offers a romantic vision, reduced to a small cast of characters, of the knowledge required to cross the desert, of the sharing of that knowledge. It respects the folklorist Harold Scheub’s principle that in African tales, the sequence is binary: fault and correction, one might say. A sandstorm strands a princess; a second sandstorm is the means by which the lost princess, serving her adopted guardian and master-of-the-sandy-ways, preserves her unknown brother.
But there remains the question of context, and here the reservations may seem pedantic. The author’s note says the story is set in an imaginary place, for which context should not matter. The same note links the inspiration to Timbuktu — from which trans-Saharan caravans would have been a matter of course. The text, however, offers one identifiable place name: Sana, the capital of Yemen. Here we encounter an uncomfortable incongruity. Sana, identified in the text as lying on the shore of the Eastern Sea, is in fact on the Arabian peninsula. The distance separating Sana and Timbuktu is broader than the width of the continental U.S.
Oddly, Yemen has a place in African historiography: a legendary hero of Yemen, Saif ben Dhi Yazan, is considered the conqueror of Africa (more accurately: he crossed the Red Sea and established a beach-head on the inhospitable coasts of Eritrea or Somaliland). Thus, within older Muslim perception, Yemen counts as the titular ruler of Africa. The legend of origin associated with the dynasty that founded the Songhai Empire involves a multi-lingual misunderstanding involving the name Yemen. Timbuktu, originally a glory of the empire of Mali, was also part of the Songhai empire. A genealogical reference to Yemen has (or had) locally something of the same effect as a claim, in the British peerage, to Norman ancestry, or, among Americans, to claims of a connection with the British peerage.
But alas, there have never been caravans between Timbuktu and Yemen. People traveling east across the Sahel — and millions of pilgrims have done so — first encountered the Nile and turned north into Egypt, where they were fleeced before they fulfilled their religious duty.
From Timbuktu, the shortest trans-Saharan caravan routes lead north, towards Algeria or Tunisia. These routes run through the Hoggar, a stony massif that offers oases and is also the site of ancient rock-paintings. The description of the mountains in the book may echo reports of this region. (The illustrations certainly suggest them). The routes also lead into the cultural world of the Berbers, in which women occupied a greater status than that which Islam would grant them as it spread (and yes, this led to conflicts). A Berber legend speaks, in fact, of a princess who fled south to escape oppression. Distinctive ribbons (and a broken pendant) serve as markers in this story; they might easily be connected with the well-documented adornments of Berber women throughout the western Sahara. But they are not.
The story thus presents a sense of missed opportunities. It could have rooted itself in the western Sahara of Timbuktu, but it did not. It might equally well have connected itself with the old caravans of the Arabian peninsula, bringing frankincense or myrrh north to the Levant, but it does not. The names, Issa and Mariama, are generic Arabic names (meaning Jesus and Mary, as it happens) that are used without geographic specificity. Issa’s fez, from the illustrations, suggests a Turkish/Ottoman connection (please remember, the Ottoman empire claimed at least some sort of religious authority over the Muslim world of the Sahel until the end of World War I, when their temporal power was violently reduced).
This story thus has no place other than an imaginary desert world. It offers vague echoes of African elements, just as it offers a specific connection to an Arabian place. But it belongs principally to the world of fantasy.
Published in Africa Access Review (February 19, 2014)
Copyright 2014 Africa Access
Reviewed by: Stephen Belcher, Independent Scholar
Grade: Elementary / Middle