Mornings in a Muslim town begin before dawn with the muezzins’ first call to prayer. As rousters of slugabeds, muezzins put roosters in the shade, or rather leave them in the dark. To a sleeping Westerner, the amplified chanting seems to start in the middle of the night. If there are several mosques in the vicinity, the chanting overlaps, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes in dissonance. In Timbuktu my hotel, Sahara Passion, was close to a small mosque but near enough to others that their prayers floated through the darkness into my waking mind.
The muezzins eventually wake up the roosters, who, with loud indignation, do their best to reassert dibs on dawn. The muezzins and roosters motivate the goats and donkeys, who add bawling and braying to the morning orchestra.
Soon after the prayers stop and the livestock calms down, the smell of cooking fires begins drifting through town, followed by the rhythmic thuds of women pounding millet. Even in Barth’s day, Timbuktu was known for its delicious flatbread, takola, baked every morning in tall clay ovens shaped like beehives. The bread resembles pita in size and shape but is thicker and chewier, and is usually gritty with a bit of windblown sand. Barth typically ate it for breakfast. So did I, coated with local honey.
A walker in Timbuktu moves between past and present. The main streets are paved and busy with the usual traffic of motorcycles and Land Rovers, but donkeys and camels also plod along. The sand streets of the old medina, built for human and animal pedestrians, are too narrow for cars, though motorcycles occasionally slip-slide through. In many of the sandy side streets, rubble sits alongside stacks of new bricks, reflecting the endless cycle of building and rebuilding with sand and mud.
At night I walked 10 or 15 minutes down a wide sand road to get dinner at Amanar, the only restaurant near Sahara Passion. The northwestern edge of the city lacked electricity and the road was pitch dark. I memorized the silhouettes of a few houses so I could find my way back (but still got briefly lost in the ink). Other walkers stayed invisible until their dark outlines suddenly passed. I could smell cooking fires and hear distant singing, drumming, and occasional laughter.
Eventually the dim glow of Amanar appeared, at the frontier of electricity. Its tables sat on a patio surrounded by a low wall. That first night, only one table was occupied, by a young man who turned out to be the waiter. I ordered a cold beer–a small miracle in a desert Muslim town. He brought it and companionably sat down with me, since it was inconceivable that I might want to be alone.
Within minutes a young Tuareg in traditional blue robes emerged from the dark and sat with us. He wondered if I would like to see some Tuareg jewelry, and put two pairs of silver earrings on the table. When I didn’t immediately say no, he pulled out his inventory of rings, bracelets, and pendants.
It was all distinctive, I was a rookie, I overpaid. After he faded into the dark, two Tuaregs replaced him. I saw the game and stopped playing. They left. My dinner appeared and so did two more Tuaregs, who sat down and displayed their wares. I thought of Barth, constantly beset by what he called “hucksters and retailers.” Tuaregs, he noted, were especially persistent.
For several nights this routine repeated itself with minor variations. One night the waiter was sitting with a friend, so I assumed he wouldn’t join me. But when I got up to look at the posted menu, he moved my beer and notebook to their table. There was still plenty of room for the parade of Tuareg retailers.
Amanar sat across from the Flamme de la Paix, a monument on the site where Tuareg rebels ceremonially burned 3,000 guns in 1996 to signify the end of the Tuareg uprising of 1990-1995. During my visit, the monument offered a handy dark hangout for Tuareg hucksters passing the time while awaiting prey at Amanar.
I never expected to see such a sleepy place in the news. Last November as four Europeans were eating at Amanar, gunmen swooped in and ordered them into a car. A German who resisted was instantly killed. The other three were abducted—the first kidnappings of Westerners in Timbuktu in recent memory. The gunmen were suspected to be from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which funds itself partly by kidnapping and ransoming Westerners.
Since the coup in Mali earlier this year, circumstances in Timbuktu have worsened considerably. Two rebel groups took advantage of the political chaos to occupy several northern towns, including Timbuktu, with the avowed goal of forming an independent desert state. Timbuktu is now controlled by a group supported by al-Qaeda that calls itself Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).
Since the time of Ibn Battuta (1352), visitors to Timbuktu have commented on the inhabitants’ sociability and love of dancing, singing, and smoking. But the Ansar Dine are Islamic fundamentalists. They have stopped the singing and the music, and are requiring all women to veil their faces. Tobacco and alcohol have been banned, and places that sold them have been shuttered or destroyed. Amanar is almost certainly among them.
Timbuktu has seen it all before. Many similar restrictions were in place when Barth visited. The town had been captured by Islamic fundamentalists from Hamdallahi, who raided homes to seize tobacco and fined citizens for insufficient piety. The cycles of history.