Interview with Barnaby Rogerson: Part I – North Africa

Barnaby Rogerson (in the white shirt) with Nigel Barley (author of the Innocent Anthropologist). The photograph was taken at the Eland Open Day in early December 2017.

Barnaby Rogerson (in the white shirt) with Nigel Barley (author of The Innocent Anthropologist). The photograph was taken at the Eland Open Day in early December 2017.

The day is sunny, the bus ride easy, and the grey door is exactly where it should be. There are no signs … just a button to press, and then a set of narrow grey stairs to follow in a spiral to the top.

I climb the smooth steps and at the top a door is open. Just inside a tall, elegant, eager dog waits to say hello. Beside the dog is a slightly less-leggy man. He is, as I presume, Barnaby Rogerson, author of In Search of Ancient North Africa – a History in Six Lives, and one of the directors of Eland Publishing.

Behind them both is a book-filled den.

The book-filled den at the heart of Eland Publishing in London

The book-filled den at the heart of Eland Publishing in London

Dog and man welcome me in.

Through the door, books tapestry the walls in shades of a well-worn carpet. There is an old armchair; a kettle and mugs on the side; a couple of computers tucked behind the door; a spacious dog cage; and a small round table with chairs.

Steph, the networker, sits at the table. Steph and I met via Twitter, where she was on the hunt for bloggers with a tendency to book reviews, and I was in search of publishers with an interest in travel literature. Two book reviews later, and this is our first meeting.

The three of us sit at the table and chat. We cover books, blogging, writers, readers and social media. The conversation is comfortable. I know about words in search of audiences … I am not so confident with classical North Africa.

Soon enough the moment for that arrives. Steph disappears around the corner to the computers and I am left with Barnaby Rogerson – expert on North Africa. All I know about his area of expertise is from his latest book, and it is just one of many he has written. He is the author of at least half a dozen books on different aspects of Islam or North Africa, as well as hundreds of articles.

In Search of Ancient North Africa (A History in Six Lives) by Barnaby Rogerson

In Search of Ancient North Africa (A History in Six Lives) by Barnaby Rogerson

Barnaby Rogerson has studied and explored the region for decades. He knows its ruins, its seashores, its heroes and its scholars; he has lectured, guided, and enthused for years; and, as well as being a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and an honorary member of the Travellers Club, he is a publisher.

I, with my one book’s worth of North African knowledge, start with my questions.

How did your interest in the region begin? His father, who served in the Navy, was posted to Gibraltar. At the time the Spanish border was closed so the family turned their interest to North Africa.

I got to know Tangiers, which is the most difficult, aggressive city in all of North Africa, full of pimps and pushers. I got to know it quite early and I built a coat with it. I think it suited my mentality that the world was quite tough, and you had to find out what people wanted, and then tell them that it wasn’t happening or whatever.”

And why the focus now on Ancient North Africa? 

“What I’m interested in is whether North Africans feel North African or whether they feel Tunisian, or Moroccan, or not even Moroccan – from Fez or Marrakesh … I ask them about what they share … They can identify these heroes who fought for independence and often died in these battles against the West … So I started thinking about a similar group from the ancient world that represents both conflict and those that developed a community of interest within the Mediterranean.”

Why those particular six lives? 

There’s variety in them but I could have selected another six. There’s a Mauritanian cavalry officer I’m particularly interested in … A famous bishop …” and the list goes on.

Why do you claim Hannibal is the greatest general ever? 

“He is the generals’ general … he also comes across, for a murderous general, as the most attractive general I think. It was a murderous time and to win you had to slaughter 10,000 men. There was no point in prisoners of war really then – they were either enslaved or killed.”

Do you think that the period you cover in the book has left consequences that we still feel today? 

“Today is pregnant with the fear that the West continues to feel about the East with very, very little cause … we hold on to that memory of Hannibal at the gates of Rome.”

A good deal of your work is to do with Islam – do you wish to promote a better appreciation of Islam? Or is it simply something that has fascinated you regardless of political relevance today? 

“Both … there is no point writing a book that hasn’t got a mission or a purpose. Unfortunately, I’ve found in my life that the Islamic world is very badly portrayed, either by tinder dry academics or by rather apologetic, or aggressive Muslims, who then become over-Westernised.”

Have you ever been tempted to convert to Islam? 

“No. The moment you convert – and I am very attracted to much of Islam – you lose the roll of outsider … and you have to decide if you are a Shia or a Sunni, rather than delight in both stories.”

If you were choosing for yourself a figure from that region, and not just from the ancient world, who would it be? 

“I tend in the end, obviously, to like the writers because they can survive and pass into other cultures, rather than just a nationalist leader, and their voice can be heard, and you can have some sort of dialogue. Ibn Khaldun would be one of those. He was a great historian who invented sociology and anthropology in the 14th century. He was born in Tunis; worked for the Moroccan sultans; worked for the Andalucians (the last Islamic emirate in Spain); and retired in Egypt.”

So if you had the chance to erect one statue in a central plaza in a unified North Africa, would it be him? 

“I’m not quite convinced … I’ve seen the destruction of French colonialism in Algeria and that was an aggressive, 200-year military occupation, literally trampling and smashing the toes of any young man of intellect or talent for generation after generation. It’s not enough to simply love poets in that sort of situation. You have to have poets who are prepared to struggle, to fight back with words, and sometimes with things stronger than words.”

Do you know any of the local languages?

“Enough to ask a few basic questions … bread, milk, and to do a little light shopping, and to ask for the old gateway … and to show politeness.”

If you were in a tight corner would you be able to recite any poetry in Arabic? No”, was the cheerful answer, followed by:

“… and I don’t know any swear words in Arabic but I know four or five words of praise. That’s always been my angle, to make them laugh or to praise things.”

Have you had any terrible experiences in North Africa? You say you’ve been arrested hundreds of times.  He assures me with a grin that he has never had any bad experiences. Any issues he tells me have been minor, and caused …

“… only by going to frontier posts. I’ve had my passport detained numerous times by frontier police, customs police, but always in a charming way … I’ve wasted half-days, or days, chatting to policemen, but they treat you well … I’ve never had an unpleasant experience that I haven’t created myself in North Africa.”

I wonder about cameras, whether they might attract unwanted attention.

Do you take your own photographs? I notice the ones in the book are by somebody else. 

“That is a very famous, brilliant photographer called Sir Donald McCullin who I did a joint book with – I did the text to go with his photographs, and so he, as a favour, allowed me to use his images, which is very kind because he is really one of the most eminent photographers alive in Britain now. He is a great war photographer. I did a couple of trips with him into the Algerian Sahara and into the Libyan Sahara looking at forts there. But in neither of those cases were we arrested because we had gone with the full approval of the regime and they knew what we were doing.”

Do you carry cameras yourself?

“I’ve always taken photographs. I’ve got masses of photographs and I’m aware that I’ve probably only taken two good ones … I think I’m just recording gatehouses. I was told by a very good photographer two easy tips: 1) always take pictures in the morning and evening, and 2) never put your subject into the centre of your image – always put it to one side to include as much of the landscape as possible.”

Would you say that you know modern North Africa as well as you know classical North Africa?

“Better possibly, but it’s more difficult to write about that at the moment, and I want to carry on travelling there. The heroes would be easy because they would not offend anyone, but you would have to stop at some moment.”

My final question about North Africa is whether Barnaby Rogerson may be aware of any gaps in his knowledge of the region:

Do you feel that there is any area that you don’t know well enough, that is crucial to your understanding of North Africa? His answer, non-swank as he says, is direct:

“No … I’m afraid you are probably looking at one of the best travelled in terms of landscape … for general moving around I’ve seen an enormous amount.”

I do not doubt him for a second.


My thanks to Barnaby Rogerson for his time. Part II of this interview, on Eland Publishing and travel writing in general, will follow shortly.

This link will take you to my review of In Search of Ancient North Africa – A History in Six Lives.

This will lead you to further information on Barnaby Rogerson.

In Search of Ancient North Africa (A History in Six Lives) by Barnaby Rogerson
with photographs by Don McCullin
First published in 2017 by Haus Publishing Ltd
70 Cadogan Place, London, SW1X 9AH
ISBN: 978-1-909961-54-8
eISBN: 978-1-909961-55-5
£20/$29.95 – Hardback

Eland: keeping the best of travel writing alive

Eland: keeping the best of travel writing alive

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018

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