Smara: The Forbidden City

Book Card  -  Volume 4  -  Book Review Number 1  -  Mon, Feb 6, 1989 5:19 AM

TITLE: Smara: The Forbidden City
AUTHOR: Michel Vieuchange
PUBLISHER: The Ecco Press

In 1930 there were still white spots on the map, regions as yet unexplored by civilized man. One of these lay in southern Morocco where ferocious Moorish nomads murdered or kidnapped any European who tried to penetrate beyond the French zone. At the center of this hostile region was the ruins of a town called "Smara."

A romantic young Frenchman named Michel Vieuchange resolved to enter the desert and come away with pictures of the forbidden city. It became for him a kind of holy quest and the ultimate test of everything he believed in. After incredible hardships and suffering, he finally achieved his goal and came out again only to die of dysentery in his brother's arms. This book is his actual journal, much of it written from the back of a camel.

Vieuchange had two enemies to overcome: Man and Nature. The life of the Moorish nomads was nasty, brutish, and short, and as a result treachery and extortion were the rule. Again and again, Vieuchange had to trust his very life to a small band of men who were constantly plotting against him and against each other. To avoid capture he went disguised as a Berber woman and was later stuffed into baskets and hidden in lice ridden cellars.

The people he describes from behind his veil are fascinating. What struck me most was the constant level of fear and the tendency to live entirely in the present moment. The men of this desert reminded me of the wild animals I see from my window here at Canyon Creek: constantly on guard and full of themselves at every moment. The eyes of wild animals seem to burn because they look at you with their whole being. Everything is always at stake.

But of the two enemies, Nature was the more formidable. The Moroccan desert was brutal even for the experienced sheiks. Vieuchange's description was of a backpacking trip to Hell, complete with hunger, thirst, sickness, and especially, foot problems. Like all back-packers, he spent much of his time looking forward to a hot bath and all the other rewards of civilization, little realizing that these would be his final words.

Even so, Michel Vieuchange died well, in the act of achieving a great and difficult thing. In his room back in Paris he hung a quote on the wall by Leonardo da Vinci:

"As a day well spent gives a joy to sleep, So a life well used gives a joy to death."

Although there is certainly nothing glorious about dysentery and although his journey was indeed "A ghastly pilgrimage to nowhere," I am not yet so old that I forget the desire for adventure and the importance of proving oneself against the world. I would add, however, that like a bitter rain storm, this book is best experienced from the comfort of a warm bed.