Friday, November 2, 2007

Tahir Shah - In Search of King Solomon's Mines (2002)

Having recently become interested in Ethiopian history, but at the same time doing a lot of other heavyweight reading, I thought that Shah's ISOKSM, a travel book which recounts Shah's attempts to track down the legendary, eponymous mines, might be a good place to start. I've looked at some of Shah's other travel books with interest, but this is the first I've taken the time to read. However, I wasn't overly impressed.

In any travel book, the personality of the author is of huge importance, and I found Shah quite irritating. His attitude to the local people was patronising and insensitive, which wasn't as amusing as he seemed to find it - and, after some interesting history in the first part of the book, this aspect lapsed and we were left in a culturally interesting but ahistorical present (with the exception of the white colonialist explorers in whose footsteps Shah follows, and whom he seems to hold up as models to some extent). Ethiopian religio-mythology is fascinating: Solomon is said to have been visited by the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia, according to the story), who returned bearing his child - from this ancestor, the royal line (the final ruler was Haile Selassie I, deposed in 1974 by a Marxist-influenced junta) claim descent. Speaking of Selassie, there are some interesting Ethiopian perspectives on Rastafari which don't often get a hearing; and a poignant scene in the abandoned village of the falasha, Ethiopian Jews who were ultimately evacuated to Israel; though I would've liked more on the contemporary impact of the brutal Italian invasion and occupation of the 1930s.

Essentially, that's my complaint - while there is a great deal of colourful description and Shah puts himself into serious danger and hardship, any depth of understanding of the circumstances, while present, is shallow - which is, perhaps, implicit in any quest for gold, even if it's not for personal profit. Meanwhile, this deficiency is only exacerbated by his self-congratulatory neo-colonialist leanings. So, while there's definitely some interesting material here, and contemporary travel works on Ethiopia aren't exactly thick on the ground, next time I might reach for something a little weightier.

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