Nomadic Lives, Juxtaposed With the Literary: Notes on “Walking With Abel”

Anna Badkhen / Photo: © Kael Alford
Anna Badkhen / Photo: © Kael Alford

The subtitle of Anna Badkhen’s new book Walking With Abel is both an accurate description of what you’ll find between its covers and something of an understatement. “Journeys With the Nomads of the African Savannah,” it reads, and this is true: the book follows Badkhen, a writer whose work often takes her overseas and into areas of conflict, as she travels with a Fulani family throughout Mali. But along the way, Badkhen also meditates frequently on the nature of being a nomad -- of the ways in which the community with whom she is traveling overlaps with other cultures, and how their way of life is distinctly singular. Badkhen is also capable of writing staggeringly vivid passages that set scenes marvelously.

Sita’s cattle lowed in a crowded semicircle at his calf rope. Where Oumarou’s cows once had stayed there was a sodden gap. A fine calm mist fell upon the bourgou and then stopped, and the pink lightning of the receding storm flashed along the horizon to the north.

The prose and the images are vivid, poetic, and tactile. The blend of the familiar and --depending on the reader -- the more distant creates a kind of chemistry that pushes the book forward.

Among the reasons why Walking With Abel is compelling is Badkhen’s ability to withdraw from the narrative; she is there to document, observe, and record, and doesn’t impose herself on the events that occur. Largely, when she does figure into the book, it’s via an encounter with someone who’s surprised to see her on her travels. “I had come to study,” she writes about a third of the way into the book, and that mood and methodology makes itself felt through most of the narrative. To the extent that she looks for parallels in her own life to those encountered by the subjects of her book, it’s in the sense of rootlessness, juxtaposing the nomadic lifestyle of the family with whom she travels with the forced instability faced by Jewish communities in the days of the Soviet Union. There are a handful of brief passages in which Badkhen connects a nomadic sense of isolation with the pain felt from a more personal estrangement, and while they provide a sense of her state of mind in the days around the events written about here, they feel more like a footnote than an essential part of the narrative.

Though this is largely a pastoral and even philosophical book, conflict hovers around the margins of the narrative. Armed conflicts in Mali happen at the same time as some of the events depicted in the book, and a video recording of a death recurs throughout the narrative, given several differing interpretations over time. At one point, Badkhen contrasts the Fulani with the Tuareg, who were involved in the aforementioned conflict -- each is a distinct group in the same general geographic area; each, too, may be less familiar to many Western readers. When she does wrestle with questions of violence, Badkhen showcases an impressive capacity to encompass contradictory points of view: “I hoped my work somehow could stem the obscenity of war. But there was a risk that instead I, like the videographer from Gao, was helping it flourish.”

Specificity is a hallmark of this book: one scene very early on, set during the African Cup of Nations tournament, memorably describes a crowd scene, illustrating both the specificity and the extent to which certain styles of clothing are globally ubiquitous: “They wore cotton pagnes printed with giddy M.C. Escher designs of fish and pineapples and flowers, and nylon soccer jerseys: Mali, Manchester, Liverpool, Barcelona, Brazil.”

Badkhen invokes the works of numerous writers along the way, including several notable for their documentation of their journeys, such as Ryszard Kapuściński, Bruce Chatwin, and Patrick Leigh Fermor. Notable surrealist Georges Perec also figures into the larger narrative -- a long quote from him about the nature of writing makes an appearance about a quarter of the way through the book, and a shorter quote serves as an epigraph for Walking With Abel’s second part. It’s an unexpected connection: Perec is not the first author whose work comes to mind when thinking of nomadic cultures a continent away. But Badkhen makes the case in an understated fashion, her immersive approach acting more emphatically than a more explicit argument might. And in the end, this is a book that amasses much of its strength from isolated movements taken together. It’s a subtle path, but a deeply effective one.