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Nomadic Author to Testify on Nantucket

May 11, 2018 by Michael Schulder
Anna Badkhen C Kael Alford

For two decades, Anna Badkhen has wandered what we used to call the Third World, and now call the Global South, “documenting the world’s iniquities.” To what end, I ask her? Badkhen cites for me the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert:

you were saved not in order to live

you have little time

you must give testimony.

“This,” says Badkhen, “is what I try to do.”

And so, for her book Walking With Abel: Journeys With the Nomads of The African Savannah, Anna Badkhen chose to spend a year in the west African nation of Mali, as a guest of ancient Fulani cattle herders, “to learn from their journey lessons of adaptation and survival.”

Badkhen’s approach in Mali and, seemingly, everywhere she goes, is to go slowly:

“To tap into a slower knowledge that could come only from taking a very, very long walk with a people who have been walking always. To join a walk that spans seasons, years, a history; to synchronize my own pace with a meter fine-tuned over millennia.”

Badkhen, who grew up in the Soviet Union – St. Petersburg – shares with her Fulani hosts that she was the granddaughter of “an orchestra conductor, an entertainer, and that my grandfather’s name – my name, badkhen, meant a fiddler, an irreverent jester-rhymer who ad-libbed at Jewish weddings. I came,” she informs her hosts, “from a long line of Yiddish griot.” A griot is the closest thing to a badkhen in Fulani society.

They honored her with a Fulani naming ceremony, and became her hosts. For the next year she would walk with them.

“Two thousand footsteps per mile. Twenty to forty-thousand footsteps a day. Seven to fifteen million footsteps a year on the raw hide of the Earth: the drawn-out journeys of biannual migration, and in between, the constant movement of twice daily pasturage, of daily roundtrips to waterholes and distant markets. Every footfall contains the kernel of our becoming, our common travelogue writ large. Every footfall brings the walker closer to the next patch of shade, the next well, the next resting spot. Every footfall is a leap of faith that at the end of the trek lie pasture and water for the cows, redemption, forgiveness, self-compassion.”

For her latest book, Fisherman’s Blues: A West African Community At Sea, Badkhen traveled to Senegal, arriving at that country’s largest artisanal fishing port to bear witness to “the ancient art of fishing on a pirogue.” She documents this ancient art, and the people who practice it, at a time when the earth’s climate, the global appetite for fish, and the practice of industrial fishing, are accelerating at a pace never experienced in human history.

“For a season – a blink of the ocean’s eye – I join this primordial sloshing,” she writes. Early in her visit, she has a chance meeting at the shore with a woman named Fatour Diop Diagne – the mother of a fisherman named Ndongo.

Maaleikum sallam, Madame Fatou. I am Anna. I am a writer. I am here to research a book about fishing.

That’s great! Bismillah, bismillah. May you have luck in your work.

We shook hands.

How is the sea?

I don’t know yet. I only arrived this month. I’m looking for a pirogue to take me fishing.

And Ndongo said:

Come with me tomorrow. We leave at six, rain or shine. We meet by the water …

He grinned. He had his mother’s smile.

And that was the beginning Anna Badkhen’s season with the fishers of Senegal.

In Afghanistan, which she began visiting before the U.S. invasion in 2001, Badkhen had, on her first trip, “blacked out from malaria or dysentery or both in a dried out tidal freshwater marsh, just south of the Amu Darya, the Oxus of modern map, of recent conflicts, of land mines and opium smugglers.” She kept coming back.

When Badkhen returned in 2010, she walked to the market – the bazaar – crossing Taliban territory - with members of a family who would become her hosts.

“We walked single file. Amanullah first, then the donkey, then Fahim who taught English at an evening school in Mazar-e-Sharif and was helping me with translation, then I. At a brisk clip, in dry weather, the eighteen-mile walk across the hummocked loess usually took about five hours. Amanullah had made this journey every two weeks since he was six or seven. Now he was 30.”

A five hour walk – one way – to buy carpet yarn for Amanullah’s wife, who would spend every day of the next seven months “weaving the most beautiful carpet I have ever seen.” The yarn cost about 60 dollars. The rug would be sold back to the yarn dealer seven months later for 200 dollars.

What Anna Badkhen witnessed during those seven months of weaving is shared in her book, The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village. She tells me it was written from the perspective of “looking at Afghanistan from inside a mud hut through a window kicked out during the summer.”

I have only begun the journey through Anna Badkhen’s extensive work – her testimony -- which leaves me with a feeling captured by the Polish poet she loves: “If you set out on a journey, pray that the road is long.”

PLEASE NOTE: Anna will be interviewed by Michael Schulder on Friday, June 15 at 4:00pm in the Atheneum Great Hall. Admission is free.