“Desert Encounter,” is not just an adventure book that I read, but rather it is a spirit that flowed in my heart and mind, the spirit of truth, courage and manhood. Several people, whom I know, and who have read this book, felt the same queer feeling that I felt: the more you read the more you love him and the reader senses this feeling increasing just before turning each page to start reading the new one.
KNUD HOLMBOE was born on 22 April 1902, a Danish journalist who reverted to Islam in his twenties: he died as a martyr of freedom of expression, he died because he was never afraid of doing what he thought was necessary and right even at the risk of social censure and he died because he had a very pronounced sense of justice, which always led him to take sides with the weak and the oppressed. He welcomed any enterprise that offered adventure, however hazardous, or that gave him an opportunity to escape from the monotony of urban civilization. The son of a Danish manufacturer in Horsens, he deliberately rejected the somber security of an established business, instead journalism offered a way of escape, and as he had a natural aptitude for writing - at the age of nineteen he wrote a collection of poems, but with more discretion than is usual at that age refrained from publishing them – it was as a journalist of travel that he made his first essay in exploration. The Dagens Nyheder of Copenhagen gave him his first commission and published his descriptions of a journey migrating across Kolen into the most remote extremity of Norway. Four years later, in 1924, he traveled to Morocco for the first time, where he wrote his little book Between the Devil and the Deep Sea.
Holmboe meditated in a French monastery, seeking peace and harmony with this world. But, the sense that Christianity had failed to bring him what he was looking for, drove him to Islam, the only faith in which he could find contentment and peace. This attitude is reflected in the way he writes about his religion in this book, and some of the most valuable parts of his book are his excursions into Islamic philosophy. I can comfortably say that he found that Islam is everything he wanted Christianity to be, which was made clear by his very words in the seventh chapter of this book when he said: “I believe Islam is true Christianity” Knud recorded with his pen and his small camera the brutality and oppression of the fascist occupying forces of the Italian dictator Mussolini, he interacted with sides, the Italian forces and the Muslim revolutionists under the command of Omar al-Mukhtar. Knud sympathized with the oppressed and the ill-treated, he corrected the Italian officer who called the Muslims Rebels saying, “But these people aren’t really rebels. They are only defending their own country!” He even cooperated with the revolutionists and carried messages from them to their leader Idriss Senousi.
Desert encounter is a unique adventure book, the level of drama in this book really touches the heart of the reader. Tears came to my eyes several times while reading this book, you can easily sense the pure innate nature of this Danish journalist when you read his words about the Arab revolutionists: “They looked ragged, but even now, while sleeping, there was a strangely peaceful and decisive look on all their faces. I began to understand why these men were able to die without a quiver of the eyelids. As far as I had observed during the one day I had spent with them, they followed their religion scrupulously. Whatever fate might befall them, it would never occur to them to blame God for what happened. While they were standing at the gallows they would thank God for the life they had lived, and they would calmly endure any sufferings. The men who slept before me were probably poor and ignorant, they could not read, and could hardly spell their own names, but they were the truest noblemen I have ever met.”
Knud is one of the few authors I have read for, and regretted that I never had the opportunity to meet them, he embodied the hope that is much needed in this world: “The boat headed north; towards the luxury and comfort which civilization has created. But as I gazed at the African coast receding slowly from sight my heart ached for the poor, hardy people whom I had learned to know, and for their hopeless struggle. Perhaps justice will be victorious some day…a justice which is not a rapacious just for power but one that radiates the urge to comprehend all that is beautiful on the whole earth.” Inspired by the saying (hadith) of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him: “O people, your Lord is one and your father (Adam) is one ….” Knud closed his book with these words: “Deep down within themselves the peoples of the East and the West are alike. They are two branches of the same tree. And when man, regardless of whence he comes, seeks deep in his heart, he will feel the longing for the root of the tree.”
Knud was also inspired with the hadith of Prophet Muhammad: “The best of martyrs, is the one who was killed by a tyrant for saying the truth and criticizing him in his presence (indeed for practicing freedom of speech!” Knud understood that the Prophet means that freedom of speech has no limits but it rather has a direction, it is used by journalists and writers as a weapon to defend the people against the tyrants, but not in the opposite direction, and as long as it is in the right direction, then it is limitless. A journalist such as Knud must not surrender to a tyrant by apologizing or retracting what he has published, no matter was the pressure on him or even life threats, since death is once and certain, then dying with dignity is better than dying like a slave. Read what he said about six of his fellow prisoners in Cyrenaica who were condemned to death: “Not a flicker on their faces revealed that they were prisoners on the brink of death. I felt a deep admiration for these men from the mountains who wouldn’t give in, who would not submit, but who preferred death to slavery”.
He realized that his mission as a journalist was to inform the deceived Europeans of the truth: “In Europe one is only told that the peaceful Italians in Cyrenaica have been attacked by the blood-thirsty Arabs. Only I, who have seen it, know who the barbarians are.” This then was Knud Holmboe, a martyr of freedom of speech…may his soul rest in peace.
Fadel F. Soliman
Planet earth, 2006