By Patricia Lee Sharpe
So the Tuareg have occupied Timbuktu! Given the frequency of rebellion over the past century, I’m not surprised. With a military coup diverting the attention of threatened civilian authorities as well as the politically ambitious army itself, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad swooped down on the prize they have long coveted.
The New Ingredient
But something new has been added to the equation. Islam in Mali has always been described as regionally acculturated, moderate and tolerant. Tolerant of different Muslim sects. Tolerant of non-Muslim minorities. Today’s game-changing addition is militant salafist Islam of the sort that’s sympathetic to if not synonymous with al Qaeda. What had always been a fierce campaign for ethnic autonomy or a separate state dubbed Azawad seems to have been overwhelmed by or manipulated by Islamic extremists. Timbuku, former center of great learning and site of one of the most renouned libraries in the world, is being transformed into a theocratic nightmare à la Kabul under the Taliban.
How should the U.S. respond? Before the Islamist complication, the alternatives were hard enough to weigh. A Sudan-like solution? Or continued integration at all costs? Now all prospects seem uglier. Support the coup—or not? Support bifurcation—or not—with or without Islamist influence? Take on the Islamists? Ignore them?
The Wealth that Built a Library
The north-of-the-Niger territory claimed by the MNLA supports only about 10% of Mali’s population, but occupies more than half of Mali’s territory. Picture a mere sprinkling of humans in very harsh terrain. Although most Malians are Muslim, life-styles North and South couldn’t be more different. The Tuarag are at home in the desert. They were notorious for camel-mounted caravan raiding back in the days when cross-Saharan trade featured great trains of dromedaries laden with gold to be bartered for life-sustaining salt. These days drought has forced many Tuareg into a more sedentary life in the sahel on the margins of the desert. Further South, however, settled agriculture has always been the norm, along with migratory animal herding in the transition lands. Such differences notwithstanding, as powerful kingdom succeeded powerful kingdom over the centuries, the wealth in the area that's Mali today was more than enough to support the fabled city of Timbuktu, with its well-stocked markets and vast intellectual and cultural resources.
Including the library, the source of my own fascination. Over the years I’d managed to visit Nalanda, the site of the famous Buddhist university and library which had given intellectual backbone to the spread of the dharma for more than a millenium. I’d also gone to Alexandria, primarily to imagine the city in its classical prime before its great library was destroyed. Timbuktu was next on my list. Getting there was my primary personal goal when I was posted to neighboring Sierra Leone. I brought a Jeep to Freetown, because I planned to drive to Timbuktu. What a terrific vacation that would make!
Driving to Timbuktu
Unfortunately, although the Tuaregs had reputedly entered into one of their more quiescent phases, the civil war in Sierra Leone went from bad to worse. I didn’t dare to drive through it. I’d have to fly to Bamako, where I could engage a Landrover with an experienced and reliable driver. In this, I followed recommendations from still unmet colleagues at U.S.I..S. Bamako. (Thanks again, friends!) If anything happened to me, the driver would have to answer to his pals and my colleagues in the capital. It was a very Malian arrangement—and there were several more pluses. The driver was fluent in French, which gave us a shared language. He also spoke several local languages.
And so, Landrover stocked with a zillion gallons of water, in case we lost our way in the desert, we crossed the Niger River and drove roughly east north east toward Timbuktu. It would take us two days to cover the 440 miles. After about 50 miles, pavement gave way to sandy ruts, sometimes deep and easy to follow, sometimes not, especially after dark. Even the driver was relieved when we finally rolled into the town that was our overnight destination. After that the complications began. The simple guest house we’d been counting on no longer existed. Most people we spoke to suggested that we sleep in the Landrover, preferably close to a police post. And then, happily, we met a bunch of boys playing fussball outside a bar. They directed us to a U.N. compound from which a French team was trying to oversee refugee resettlement during the current shaky truce in the unending war between the MNLA and the government in Bamako.
Hand Over the Landrover
Contrary to the reassuring reports that had reached Sierra Leone, the Tuareg were far from pacified. That morning a band of them had barged into the U.N. compound and stolen a Landrover at gunpoint. For that reason, perhaps, even though our arrival was as unexpected as that of the raiders, the French observers were happy to shelter me and my Malian driver. They fed us well, à la français, then offered me a choice: sleep on a cot in the kitchen or sleep on the same cot under the stars. The choice was easy. The stars were so thick I hated to shut my eyes.
I might have chosen differently if our hosts had informed us immediately about the morning’s raid. “We didn’t want to worry you,” they explained at breakfast. Over croissants, of course.
How could we not worry? It would take us most of a day to slew through ever more treacherous sand to reach Timbuktu, which created anxiety enough, and now I was obsessed with the fear that, at any minute, a troupe of blue-turbaned Tuareg would pour over a dune’s crest to steal our precious Landrover. Maybe we’d be kidnaped and held for ransom, too. This had happened to many travelers over the years. But not to us. We reached Timbuktu well before dark. There was room at a comfortable little hotel. There was cold beer. There was delicious food.
Timbuktu in the ‘90s
And so I got to meet with deeply learned scholars, who were delighted to tell tales of the good old days when Timbuku was a center of global trade. Although most of the contents of the famous library had been carried away by invading Moroccans many centuries ago, local archives contained fascinating collections of old manuscripts and letters which were being collated and catalogued and, in some cases, translated from the original Arabic by Western-funded scholars.
Yes, there was beer, which my driver greatly appreciated. Better yet, for me, there were women in public, few of them paying much attention to whether their hair was covered or not. And everywhere, since this was a city that prized education, there were French speakers. As I wandered around, people were openly curious about me but always polite, and courtesy often led to interesting conversations in French. Meanwhile, real estate was booming. Timbuktu, as a U.N. heritage city, was being rediscovered and refurbished. Seeing the elegant old stone houses that had already been reclaimed from near ruin, I found it possible to imagine what an imposing city this now provincial outpost had been in its heyday.
Back then, in the mid ‘90s, the worst threat that hovered over Timbuku was the desert. Dunes were encroaching. The city was in danger of being buried in sand. The new threat is human. Now that Islamists are making the rules, bars are closed, music is banned and women are terrorized if they’re caught in the streets. The politics are murky. I don’t know the personalities or the intricacies of who has promised what to whom, but the dramatic external transformation proves that the Al Queda faction is dominant for now.
What To Do Now?
The Timbuktu I visited was gracious, gentle, in love with music and books and the great accomplishments of Muslim civilization. If such a city could be the capital of a new Muslim majority land, how promising it would be! Given my own positive experiences and the fact of wide divergence betwen cultures, North and South, I found myself back then inclined not to dismiss the idea of endowing a nation of Azawad with sovereignty.
The bifurcation of Sudan hasn’t been easy, and harmony between the divorced will be a long time in coming. Oil remains a divisive issue. The new border is bitterly (and cruelly) disputed. Within South Sudan itself there are serious tribal divisions. Nevertheless, aside from certain Islamists and the power elite in Khartum, few would argue that the split as such was a bad idea.
Today everything in Mali has changed. Chaos in Bamako created opportunity for the MNLA, who have fought so long for a homeland. But here comes the irony. The average Tuareg is more conservative than the average denizan of Bamako, but I’m not so sure that most insurgents are getting the society they fought for. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the developments in Northern Mali are probably causing more consternation than the coup in Bamako. What to do? What to do? In fact, whether or not we’re happy about Islamists in power above the Niger, there’s not much we can or should do, so long as their focus is purely internal. Should they decide to ape their counterparts in Yemen, however, they should have one worry on their minds. Drones.