I remember Timbuktu, the City of 333 Saints. Sitting with a drink on a terrace overlooking a street and a parking lot. Wandering through the silent streets – not silent because there were no people but because the layers of sand somehow absorbed most of the noise.
I admired the old architecture, the shrines, the mosques. And the libraries. The books were the property of private families. They guarded them jealously. The city was lively and vibrant, and the people a pleasure to be with.
Legend has it that a prominent Timbuktu woman once had a dream, in which the university was ordered to be closed and turned into a mosque. This single act apparently ended the city’s reputation as an academic hub. Today, Arabs are taking it a step further. A YouTube video shows one of them smashing a wooden sculpture, shouting “Allahu Akbar” [God is the greatest].
The Arabs are systematically destroying holy shrines in a reply to UNESCO raising the alarm about the cultural destruction going on in Timbuktu. The fact that the International Criminal Court considers this a war crime will not deter them either. I am reminded of another act of unspeakable barbarity visited on the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001. ‘Barbarity’. I make no apologies for using the term.
The Arab Islamists are not only destroying shrines. They have banned music too. Last year I interviewed Khaira Arby, one of the city’s most celebrated singers. She invited me over for tea at her place, so we could talk some more about how she created new songs inspired by all the great music that passed through this crossroads city. Tuaregs, Arabs, Songhai, Bambara, Europeans – all were welcome.
Not anymore. There will be no Festival in the Desert in 2013 – tourism is dead. Mali itself has been split in two: the south is a political mess after a coup and the north being the playground of smugglers, kidnappers, rebels and, religious-fanatics and Arab terrorist.
When in 2009 I first heard the bizarre story that a Boeing 727 full of cocaine had landed in the Malian desert, was offloaded and then burnt, I dismissed it as a freak incident. Sure, cocaine was ruining Bissau and Conakry, but stable, democratic, developing Mali?
Of course, ‘Air Cocaine’ should have alerted me to the fact that there was something profoundly rotten in the state of Mali. Lulled to sleep by all the reassuring noises from the alphabet soup of development agencies, I, too, failed to see the problem.
Malian newspapers wrote about massive corruption in the government of that nice President Amadou Toumani Touré, now ex-president and living in Senegal. But we failed to look long and hard enough at the pre-election shenanigans of that same nice president.
And then came the avalanche: a rebellion, a coup, a brief illusion that the Tuaregs in their self-proclaimed Azawad would somehow manage better, and finally the wholesale takeover of the north by extremists and vandals, destroying African Muslim shrines – in the name of Arab Islam.
Today, some dream of a military take-back of the north. Dream on. It is the size of France and only a few know how to navigate it. West Africa certainly does not seem to have the stomach or the money for it. Players from outside the region (France, the US) do not have a track record of constructive involvement, to put it mildly.
The only way forward I can see is helping the locals take their cities back. In Gao, women and youths have demonstrated against the unwelcome fanatics. Hopefully, there will be more and hopefully they will get support of any kind. The alternative is clear: a make-believe ‘Arab Islamic’ flag, hovering over ghost towns.
By; Bram Posthumus