“Quest for the Kasbah” by Richard Bangs

Craig Martin from the Indie Travel Podcast and Christine Gilbert from Almost Fearless
Desert dune in Morocco

Desert dune in Morocco. Photo by Claire Hamilton.

Editor’s note: This book review contains affiliate links.

Review by Craig Martin from Indie Travel Podcast

I haven’t yet made it to north Africa, so when the chance came to read Richard Bangs’ Quest For The Kasbah, I snapped it up. Richard tries to take us with him through a narrative of several visits to Morocco. He also makes a few philosophical detours to connect his growing understanding of the kasbah with modern, western life.

Quest for the Kasbah
Quest For The Kasbah by Richard Bangs.

The book is a tie-in to a new American TV show called “Adventures with Purpose” and, specifically, an episode called Morocco: Quest for the Kasbah which is also hosted by Richard Bangs. The advertising copy makes great claims for the author; how have I never heard of this “renowned explorer” and “the world’s foremost adventurer”? It must be something to do with the lack of PBS shows in New Zealand because he’s produced several TV documentaries and thirteen other books.

Of structure and style

The book is constructed as a linear narrative with several jumps between trips to Morocco. At times it almost degenerates into a “what-I ate-for-lunch” diary but manages to redeem itself by offering glimpses of Moroccan life along the way. The view which Richard offers seems alien to me: not because of the landscape, but because of how it is viewed. Maybe it’s a generational or cultural gap, but I struggled to align myself with this way of looking at a place.

What the book does do well is tell stories: little narratives that capture a splash of colour or the heat of the desert sun.

The writing style was also too flowery for my taste. At times it was difficult to follow as I struggled with unusual metaphors which would have been better suited to a spoken conversation or perhaps a TV screen. Here, they came across as overwritten and verging on pretentious.

Questions and answers
The first question I hoped this book would answer is “what is a kasbah?” I was quite lost for some time! The glossy photo insert in the middle of the book has only one picture of one, and that as a backdrop. The introduction takes us to an African river descent, the first few chapters to hiking in the Atlas mountains … and still no mention of a kasbah. Perhaps that’s the publisher’s fault, forcing an interesting journey into the constraints of the TV show. In any case, it left me hanging.

Rather than helping me off the ledge, the book offers a glimpse here, a peek there, slowly weaving insight through stories and recorded conversations. As a result, I understand something of the spirit of a kasbah, but couldn’t recognise one if I was standing next to it. The author’s laboured juxtaposition of digital nomads and kasbah dwellers casts as much light on the subject as the recorded conversations between himself and tourism representatives. In the readers’ quest for the kasbah, the kasbah itself is somewhat missing.

The skinny
What the book does do well is tell stories: little narratives that capture a splash of colour or the heat of the desert sun. Taken as a collection of short stories, this book succeeds in transporting us from mountain villages to Casablanca. We see women’s working collectives; the many tricks of recalcitrant mountain guides; and a young boy turning down his first opportunity to smoke a hookah pipe. Not every snapshot rings true though; there’s something too romantic, too reductionist about them that leaves one in doubt.

Unfortunately, this is not a book I would recommend you run out and buy. It would serve well as further reading for someone who enjoys the TV series or someone wanting a taste of Morocco before their journey. In the end these continued glimpses make us want to go and experience the cities, fortresses and mountains ourselves, to find our own nomadic shelter and muddle through the thronging streets of the bazaars. And that can’t be a bad thing.

***

Review by Christine Gilbert from Almost Fearless

Richard Bangs is the consummate travel guide.  Perhaps it was his early years running his own tour company, that developed his ability to weave history, cultural notes and the specific names for everyday objects into his travel stories, or maybe he’s just an info geek like much of the PBS watching audience he’s writing for – whatever the case, his writing is thick with the details that make you feel like he’s not only showing you where he’s been, but teaching you a college level course on it’s significance.  Purple hued islands are not just scenery but the Iles Purpuraires, were “Romans in the first century traded for a precious purple dye for their royal robes, the dye secreted by murex, a type of mollusk that thrives off these motes.” He goes on to tell of Cleopatra’s love the color and it’s subsequent fall from grace only generations later when “Cleopatra’s grandson, Ptolemy, was murdered by Emperor Caligula for having the cheekiness to sport a purple robe.”  A paragraph later he switches to more current history and within two pages we’ve covered a span of  a few thousand years.  You know how the islands looked, their historical importance and a fun fact or two.  This is Bangs’ style, and it doesn’t relent for a moment.

If you enjoy the careful detail of the history channel, the narrative voice of NPR and some of the travel channels’ better programming, then this book is for you.

For the traveler, he could write about anything and captivate, but the book’s theme is particularly intriguing, especially as he examines our modern day meeting places and the advent of the digital nomad.  The café, the nouveau-Kasbah, with weary travelers plugging in and finding respite: coffee, wifi and a comfy place to sit, closely resemble those Moroccan kasbahs where no stranger would be turned away. Bangs’ only lament is our seeming addiction to being plugged in: cell phone to our ear, the world around us blocked out and potential interactions wither on the vine.

If you’ve ever wanted to visit Morocco, Bangs doesn’t hold back.  The descriptions are visceral, evoking all the senses, and if you ever wondered what a Moroccan market is like or how traveling through the Sahara via camel would feel, then you’ll devour his imagery.  There are times when it becomes too much, when the author steps over ‘a large scarab beetle’ or notices another man’s watch by brand, “his Tag Heuer catches sparks of light” you might wonder if he’s just showing off.  Fortunately, he never gets too lost in the minutiae and quickly gets back on course, splicing in narratives and conversations from the road.

Ultimately, Quest For The Kasbah fascinates on many levels.  The exploration of the concept of meeting places both now and in antiquity feels like a worthwhile topic.  The travel is tightly coordinated and while Bangs didn’t lounge, he didn’t rush past scenes faster than felt appropriate. Occasionally the narrative gets lost in historical facts or sensory detail, but never for long.  It’s not light reading, but it’s not a slog either.  If you enjoy the careful detail of the history channel, the narrative voice of NPR and some of the travel
channels’ better programming, then this book is for you.  For me, Quest For The Kasbah pushed all my travel nerd buttons, and I was left only with one question: how soon can I get to Morocco?

Quest For The Kasbah is available through Amazon.com.

About the author:

Podcaster and writer Craig Martin has been living on the road since leaving Auckland, New Zealand in February 2006. With a degree in Media Studies and English plus a penchant for Coleridge, he's currently somewhere in Australasia. Craig podcasts at the Indie Travel Podcast and irregularly blogs at Our Crazy Travels along with his wife Linda.

About the author:

Christine Gilbert was a manager in a large Fortune 500 company but ditched that life to become a freelance writer and photographer. She now lives abroad in Spain, with plans to head over to Mexico City and continue on from there. She blogs on Almost Fearless.

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Discussion »

  • #1The View from Fez

    We also reviewed this book on The View from Fez – and like your first reviewer found it below the normal standards of travel writing. The book was so ego-centric that it became of little value. You can see our review in our Travel Writing series. http://riadzany.blogspot.com/2009/02/travel-writing-about-morocco-26.html

  • #2Daniel

    Craig,

    Thank you for such a thoughtful review!

  • #3Messi

    I appreciate the labour you have put in developing this blog. Nice and informative.

  • #4Online Tourist

    What a great review. This really takes readers to the place. Morroco comes alive and how! Thanks.

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