Doorways to Mali

The carved wooden doors and doorways of a Dogon village are great works of the imagination.

By Leigh Voigt

Mali is in the middle of the bulge of Africa. In the middle of Mali, is Timbuktu; inaccessible, intriguing, fabled. The very word conjures up images of men in blue robes on camels in the desert. Mali is a country as big as South Africa, yet has a population of only 21 million people. In 2008, when we were there, it was 12 million. Mali is completely land-locked, surrounded by Algeria, Niger, Burkino Fasso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Mauritania. The word Mali means hippo.

     Two rivers flow through the country, the Niger and the Senegal. The Niger rises in the highlands of Guinea and flows, seemingly in the wrong direction, for 4200 kilometres eventually being absorbed into the sea off Nigeria. By the time Niger has reached the coast, it has passed through and nourished at least 1700 km of desert and semi-arid Sahel. A dry wind called the Hamatan blows constantly, gathering up 300 million tonnes of dust from the Sahara and depositing it over West Africa, piling sand up against buildings and covering everything in a fine layer. Crime in 2008 was virtually unknown. No alcohol is consumed openly as 90% of the population is Muslim. Everyone had a job. They are mostly self-employed entrepreneurs selling everything from mangoes to bicycle tyres. The markets are colourful, exciting, and noisy.

Mali is a country as big as South Africa

    The family unit is respected. Women are respected most of all; they symbolise peace and harmony and they make the important communal decisions. The remarkable women of Mali, along with child-bearing, have many other responsibilities: wood-collecting, water pumping, millet-pounding, cooking, trading and child rearing. They dress elegantly and with flair, in brilliant colours: emerald, orange, yellow, purple, lime green, shocking pink, viridian, powder blue, royal blue and indigo. They wear these clothes even while hoeing, or cooking food in vast black pots over open fires, or when sitting behind their piles of goods at the marketplace.

    Since the troubles in Mali, in 2012, over 87,000 people have been registered as displaced. Family structures have been broken up. Poverty and illness have increased, and Mali has entered into a humanitarian crisis. Yet, life goes on; babies are born, children grow up, young people fall in love and new houses are built. Old damaged buildings are plastered with mud and repairs are ongoing.    

The word Mali means hippo.

  In 2008 the Northern Branch of the Archaeological Society, of which I have been a member since I was twelve, set out on a tour of Mali. I was on a bus travelling with 26 other people.

     The capital and largest city is Bamako. It is bustle, noise and movement; plastic bags and litter cover the bare ground. In the centre of town is a congested market with a tempting array: sculpture, jewellery, bogolans (cloths), indigo throws, shirts in different colours, hats, live chickens, snake skins, cowrie shells, baboon skulls, wooden masks, Dogon doors and ladders, baskets, daggers, leatherwork and musical instruments.

    From Bamako, we traveled by bus to Segou, home of one of the world’s most famous music festivals.  En route we saw the Shea trees, from which Shea butter is made. At the village of Segou Koro, we paid our respects to the grandson of Coulibaly, the Chief. Here, a giant tortoise is kept in a small enclosure. The tortoise is the official taster; it tries the food before the chief eats it to make sure the food hasn’t been poisoned.

    The food is mostly Capitaine, fish, which is always fresh from the Niger. There is meat, goat, lamb or chicken; couscous, plantains, rice, vegetables and delicious French bread. Another result of French colonisation is that the second language of many Malians is French.  

   the second language of many Malians is French.

    Puppets, story-telling, singing, and music are important to Malians and children participate in the festivities, clapping, chanting and shouting with delight every time the giraffe (two men in a painted costume) chases its victims, who scamper away in all directions. The women dress up in their silks and satins in glorious colours: purples, red, lime green and shocking pink, whilst the men stand tall and imposing in robes of royal blue, vivid green, gold, black and cream.

    At Fanbougou we stopped at a baobab forest and found the ground covered in pottery shards, signalling multiple eras of human presence.

    Stopping at the little village of Bla, we saw that all villages have their own brick-makers, cabinet and plough-makers, and always there is a bearded elder headman draped over a chaise in the shade, wearing his patterned bubu. Many varied and entertaining motifs decorate the flowing garments: figures of butterflies, fish, airplanes, birds, leaves, slip-slops, propellers and – amid the other designs, even portraits of Saddam Hussein and Madonna.

Segou [is the] home of one of the world’s most famous music festivals. 

   Along the road there are traffic police checkpoints at regular intervals, and the driver has to stop, get out and present his permit to carry passengers. In the villages there are many speed prevention humps, demonstrating the Malian respect for pedestrians.

    With the increase in the number of cattle and goats, and the encroachment of the desert, much of the local wildlife has disappeared. There were once 616 different species of birds. One bird is endemic, though, the Mali Firefinch.

Photo by Leigh Voigt

   In September, the vast swamp beyond the village of Kesseedougou, is home to waterlilies, soft reeds, waterbirds and huge herds of cattle. Soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, over-grazing, pollution and an ever-increasing population are concerning.

    Djenne was founded in the 9thcentury, and nothing much has changed. Each doorway frames a smiling woman elegantly dressed in a colourful dress and matching turban, her gold or amber necklace reflecting the sunlight. We took a walk through a labyrinth of narrow alleys, down the centre of which run children, goats, chickens and open sewers.

Each doorway frames a smiling woman elegantly dressed in a colourful dress and matching turban, her gold or amber necklace reflecting the sunlight.

    The hubaloos, holes in the roof used for poo, are situated upstairs on the top floor. The toilet for pee is downstairs. Both latrines pipe their waste straight into the earth, or down to the sewers in the allies. There is a powerful, pervading smell. Still, the happy result is the fertilising of the soil used for the planting of the onion crops. The onions, of course, only augment the smell that permeates the village.

    Djenne was proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 1988 to preserve its architectural integrity. We were shown a building under construction. It conformed to the age-old tradition of simple mud walls with cool rectangular rooms, open yards and Morrocan facades.

Photo by Leigh Voigt

    Castellated mosques are typical of the architecture, and wooden poles protrude as permanent scaffolding for the regular renewal of mud, which is a duty willingly performed by all able-bodied members of the village. The oldest man of the village is called a Hogon. He acts as the spiritual leader. His wives live separately and he is not to be touched in public by anyone, including his wives. He never washes, as, according to traditional beliefs, during the night, a snake is said to lick him clean.

    When a Hogon dies he is succeeded by a group of the village elders. After his initiation, the new Hogon is governed by strict rules. He is forbidden to leave his compound. Millet gruel is sprayed onto the façade of the Hogon’s house as a special offering and gifts of grinding stones are placed at his feet.

The amber used in Malian jewellery that comes from Nigeria, is about 60 million years old

  Malian children seemed happy. Well, they were happier in 2008. They are all the members of extended families. The African saying, It takes a village to bring up a child, is apt. There is a strong community-minded social structure in Mali where each child has a right to education and three meals a day.

    Profound depth of feeling, artistic prowess, humour and charm are evidenced in Malian art, in their conversation and their music. Sadly, the Festival au Desert has had to be postponed yet again, with the following announcement:

Until the music can return to its roots with freedom of expression and dignity, the Festival au Desert has become a Festival in Exile

Photo by Leigh Voigt

    Malian jewellery consists of amber beads, cowrie shell necklaces and elaborate gold ear-rings. Although amber is so often associated with the jewellery worn by the women of Mali, it is sourced from the coastal countries of West and East Africa. To make its jewellery, Mali traded with other parts of Africa. Nowadays, 90% of the world’s amber comes from Russia and the Baltic, its continued preponderance in Mali is a little mysterious.

The amber used in Malian jewellery that comes from Nigeria, is about 60 million years old. The amber is the fossilised resin of the amber pine, not to be confused with ambergris, which is the waxy aromatic substance created in the intestines of the sperm whale. Both amber and ambergris are washed up on beaches, which explains the confusion.

    To find out whether amber is real, rub with a cloth, inducing static which attracts bits of torn paper, or make a solution of 2.5 tablespoons salt with one cup of water, and if it floats, it’s amber, not plastic.

… fifty camels set out from Timbuktu every week for the month-long round trip. Each camel carries four slabs of the white-gold

    Salt caravans from the Taoudenni mines 720 kms to the north of Mali still (as at 2008) arrive in Timbuktu, as they have for a thousand years. Today most salt travels by truck, caravans of up to fifty camels set out from Timbuktu every week for the month-long round trip. Each camel carries four slabs of the white-gold of the Sahara, so-called because centuries ago salt was literally worth its weight in gold. Today a 20kg slab would fetch around $12.00 (price in 2008).

Photo by Leigh Voigt

    In the river port of Mopti, fish of all shapes and sizes are sorted and dried, then sold from woven baskets in the market of the cobbled quay. It reeks of fish, cinnamon, chillies, people and Mopti’s sewers. Mopti is not for the feint-hearted, especially when it is 40°C in the shade, and the more delicate of our archeological aficionados on the bus suffered from stomach upsets. Today, Mopti is a no-go zone, as the infiltrators from the north make sporadic attacks; armed groups of Islamist militants. There are local rivalries and sporadic communal violence, as well as issues such as lawlessness and banditry.

    At Ounjougoua a team of archaeologists from the University of Geneva excavated fragments of pottery dating back 11,400 years, older than the ancient ceramics of the Middle East. Only in East Asia and China has pottery of the same age been found.

    The Dogon tribe of the Bandiagara Region in Mali is one of the most interesting tribes of the world. They are a peaceful resourceful group of people whose presence was noted in the 15th Century. Through the years, constant threats from other tribes and historical pressures forced them to build their homes out of mud high up cliff faces, safe from marauding tribes. In this way they were able to retain their religious and cultural beliefs. They are an authentic example of how people can live in harmony with nature and the environment.

Photo by Leigh Voigt

        The Bandiagara plateau is composed of eroded rock, windblown and sandblasted into wonderful abstract shapes. Our first introduction to the Dogon cliff-dwellers was a pre-sunrise walk through a natural tunnel at the end. A small band of children chanted soulfully. chant, their, strong voices resonating and echoing through to the hills beyond.

The tunnel opens out to reveal a hillside covered with baobabs, and a cliff-face at the bottom of which are the almost inaccessible great houses made from dried mud, and the tombs and granaries of the ochre skinned Tellem tribe.

Photo by Leigh Voigt

    In the centre of each Dogon village is a Toguna, a shelter reserved for men, where the elders hold meetings to discuss the administration, politics and the day-to-day running of the affairs of the local area.

Sometimes … the doorways are edged in viridian, a sharp and perfect contrast to the natural wall colouring.

    The carved wooden doors and doorways of a Dogon village are great works of the imagination. They often portray ancestral figures who protect the people of the village and their families. Each door has its own character and is the expression of the owner’s character. Each door has the patina of continuous occupation. Sometimes, as in a few other villages throughout Africa, the doorways are edged in viridian, a sharp and perfect contrast to the natural wall colouring.

Photo by Leigh Voigt

    The lock or door handles have simple mechanisms to keep the door from swinging open in the wind. They are decorated with symbols and figures, sometimes simple and sometimes elaborate: there are carvings of stylised animals and geometric patterns. The Dogon doors are flanked by mud walls, with soft natural earthy colours. Edges are always rounded and gently curved.

    Highly prized by collectors, Dogon artifacts are looted. They have been disappearing from their rightful homes and are sold at huge prices in the curio shops of upmarket European and US boulevards. Wealthy South Africans also buy them up and sell them on.

Photo by Leigh Voigt

   When I think of Mali, I also think of Mali’s trees, particularly the Baobab; those tortured, pollarded, maimed, colonised, infiltrated and abused behemoths of the plateaus and riverbanks. It is not unusual to see half the tree denuded of its younger shoots in the upper half and a metre of bark stripped from the trunk. The fibres of the inner bark are strong and durable, and make rope, roof-coverings, baskets and fishing nets. Fortunately, the bark of Adansonia digitata regenerates and within a few years has recovered, leaving only a layer of ridges, scars on its elephantine body. Malians know not to take too much from the tree, keeping it alive, only just, so as to guarantee its usefulness for future generations.

Photo by Leigh Voigt

To see a Malian baobab, chopped, scraped and hacked to within an inch of its life, and to see that nearly all of them survive. The Malian ability to live in harmony with nature can give is hope that nature and people can work together in harmony.  

Photo by Joe de Beer

Leigh Voigt is a South African artist, essentially a watercolourist, best known for her natural history subjects, never more beautifully depicted than in Lulu Phezulu, Leigh Voigt’s African Album, published in 1999, which won the Book Data’s South African Booksellers Book of the Year award.

    The highly acclaimed book The Abundant Herds documenting the Nguni Cattle of Southern Africa was published in 2004. Voigt was invited to work closely with experts Marguerite Poland and David Hammond-Tooke, and spent nine years researching her subject. During this time she painted hundreds of watercolours and about eighty large oil paintings to illustrate this important southern African publication.

    Her fascination and love of trees led her to hold three solo exhibitions of tree paintings: Recollections of a Dendrogenealogist, 2010, with the accent on familial connections; The Boscias of Tswalu, the Musomorphology of Boscia albitrunca, 2015, reflecting her passion for wide open spaces and music; and the Silent Spectators of History, which was held at the Everard Read Gallery in London in 2018. All these tree paintings were oil on canvas.

    Leigh is married to the artist Harold Voigt, about whom she produced a book, Harold Voigt, The Poetry of Sight, written by Cyril Coetzee. It was published in 2006.

  It was during this time that she also undertook to finish and publish her mother, Barbara Jeppe’s book, the Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa, which had been 45 years in the making. This done, she and the author, Graham Duncan, felt that botanists and plants lovers would need a more useful field edition and in 2021, the Field Guide to the Amaryllis Family was published by her own company, Galley Press.

The Magic of Madagascar

Wishing you a rewarding and sublime journey!

By Abhay K.

Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island; after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo. Madagascar is in the western Indian Ocean. Some consider Madagascar to be the Earth’s eighth continent because it has such enormous biodiversity. 

Photo by Abhay K.

Geologically, Madagascar broke away from Gondwanaland with the rest of the world’s continents alongside Africa 167 million years ago. 65 million years ago it broke off from the Indian tectonic plate and it has been isolated ever since. 

Photo by Abhay K.

Madagascar has a diverse landscape. There are narrow plains in the east, a chain of mountains in the centre and wide plains in the west.  Its variations in topography mean it has a variety of climatic regions. This has lead to the evolution of many unique species of plant and animal.

Photo by Abhay K.

The first humans probably arrived in Madagascar in boats from Borneo about 2,000 years ago. Later, migrants reached Madagascar from East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, India and elsewhere. As a result, Madagascar has population made up of 18 different ethnic groups.

An ancient Indian graveyard in Madagascar, photo by Abhay K.

Members of all these ethnic groups speak Malagasy, with some regional variations. Malagasy is a rich language full of strong images, metaphors and proverbs. Most of them originate from Indonesian languages, but some words come into Malagasy from Kiswahili, Arabic and Sanskrit.

Photo by Abhay K.

Madagascar is a global biodiversity hotspot. Its unique flora and fauna are conserved in a network of national parks and protected areas consisting of over 120 places on the island.

Madagascar has made me a haijin

Madagascar has about 13,000 species of flowering plants out of which 89% are native to the island. Madagascar is also the homeland of the baobab tree. Out of the eight species of baobabs found worldwide, six are exclusive to Madagascar.

Photo by Abhay K.
Photo by Abhay K.
Photo by Abhay K.

There are over 150,000 species of invertebrates, including insects, centipedes, spiders crabs, mollusks and leeches. Incredibly, Madagascar also has 300 species of butterflies out of which 211 are native to Madagascar. There are 283 species of birds. 51% of these are only found on the island. Madagascar also has over 110 species of lemurs, from the pygmy mouse lemur weighing only 25 grams, to the Indri Indri, the largest surviving lemur only found here.

Photo by Abhay K.
Photo by Abhay K.

Madagascar has made me a haijin. When I arrived in Madagascar in March 2019, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would start writing haiku. I began with usual length poems but soon felt that I was not able to capture and express the multiple layers of enlightenment I felt taking place within me as I woke up to birdsong, and looked at: mynahs, hoopoes, black Vasa parrots, red fodies, yellow wagtails, green geckos, colour changing chameleons, butterflies and dragonflies of all possible colours.

Bees sucked nectar from flowers and made beehives, while I was upside down on the grass in a yogic headstand pose, gazing at the sky.

Photo by Abhay K.

Long poems were inadequate to express the illumination I felt while travelling across Madagascar listening to the calls of the Indri-Indri bird (critically endangered), or watching silky Sifakas dance, or seeing turtles swimming freely in the emerald Malagasy sea, or watching the sun set through the alley of baobabs.

watching the sun set through the alley of baobabs.

I decided instead to wander around this new continent like a fakir and follow the tradition of Basho, Buson and Issa. As I did so it was as if I came to another island and another time and space.

Photo by Abhay K.

I had a chance meeting with Gabriel Rosenstock in Wardha, India in 2013 at a poetry festival and received from him a copy of The Naked Octopus: Erotic Haiku in English. On another occasion, Robert Hass sent me a signed copy of The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa from Robert Hass in Washington in 2018. I started reading these books only after arriving in Madagascar and found the short Haiku form to be the perfect medium to help me capture Madagascar’s exquisite and unparalleled natural beauty.

Photo by Abhay K.

These are my very first haiku and I have a steep learning curve ahead of me. Nevertheless, I hope you will experience the luminosity of the island which I am experiencing firsthand as you read this. I try to conjure up that beauty with these images.

a purple shower
of Jacaranda flowers
who needs a red carpet?

sea of innocence
exuding amber light
lemur’s eyes

an ascetic meditating
turned upside down
the baobab tree

giant eggs in drawing rooms
where have all
the elephant birds gone?

below a baobab
what a blessing!

how much
green gecko loves
the bright winter sun

dusk now
radiated tortoise
still grazing

calling out
to walk barefoot
the tsingy of Bemaraha

satanic leaf-tailed gecko
pressed against a tree
doubt you can find it

who could say
they’re not aliens
painted mantellas

flames of yellow
lighting up Ranomafana
moon moths

singing, flying, mating
they spend their days
Vasa parrots

Abhay K. in Madagascar

Abhay K. is the author of nine poetry collections including: The Alphabets of Latin America (Bloomsbury India, 2020). He is the editor of many poetry collections including The Book of Bihari Literature (Harper Collins, 2022), The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems, CAPITALS, New Brazilian Poems and The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems.

Abhay’s poems have appeared in over 100 literary magazines including Poetry Salzburg Review and Asia Literary Review, among others. Abhay’s poem Earth Anthem has been translated into over 140 languages. He received the SAARC Literary Award 2013 and was invited to record his poems at the Library of Congress in 2018.

Abhay’s forthcoming book length poem is titled Monsoon. His translations of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta (Bloomsbury India, 2021) and Ritusamhara (Bloomsbury India, 2021) from Sanskrit, won the KLF Poetry Book of the Year Award for 2020-21.

Abhay’s most recent book is called The Magic of Madagascar. It is published in English and French by Éditions L’Harmattan, Paris, 2021

The cover of Abhay K.’s book, The Magic of Madagascar

Photo by Abhay K.

Extracts from Visions in the Rock*

A visit to Al ‘Ula and the tombs of the Nabateans

Photo-essay: a lightning trip to Meda’in Saleh

By Phil Hall

Next day, at work, Dunstan had a proposal. He wanted to go on a road trip to Meda’in Saleh. Quickly, Peter invited me to go along too.

‘Meda’in Saleh means the City of Saleh.’

‘Giants built it’ said Karim.



‘The doors are much too big for normal people.’

I decided to  ignore him.

‘Why is it called Meda’in Saleh?’ I asked Mahmoud.

‘Saleh, a prophet who was here in Arabia long before the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, commanded the people in that place to abandon their false idols and follow Allah. These people were called: ‘The ones who worshipped the Gods they made themselves.’ When they refused, he made a living camel appear from the rock, but they still would not believe in Allah, so he cursed them. The town where they lived is named after Saleh.’

We needed special passes to get to Saleh’s town. We hired a big GMC the following weekend and set off.

The inspiration behind the lightning visit, photo Phil Hall (2015)

In the front Dunstan and Peter talked about the hypocrisy of religion, the stupidity of religious people, and the wonders of science. This lasted for about 40 minutes until I decided to break in.

‘Religion doesn’t not oppose science. It’s a way of understanding our lived experience. If I were a poet you wouldn’t take me to task because I wasn’t peer reviewed. Instead, you would examine your feelings concerning the poem. Whether it moved you or not. Whether it felt authentic. It’s originality and expressiveness’

‘And yet religion makes such strong claims regarding the real world.’ Dunstan said. 

Peter nodded.

‘The only real world you will ever see or feel or know is the one you experience. I replied, and so much of that is subjective and emotional. We use religion, among other things, to understand our lives and give them meaning. It’s essential.’ Neither Peter, nor Dunstan agreed. Dunstan looked irritated.

‘By midnight we were in Riyadh and I was driving in a funk: moving through the traffic like a turtle through a school of tuna. Cars overtook us on both sides at high speeds, weaving and changing lanes. I cruised along steadily, looking straight ahead.

Taking a break after six hours of driving, photo Phil Hall (2015)

After Riyadh I was exhausted. Peter and Dunstan finished the night drive without my help. Dawn was breaking when I woke up. The desert all around us. By early morning the dunes had given gave way to a level plain strewn with grey rock. And then, after another hour, a few orange and yellow sandstone outcrops appeared. These grew larger and larger until they were as high as cliffs, and by the time we felt as if we were driving through a canyon, we were at the hotel.

Camels are always a danger to cars and the other way around, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Al Aula has a sandstone escarpment on either side. From the top of the southern escarpment, the valley of Al Aula looks like a broad strip of green. It follows the path of an underground river. The dramatic rock formations continue on to the northern horizon until they reach Petra, in Jordon. Al Aula has enough water to grow all its own vegetables and cereal crops.

The hotel was quite empty. The plan was to spend the whole day looking at the ruins, to sleep there the  night, and then go back to the Eastern Province the following morning.

Our guide, Ahmed Jaber, came for breakfast: he was a handsome man in his early 30s. He told us he was about to get married after two unsuccessful arrangements by his family. The first time she liked me and I didn’t like her. The second time I liked her and she didn’t like me. I am 33 now. I thought I would never get married, but then I decided to pay for a dowry for beautiful Pakistani Muslim wife. Her family agreed. She agreed. Now, I am looking forward to being a husband and a father.

Ahmed had been working with the archaeologists. They had discovered a small city near the tombs and were excavating it. He talked about it. They are digging up a house at the moment. He said. They have found a body. ‘It’s a woman, they think’.

‘What about Saleh and the Camel?’

Pah! This is not science. Science shows us what was really here. People tell stories, but they aren’t always true.’

Our official guide, Ahmed, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Heading towards the Nabatean tombs, photo Phil Hall (2015)

The beautiful desert Qaff tree, photo Phil Hall (2015)

The tombs had a resinous, musky smell which came from gummy traces on the walls – the cocoons of rock beetles. These had been brushed off when the tombs were opened.

The rock everywhere was eroded by the wind into protruding, curving shapes. They were so complex that with the changing light and shifting shadows, you could imagine you saw many things in them. You could project your imagination onto the rock and see different creatures. Even camels. The Nabateans had seen a great bird with a human head in the rock and they carved what they saw above many of the tomb entrances.

Nabatean tombs, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The interplay between geometrical carvings and natural rock is mesmerising, photo Phil Hall (2015)
There are 175 tombs and city to unearth, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Some plants can withstand desert conditions, photo Phil Hall (2015)
Some of the tombs were in better condition, photo Phil Hall (2015)

The lines of the entrances were cleanly geometric. But around them, the rock was unworked, as if its natural form were precious. Inside, the tombs were hollowed out into caves. There were chisel marks everywhere. There were also body sized holes in each wall. Often one cavity was positioned right above another – like the bunks on a train travelling to another world. The rectangular holes in the floor were for servants. Peter measured himself out next to one of the cavities in the wall, but he was too long for it.

The Nabateans carved symbols of their gods above the tombs

A winged god of the air, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Nabatean script was subject to many influences, photo Phil Hall (2015)

The superfine desert sand, photo Phil Hall (2015)

He wouldn’t have fit, photo Phil Hall (2015)

‘They worshiped like this, said Ahmed Jaber. First, they went to the water to wash and then they prayed to their Gods here. He spread his arms and legs against the wall, as if getting ready for a police search. And then they came here. He showed us the large square room, cut out of the rock on our right.

It is an odd feeling being inside a tomb, photo Phil Hall (2015)
Looking out of the tombs, photo Phil Hall (2015)
It was an uncomfortable feeling and there was a smell of resin, photo Phil Hall (2015)

They spoke and wrote a mixture of languages, said Ahmed Jaber. The writing you see above looks like Arabic, but it’s not Arabic. It’s a combination of Greek, Aramaic and the local dialect.

After visiting many tombs, we went to the main temple. This was inside a big crevice between two huge stone hillocks. They had carved a channel for the water between the stone hills. It ran through here, Ahmed Jaber said, and when it rained a lot, the flow was fierce.’

Ahmed at the entrance, photo Phil Hall (2015)
All 175 tombs were hand carved, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Like the Nabateans themselves, I suddenly saw a vision of the rock.

‘In a desert, the most important thing is fertility and fertility comes from liquid and water. The runnel between the rock lead to a crevice. The hillocks were round and feminine. These are female shapes. The room must be analogous to the womb, a place of conception and nurturing. They must have adored a fertility goddess here.’ It made sense. 

When I said this, Ahmed Jaber laughed nervously. 

Camels in the rock, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The scale of the tombs was impressive, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The shapes eroded by the wind, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The earliest tombs took advantage of natural holes in the rock formed by erosion , photo Phil Hall (2015)
There were so many forms hidden in the rock, photo Phil Hall (2015)
Something in the landscape imprints itself on visitors. Can you see the faces? Photo Phil Hall (2015)
The prophet Saleh is supposed to have made a living camel emerge from the rock, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Ahmed continued. ‘The Romans destroyed Nabatean civilisation’ he said. ‘They came as far as Al Aula in search of Frankincense. They killed and dispersed the people in the first century AD.’

‘Can you see the water channel?’ he asked. We couldn’t. You see that thin curving line coming down the rock. That’s a water channel. It’s disguised as a natural feature.’ Now that he had carefully pointed it out, we could see it.

‘They collected the water whenever it rained and streamed it into secret aquifers cut out of the rock. They hid their water from everyone.

We climbed to the top of the sandstone hills on steps which had been cut ergonomically into the sides of them – to take in the view.

The magnificence of the landscape, photo Phil Hall (2015)
Strange flowing forms in gold, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The adventurer contemplates the tombs, photo Phil Hall (2015)

I looked up the old Gods of the Nabateans. There were three important female ones: A Young woman, a middle-aged woman and an older woman. The most important was the youngest: Alia. The Kabbah, before it was rededicated, had been the place where they worshipped Alia, the Goddess of fertility. Perhaps the temple in Al Aula had been hers.

I opened the book my colleague had given me and turned to the pages where it described how Mohammed has all the idols in Mecca destroyed.

‘As he was leaving, the prophet, peace be upon him, stopped and called to one of his companions.’

“Go back! There is one more idol that needs to be destroyed!”

‘The companion set out for Mecca again.

‘But after a day or so he came back.

“What happened?’” Asked Mohammed. “Why did you come back early?”

‘On the way back I saw a beautiful Ethiopian woman who came towards me.’

‘What did you do?’

‘I cut her in two with my sword.’

“Good’ said Mohammed, you have destroyed the last idol.”

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

  • Text extracted from a story published originally in The London Magazine in 2015

Anyone Goes to Venice

By Phil Hall

Venice is one of the greatest sea cities. In the 5th century the Venetians rescued their shard of late Roman life from the Huns and Lombards by building way out in the Venetian lagoon on stilts. The city grew as a trading port. It became powerful and rich and Venetians built great galleys to trade along the Dalmatian coast with Byzantium.

Gustave Moreau’s painting, Venice (1885)

Venice is spectacular and 30 million people visit it every year – fewer this year of the pandemic.

But for professional, upper class travellers like Wilfred Thesiger ordinary people are not welcome in places like Venice, or the Empty Quarter.

To people like Thesiger we are locusts; swarming ‘in and out of planes‘.

The ordinary traveller has ruined Venice for the elite traveller. Admittedly, Thesiger was an odd amalgam. He was only happy when journeying for long distances through wild, hot countryside in the company of lithesome boys.

Wilfred Thesiger, photograph Eamonn McCabe

I’ve seen locusts in Africa. I grew up in Kenya and Tanzania; their wings rustle, their black eyes stare. They eat quickly and noisily, and while they eat their wings shiver.

There was always the possibility of a long stiletto through the ribcage in the dark in response to serious offence.

For the cognoscenti, coiled away in in the corners of their cool dark palazzos in the Venetian lagoon we are all ‘oiks’ and ‘plebs’ anyway no matter what we do. We live by their sufferance. They are the custodians of life’s treasures. Of all high culture.

This is not your town. Ramble on by, this is not your countryside, this is not your world, this is not your music or your food or your scene. Shuffle along. Just don’t finger the goods. You wouldn’t be able to afford them anyway. You are only here on sufferance.

Old Venetian music and lute, photograph Phil Hall

Having said that, my parents bought a share of a small nature reserve. It used to be called ‘Mamba Valley’ before the name was changed. After both parents died, one of the artists who lived at the top of the next hill was very concerned about who might take over the property.

You don’t understand, he said. This is an elitist project.

Dangling in sight of some of the people living in the cholera infested rookeries of London, were private parks where the children of the poor were never allowed to play.

The actions of the elite sometimes preserve beauty: the Elgin marbles, are an example. Give them back to Greece and who knows what Greek hoi poli will do with them. Better keep them here.

Peggy Guggenheim didn’t waste her money on vaccinating small children against capitalism like Bill Gates, she spent it on great art.

God bless you, Milady.

It is thanks to elitist projects that we have the great parks of London, the British Museum, and the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice. Are we grateful? Do we behave with decorum? Not at all.

In summer, people strip off their T-shirts and blouses and stretch out on towels in St James’s Park. We don’t examine and reflect when we look at artefacts from Egypt, we merely gawp. It’s a mystery to us. For the educated, wealthy elite, ordinary people ruin high art and desecrate beauty with their presence.

In the past only the monied people doing the grand tour could visit Venice. Not now. Now almost anyone can go. Millions of anyones.

To enjoy Venice as an ordinary human being you must be a muscular tourist. You must be able to withstand sustained physical discomfort.

Ice cream parlour in Venice, photograph Phil Hall

Near the Rialto bridge a girl, about 5, pipes up, as she and her mother walk hand-in-hand.

She says, in French:

Mother, don’t you think it would be a splendid idea to have an ice cream?

I would have been unable to resist. If she had been my daughter I would have replied.

Why my dearest, of course it would. Thank you so much for your suggestion, you have such excellent ideas.

And we would have paused for 30 minutes to eat an ice cream.

But her mother said.


And they carried on with their march.

On our last day in Venice I dragged a suitcase all the way across the island. According to my wife it was essential that we search for a leather bag for my youngest daughter. It took us all afternoon, plodding about with the rattling weight of a small heavy suitcase dragging behind me. My wife promised to deposit my efforts into the running account of my good deeds and subtract from the inventory of my failings.

a pasticceria in Venice, photograph Phil Hall

But I was tired. In the end, trailing behind her I got lost. I went into a little shop to ask for directions.

The shop assistant was in conversation with her stocky, short-sleeved Venetian boyfriend. Even so, generously, she looked up and interrupted her conversation in order to give me directions. I thanked her and left quickly, closing the door behind me. Unfortunately, the door slammed.

I looked back the way I had come to see if my wife was there. As I turned back I saw the stocky young Venetian storm out of the shop. He was looking for me. I was an ill-mannered tourist who had slammed his girlfriend’s shop door.

So, I walked towards him, looking at his back and when he turned round I smiled.

For the Venetians, visitors move in slow motion.

In the old days Londoners stood on the correct side of the escalator. You could tell who was new to the city, or a tourist. We never touched them as we swept by, never brushed them as we dodged past on the way to university or work.

Better to share the wealth a little, spread it around and to try to get on with everybody. It’s a lesson the rich who use public thoroughfares in other cities should learn.

Nowadays, London is not quite as well-oiled. We play chicken instead. People are worse at following the rules and knock into each other accidentally on purpose. London can be a bad-tempered place. It’s full to the brim and its transport infrastructure can’t cope.

Venetian waterways, photograph Phil Hall

The Venetians know their way about the gangways of their old ship. They avoid the main passageways and when they do have to cross them they do so artfully and at speed. A women actually ducked under my arm. A man twirled around me in an instant and spun off at an angle into a side street. Venetians are like spider monkeys and Venice is their rainforest.

Anyone who wants to study arcologies should study the history of Venice. The people who crewed Venice and its captains all brushed shoulders in the narrow streets. There was always the possibility of a long stiletto through the ribcage in the dark in response to serious offence. Better to share the wealth a little, spread it around and to try to get on with everybody. It’s a lesson the rich who use public thoroughfares in other cities should learn.

Venise, illustre par Jiro Taniguchi, 2014 : vues du marche du Rialto.

Many Japanese who visit Venice do so inspired by a beautiful anime series written by Jirô Tanaguchi. Oddly, to other Japanese visitors Venice is a reminder of our watery future, not our past. The other anime series that attracts visitors to Venice is set on a waterlogged planet called ‘New Venice’, a Venice from a flooded future.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

Want to meet the Dalai Lama? Don’t bother.

Adam with his students

By Adam Lickley

2017 did not end well for me. I was ‘let go’ from my job, my apartment was flooded, and I spent an uncomfortable night in hospital having my appendix removed. Life was on hold for a while, but within 2 short months, post-op boredom set in and I felt the urge once more to work. Trouble was, nothing appealed to me in the 9 to 5 world.

However, provided inspiration by means of an English Teaching job with a twist.  It was nestled discretely within the usual adverts; I stumbled upon something rather appealing.

“Work in McLeodganj for Tibet Charity teaching English to Buddhist Monks in the foothills of the Himalayas, home to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.”

I thought it was high time I gave back. You know, do some ‘angel work’ – work for charity.

It seemed like prayers were being answered and this was the kind of blast I was looking for. You see, I spent the previous 7 years working for a giant Saudi Arabian oil company and I thought it was high time I gave back. You know, do some ‘angel work’ – work for charity.

No sooner was I accepted than I was bound for McLeodganj, India, home to the Dalai Lama.


When I arrived I was housed in a small studio flat attached to the school and soon began teaching Buddhist monks and nuns from as far afield as Laos, Thailand, Tibet and Bhutan.

Tibet Charity is located at the bottom of a terrifyingly steep hill, which I nicknamed Devil’s Hill, for its unforgiving length, its steepness and its unholy curvature. As promised in the advert, McLeodganj was indeed nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas and the view from my apartment was quite spectacular.  The mythical Himalayas were to the west of my veranda and they always inspired me with awe and wonder; even when the heavens opened. It was rainy season after all.

McLeodganj is a small, culturally diverse, rich yet unlikely town.  First and second-generation Tibetan refugees and devoted followers of the Dalai Lama who fled Tibet on foot have made their temporary homes permanent in McLeodganj.

But by far the most dominant or predominant travellers are Israelis. They are ubiquitous; young, post-military service and on what’s they fondly refer to as ‘The Granola Trail’.

Many of my students told me their heart-stopping accounts of how they risked life and limb escaping from the Chinese. Shocking accounts were told to me time and again. The only means of escape from Tibet is by crossing deadly snow-covered mountain passes by night in order to prevent detection by the Chinese authorities.


But if they make it over the border into Nepal, refugees can begin a new life away from the oppressive regime in Chinese occupied Tibet. For my fortunate students, the risk had paid off.

Most small-scale trade in McLeodganj is dominated by Indian Kashmiris. They bring their own Islamic culture to the town and have set up shop to benefit from both the local and international tourist trade. Catering to the tourists means selling jewellery, healing crystals, and mala beads and hand embroidered Kashmiri rugs and shawls. All perennial favourites.

Living alongside these permanent residents are the tourists or travellers who fall into different sub categories; weekend trippers are mostly from Indian Punjab which is only a few hours away by car or coach.

But by far the most dominant or predominant travellers are Israelis. They are ubiquitous; young, post-military service and on what’s they fondly refer to as ‘The Granola Trail’.  They are easy to spot in their loose-fitting hippy clothes and sandals. They wear long straggly hair and are always inked to the max. They move together in small or large gangs and have pretty much laid claim to Upper Bhagsu which is a tiny hillside settlement just above McLeodganj.


Finally, you have the local Hindu population who tend to own a few of the restaurants and drive the local taxis, among other things.

As luck would have it, whilst I was in McLeodganj, the Dalai Lama was in residence at his palace, taking a short break from his globe-trotting lecture tours.

Swarms of Buddhist monks snaked up Devil’s Hill, illuminating the dull concrete road with their robes of burnt orange and deep maroon.

As a gesture to the local Tibetan youth, the Dalai Lama had decided to organize 3 days of lectures in The Dalai Lama Temple whilst I was there. The doors were open to not only the local Tibetan youth, but also to other Buddhists or simply the curious from other faiths, enthusiastic to see him in person. A quick registration at a local government office gave me the name badge I needed and I was all set to meet His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

On the day, I was quick to rise; eager and ready to drink in the wisdom of a man who is considered by some to be the most spiritually influential person alive.

But as I drank coffee on my balcony, it was clear I was not the only person in this remote hilltop settlement who had come from far away for this once in a lifetime opportunity. Swarms of Buddhist monks snaked up Devil’s Hill, illuminating the dull concrete road with their robes of burnt orange and deep maroon.

Following closely behind came a steady stream of nuns, all dutifully following and showing no signs of tiredness. I saw hundreds of monks and nuns climbing that hill. And it was spellbinding.

Once at the temple gates, tight security measures were obvious. You could be forgiven for calling it call it a high security temple. It’s something that we are perhaps used to nowadays – security round a temple. Our ancestors would no doubt have shuddered at the sight.

I grudgingly left behind my cigarettes and lighter with security and made my way to a zone designated for foreigners. Then I squeezed myself between a young Italian man and an Israeli woman. Everyone assembled was soon served Tibetan tea and bread.

I can assure you, Tibetan tea is not for the faint of heart. The unlikely ingredients are tea, yak butter, salt and hot water. And yes, it tastes as foul as it sounds, perhaps even more.

I can assure you, Tibetan tea is not for the faint of heart. The unlikely ingredients are tea, yak butter, salt and hot water. And yes, it tastes as foul as it sounds, perhaps even more. I did recognise the kindness of the gesture, but how welcome would an espresso coffee have been at 7 am? Oh, the joys of cultural encounters.

His Holiness did not keep the assembled throng waiting for long and despite the hordes, I managed to get a quick glance at the star we had all come to see.

He was led by an army of protection officers. We the onlookers were content to simply stand and admire. The excitement was real. The crowd fell into a reverie and a feeling of incredulous joy gushed out towards His Holiness. I too was caught up in the wave of emotion that washed around the temple.

The lecture began. The foreigners had been given the cheap seats, so to speak. You know, those half price theatre tickets where the only thing standing between you and the stage is a goddamn concrete pillar?

So, there was I, squeezed by perfect strangers every which way I looked, sitting slumped on an intolerably cold concrete floor and about a mile from the main action.

There was chattering all around from every language imaginable, but that just quickly turned the thoughts in my brain into some kind of rare undrinkable soup. I remembered to tune into my personal radio that we were recommended to buy in order to benefit from the direct translation. The Dalai Lama spoke, the teachings fed back with a delay.

There was chattering all around from every language imaginable, but that just quickly turned the thoughts in my brain into some kind of rare undrinkable soup.

It wasn’t long before my attention turned from the lecture to the numbness seeping into my entire body and the pain in my coccyx. All of a sudden the idea of merely surviving this physical torment for an hour, seemed like an epic victory.

The end of the hour struck and I skulked off, sheepishly avoiding the flagging carcasses of my fellows as best I could, tiptoeing through the crowd that littered the temple.  I headed straight to security, reclaimed my cigarettes and lighter, and walked down Devil’s Hill.

I had reclaimed the use of my body and victoriously enjoyed every nicotine hit.

At home, I’m comforted by modern technology; a small tablet and a fast Wi-Fi connexion. I’m on my bed at the moment watching one of the Dalai Lama’s numerous lectures, quilt tossed around me. In my left hand is a cup of English tea, and in my right hand a Scottish shortbread biscuit. I’m propped up by a Hungarian goose pillow. So, if this is the fast track to enlightenment, I’m staying right where I am.



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