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Romanced by Wandering Amber

Africa Mali Amber Beads 19thcI've never been to Timbuktu but I dream of it. We've let the word become shorthand for "the middle of nowhere" and so it may also symbolize the farthest reaches of our imagination. Timbuktu. The sound of it makes me want to disappear into a "sheltering sky" adventure.

Paul Bowles published Sheltering Sky in 1949. I think of it as a female Heart of Darkness. Kit, her husband Port, and their friend Tunner begin their journey in north Africa as discontented wannabe travelers. It begins as Port's story, but it is Kit who travels deepest into the Sahara and surrenders herself to the complete otherness of the experience. The idea is seductive on a winter's day when I can't even go for a walk in the snow without my cell phone, digital camera, MP3 player, and DVDs to return to Blockbuster.

If I'm a prisoner this afternoon of my own distracting culture, then I can stare at these beads and ponder their history -- how they were treasured by so many souls in search of a cure for their spiritual malaise, or for their kidney troubles, or for their empty wallet. 

I've pieced together only snippets of their story. The beads pictured here were retrieved in Mali, likely obtained in Dogon territory, somewhere around Timbuktu, at the bend of the Niger River. But amber doesn't surface in the Sahara, due to a scarcity of ancient pine forests. Amber traded to Africa was found on the shores of the Baltic Sea in northern Europe and shipped perhaps through Italy were it was bundled with glass beads and sent across the Mediterranean to Tunis or Tripoli. It might have been sent by boat around the west coast of Africa to Nigeria, then floated up the Niger River. But I like to think it was packed onto the backs of camels by indigo-shrouded Tuareg traders, who carried them deep into the desert to exchange for gold.

Africa Mali Amber Beads 19th c.These beads are old, fashioned some time back in the 19th century. Their surfaces have a crazed and weathered patina. What made me fall in love with this necklace is that its beads are almost all broken and repaired. Many have been broken in half parallel to the stringing hole. Tiny strips of decorative silver were hammered across the break to make them whole. I first thought the repair was a means of preserving treasured beads. As I look now at the similarity of the breaks in some beads, I wonder if they weren't broken and reassembled deliberately, as part of a ritual. Marriage? Divorce? 

This feels like a research project I'm too lazy to do. It's one of those days when I feel feverish -- my life isn't fitting its comfortable boundaries -- there is something exciting just around the bend that could change everything if only I had the guts to pursue it -- but what? Not a day for research, but a day for rereading Sheltering Sky and fantasizing about the freight of history embedded in old beads.

"From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached" [Franz Kafka].

A Tiny Bit of Research

Collectible Beads by Robert K. Liu. On page 36 there is a strand of beads not nearly as old and dramatic as mine, but it does show a few with similar repair work. The caption: "Superb strand of copal and amber supposedly from Morocco...; such strands are often found in Sudan. Real copal and amber are relatively rare in Africa and plastic imitations are rampant. Note variety of bead shapes; these show a great deal of wear and repair, as evidenced by the wire used to tie broken beads together (like binding wire for soldering) or corrugated inserts for the same purpose. The repairs add a decorative beauty to the beads. Courtesy of Wind River."


Timbuktu. The city.
Trade Routes. Interesting maps give you an idea of how the trade routes worked.
Bruce Frank. Where I purchased these beads.
Paul Bowles. Author of Sheltering Sky.

Posted 1.4.03

This tale was adapted for the book Tribe of the Breakaway Beads by Susan Barrett Price (Mad In Pursuit, 2011), available from in paperback and kindle editions.