The Boston Globe has named A Labyrinth of Kingdoms one of 2012’s eleven best books of nonfiction, putting it in some distinguished company. I’m honored.
It’s been almost a year since I started this blog about Heinrich Barth and his travels. My book about his great expedition is now three months old. I think it’s time for the caravan to move on. I’ll continue to post if something relevant occurs to me, but will no longer maintain a regular schedule. Thank you for reading the blog. If you read the book, please let me (and Amazon!) know what you think about it.
Meanwhile I’m deep into the research for a book about another adventurer, an American this time. New journeys just ahead.
Many of today’s headlines about Islamic north-central Africa would look familiar to the explorer and scientist Heinrich Barth, who traveled 10,000 miles there for the British from 1850 to 1855. The caravan routes ridden by Barth are now roads, but the arid territories they cross are still a nexus of distinctive cultures that have mixed and chafed for centuries. Old frictions still flare up between Muslims and non-Muslims, black and brown, fundamentalists and moderates, central governments and local chiefs.
As in Barth’s day, bandits and fanatics keep the region in turmoil. The group Boko Haram (“Western education is forbidden”) has killed hundreds of people in places Barth visited in northeastern Nigeria, bombing government offices, schools, and Christian churches. The group’s violent quest to “purify” Islam is just the most recent of similar jihads reported by Barth. Other groups, now as then, use religion as a veneer to justify thuggery. The terrorists of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), for instance, seem motivated more by money than by Mohammed, kidnapping Western travelers whom they murder or ransom — behavior that Barth witnessed and survived.
For Barth, Boko Haram and AQIM would be familiar manifestations with historical precedents. So would the distress of today’s moderate Muslims who want to reclaim their religion’s traditions of tolerance and learning from gangsters and extremists.
Some current events are almost historical reenactments. In March of this year, after the Malian military staged a coup, several rebel groups took advantage of the political chaos to occupy Mali’s northern half, including the ancient desert towns of Timbuktu and Gao. The group that now controls Timbuktu is associated with AQIM and calls itself Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”). Like Boko Haram, the Ansar Dine are fundamentalists intent on imposing their version of a purer Islam. If history is a guide, they would have better luck pushing a camel through the eye of a needle.
Since the time of Ibn Battuta (1352), visitors to Timbuktu have been impressed by the town’s scholars and amiable inhabitants, known for their love of singing, dancing, and smoking. The Ansar Dine have stopped the singing and the music, and are requiring women to veil their faces, atypical in Timbuktu. Tobacco and alcohol have been banned, places that sold them have been shuttered or destroyed, and possession of a cigarette brings a beating. Women have been whipped for immodest behavior such as walking alone or riding in a car with men. In a town near Timbuktu, an unmarried couple was stoned to death.
Ignorance, that frequent collaborator with fanaticism, has led the Ansar Dine to destroy at least half a dozen of Timbuktu’s historic tombs and monuments, including part of the fourteenth-century Djingereber mosque, on grounds of idolatry. Scholars fear that Timbuktu’s invaluable manuscript libraries might be looted, perhaps for the purpose of selling these volumes of old Islamic erudition to fund new Islamic intolerance.
Timbuktu has weathered it all before. Similar restrictions were in place when Barth spent seven months there under house arrest in 1853-54. Muslim jihadists from the newly-declared kingdom of Hamdallahi (“Praise to God”) had conquered Timbuktu in 1826. They attempted to impose harsh reforms: no tobacco, mandatory attendance at mosque, segregation of men and women. The sociable smoking dancers of Timbuktu considered these dictates preposterous. By the time of Barth’s visit, the fundamentalists had despaired of separating Timbuktu’s men and women, but Barth recounts how they raided homes to seize tobacco and levied fines for insufficient piety.
Today’s residents of Timbuktu, Gao, and nearby desert towns have begun staging protests and forming militias to resist Ansar Dine’s severe version of Islam. It seems likely that long after Ansar Dine has vanished into history like Hamdallahi, Timbuktu and its people will still be singing and smoking.
Barth blamed much of the region’s misery on its greedy, corrupt leaders, who devastated the region with constant warfare and slave raids. “Even the best of these mighty men,” he wrote, “cares more for the silver ornaments of his numerous wives than for the welfare of his people.” Today’s Nigerians ask why their government can’t protect them from Boko Haram, and why a country with some of the world’s richest oil deposits must import most of its gas and can’t light its largest cities. Greed and corruption, wrote Barth, inspired violent purifying jihads that imposed their own repressions. These criticisms still sound fresh.
As in Barth’s day, most Westerners know little about Islam or Africa, and distort them into simple monoliths. Barth carried some of his era’s assumptions, but he was willing to go where the evidence took him. He found ignorance and savagery in Africa — the prevailing European view of the continent — but also scholars and sophisticated systems of commerce and government.
He likewise challenged the dominant European view of Islam as an evil dangerous opponent of Christian civilization, which still sounds familiar. Consider the recent Republican presidential primary, in which nearly every candidate expressed alarm about the nonexistent threat of Sharia law in the United States. Members of Congress are on record about “terrorist babies” and “stealth jihadis.” American towns have voted to ban mosques, and corporations tremble when fringe groups accuse them of being pro-Muslim.
Barth called Islam a great religion — not a popular view, then as now — but added that in some places it had been hijacked by brigands or fanatics who used it as an excuse to pillage or to subjugate. He pointed out that Islam wasn’t much different in these ways from Christianity, another great religion sometimes hijacked by the greedy or the self-righteous. All of this remains in the headlines.
Unlike most pundits about the continent, then as now, Barth formed his views from close observation of African reality. His news and perspective remain pertinent. As a scientist he believed that knowledge can dissolve ignorance and misunderstanding. Perhaps it still can, given the chance.
A few of the dozens of pages devoted to merchandise taken by the expedition. First, arms and ammunition:
Letter of transit in Arabic, carried by Barth, given to him by the Sultan of Bagirmi, who held him prisoner for months:
Barth’s English translation of the letter of transit, written on opposite side:
Barth’s letter to the British Foreign Office announcing his safe arrival in Timbuktu:
Barth’s IOU to some Ghadamsi merchants, entailed on his way home:
To gather sensory information about Barth’s travels, I wanted to spend a day on a camel in the desert. Shindouk arranged it. One morning a Tuareg wearing blue robes and a long sword showed up at the hotel’s gate. Somber and unsmiling, he was riding a white mehari and leading another. His name was Agali ag-Mohamed, Ali for short. Shindouk told me was a Kel Ulli, a tribe in the Imrad class of Tuaregs.
All this fascinated me. Mehara, for instance, are the fast slender breed long favored by desert raiders such as the Tuaregs. The Imrad are the vassal class of Tuaregs (all Tuaregs belong to one of three classes: nobles (Ihaggaren), vassals, or slaves). I knew of the Kel Ulli because they had helped Barth in Timbuktu. He described them as ferocious warriors, infamous for “totally annihilating” two other powerful Tuareg tribes.
I climbed onto the prone mehara. At a signal from Ali, it sharply lifted its hind legs, almost pitching me headfirst into the sand. Lesson number one. Lesson number two came later, in reverse, when Ali gave the signal to lie down and my camel suddenly tilted onto its front knees, nearly launching me again.
Tuaregs use a U-shaped wooden saddle, covered with sewn goatskin, that sits in front of the hump. They ride with both bare feet resting on the left side of the camel’s neck. I mimicked Ali. At the edge of town we stopped so he could buy a new SIM card for his cell phone, which he tucked beneath his blue robes.
I enjoyed the rocking gait of the camel. The desert was greener than I expected, with grasses, bushes, and stunted trees, such as the lovely but vicious acacia, with its red bark, frilly green leaves, and long silver thorns. About an hour into the journey I became acquainted with another desert plant. I dismounted (voluntarily, shortly after learning lesson number two) to walk to a place for a photo. Within 10 yards my shoeless feet felt as if they getting stung by a mob of ground hornets.
“Kram-kram,” said Ali without interest. Kram-kram is a patchy, innocent-looking groundcover that inserts dozens of fine needles into whatever it touches. The sand was full of it, as I’m sure Ali, son of the desert, was well aware. Lessons three and four. I spent the next 15 minutes pulling spines from my feet. Barth called the burr karengia and noted that every native carried tweezers to remove the spines.
It was February, “the month of wind.” The harmattan had started and was blowing hard, kicking up sand and turning the air cloudy. I kept my hat low and my kerchief over my mouth.
After several hours we reached Ali’s village, though that was too grand a name for it, since its inhabitants were so widely scattered that most of his neighbors weren’t visible. Ali’s camp consisted of an open-sided shelter (his house), a small cooking shed made of matting, and a mud-brick room about the size of a one-car garage. Except for the brick building, the camp looked almost exactly the same as depicted in old books and photographs.
We settled into the mud-brick room. It had a sand floor and a roof of matting laid across a frame of sticks. Ali had built the room in hopes of attracting a teacher, but now it was used mostly by women for sleeping when the winds were bad. He didn’t like being indoors and preferred his shelter. Evidently he assumed that my preferences ran closer to the women’s. He said we would rest here during the day’s hottest hours.
While three of his children watched from the doorway, Ali began the ritual of making tea. He built a small fire on the sand floor. Loose tea went into a battered metal pot that held enough water to fill three or four of the little tea glasses used by Tuaregs. He dumped in a staggering amount of sugar and put the pot on the fire. Periodically he poured tea in a long arc from pot to tiny glass, then returned the tea to the pot for more steeping. Just as I began wondering if we were ever going to drink what he poured, he handed me one of the glasses. The liquefied sugar carried a nice hint of tea.
When the first pot was empty, which didn’t take long, he refilled it with water and sugar, and restarted the process using the same leaves. We drank three pots, which passed the time and jacked up my blood sugar.
Ali wasn’t much for conversation. His wife, Neia, who did sometimes smile, brought in lunch, an aluminum bowl of tasty rice with bits of gristly meat. She handed me a carved wooden spoon. Ali relied on his right hand, scooping up a wad of rice, squishing it into his palm to form a solid oblong, then popping it into his mouth.
Two men and two women came in. Everyone began chatting in Tamasheq. Ali started a batch of fresh tea. One of the men wore a vivid turquoise robe and a flamboyant bright green neck garment with fringe. The long fingernails on his dirty hands were painted red. I naively asked Ali if this place had become a hang-out for his neighbors, but when all six began pulling little knotted bundles of jewelry from beneath their robes, I realized they were here because of me, the ensnared customer. Hucksters and retailers.
After a polite interval I escaped and took a walk. Ali’s shelter was domed, with log supports and a roof of thick matting to blunt the desert sun. On the north side the matting came to the ground. The south side was partly open, with a low roof to cut wind and sand. Inside, things hung from rafters. It felt spacious and pleasant.
A few hundred yards beyond Ali’s camp I took a photo of a fence made of acacia thorn that enclosed some goats.
A boy, maybe 10 years old, rushed over from somewhere and said, “500 francs for the photo.” I laughed. He insisted. I laughed again. He spotted the pen peeking out of my pocket.
“Give me your pen [le Bic].”
“Sorry, no, I need it.”
“500 francs for the photo.”
I told him he was amusing. He shrugged and walked off. A huckster’s gotta try.
Back in the mud-brick room, Ali was asleep. A burly dung scarab crawled across the sand floor, leaving a delicate trail. Ali’s bright-eyed daughter Fatima, maybe six or seven years old, stared at me. The sides of her head were shaved, with a spikey mohawk running down the center of her scalp. Barth had seen the same style among Tuareg boys. It gave her the look of a wild child. She pointed at my face, then herself. I didn’t understand until she leaned over and pulled at my glasses. When I jerked backward, she flashed her wild-child grin and ran off.
In late afternoon it was finally time to go. Ali’s son Mohamed saddled the camels—first a blanket folded four times, then a thick leather pad, then the saddle itself. He put a rope under the camel’s belly and over the hump, and pulled the saddle tightly backward to stabilize it. We mounted—by that point I knew how to shift my weight—and we rode into the dunes toward Timbuktu.
When invading Arabic armies spread Islam across northern Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries, one group ferociously resisted conquest and conversion, leading the Arabs to call them Tuaregs—“the Abandoned of God.” They called themselves Imoshag or Imajughen, meaning either “the free people” or “the noble people,” or Kel Tagelmoust, “people of the veil,” or Kel Tamasheq, “speakers of Tamasheq.” Eventually, like the rest of northern Africa, the Tuaregs adopted Islam, but with typically noncomformist twists.
Timbuktu was founded as a Tuareg encampment, and the town has always been populated by these legendary “blue men” of the desert, famous for their flowing robes and turban-veils, dyed a deep indigo that rubbed off on their skin. Tuaregs were haughty and belligerent, indifferent to hardship, merciless to enemies.
For centuries they were the scourge of a vast area across north-central Africa. They moved at will across the desert with their herds of camels and goats, plundering caravans and each other. But in the 20th century, colonization, aggressive central governments, and droughts curbed much of their mobility and killed most of their animals. Their nomadic life began sputtering out. In Timbuktu many Tuaregs now live in permanent houses and sell hand-made jewelry, not camels and goats.
During the years of Barth’s journey, 1849-1855, Tuaregs still ruled the desert. Barth spent a lot of time among them, some of it life-threatening, yet he admired their toughness, elegance, and fiercely independent way of life.
Tuareg men, then as now, were distinctive because of their tagelmoust or turban-veil. They wrapped this ten-foot cloth around their head, leaving a slit for their eyes. Once a Tuareg male reached maturity and donned the tagelmoust, he never took it off in public and wore it even when eating and drinking.
Every Westerner noticed that Tuareg culture upended certain practices of Islam. The most striking was the position of women. Most Islamic women in north Africa were highly restricted and preferably invisible, kept indoors and covered from head to toe.
Not Tuareg women. They didn’t wear veils—only the men did. They didn’t hide their sexuality–in fact they emphasized it with henna and kohl. Nor were they confined to the indoors or to certain areas of the dwelling. They usually ate with the men and guests, not separately.
Unlike their fellow Muslims, Tuaregs didn’t fetishize female purity. Young Tuaregs of both sexes mixed at social events filled with music, dancing, and flirting. Couples wandered off into the desert night. This time of courtship and experimentation was called asri, “to gallop with free reins.” After marriage, a woman wasn’t put into seclusion but could visit her friends at will. Westerners universally commented on the easy respect between Tuareg men and women, and on their tenderness for their children. Though Islam allowed a man four wives, monogamy was typical among Tuaregs.
In fact the culture was matrilineal. At marriage, a Tuareg groom left his village and joined his wife’s. She could accumulate property of her own, and if the couple divorced—a matter of simply declaring it—she took her wealth with her. She also kept the children. As Barth noted, “the women appear to have the superiority over the male sex in the country of [Aïr], at least to a certain extent.”
All of this, plus their mystique as wandering blue warriors, made them fascinating to Westerners, including Barth. His experiences among them, from the desert mountains of Aïr to the dunes of Timbuktu, are among the highlights of Travels and Discoveries.
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.
In the last post I mentioned that Timbuktu’s location near the Niger River made it the place “where the camel meets the canoe.” In Barth’s day those canoes landed at Kabara, a village on the Niger about eight miles from Timbuktu. Barth disembarked there after spending several days in a dugout, winding through the tributaries and channels that spill into the Niger from the south, upstream from the village. At Kabara he left the river and rode through the desert to Timbuktu. In those days thieves made a good living on the road that connected the two places.
These days a traveler coming from Kabara passes an agricultural project run by an evangelical sect, a small modern airport, an encampment of Bela (formerly the black slaves of Tuaregs), then a spot where people dig clay for bricks. Closer to Timbuktu a traveler reaches the mega-compound of Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan despot. Some years ago, to the bewilderment of the locals, Qaddafi developed a fondness for Timbuktu, built the compound, and visited infrequently. He also connected his palace to the Niger with a canal, which some residents blame for Timbuktu’s mosquitoes. Qaddafi is gone but the irritants he attracted remain, in small numbers.
I asked Shindouk if lions and other wildlife still roamed between Kabara and Timbuktu. He shook his head. “On the road to Kabara,” he said, “there’s not even a pigeon. Once there were ostriches and gazelles, but they’ve all been killed.”
Some things about the road haven’t changed. It’s still a sun-baked straight line from river to town. Alongside it, people still rest in slivers of shade cast by stunted trees. Donkeys and their keepers still move briskly between the Niger and Timbuktu. Heading towards the port, the donkeys carry nothing. Heading towards town, they nearly disappear beneath their wide loads of millet stalks or river grass, sold for fodder in the markets.
When Barth reached Kabara the rainy season had started and the port was bustling. Barth was posing as a Syrian sherif. The people in Kabara were split between curiosity and suspicion about him. He wasn’t sure how long his disguise would hold, or what would happen to him once he entered Timbuktu. He spent a few anxious days in the village while his guide, a devious rascal, tried to arrange protection in town.
When I visited Kabara, its harbor basin was somnolent and empty of vessels. The only action was four women washing clothes, as their kids loitered and fished nearby. My guide, a young Songhai named Mahamane Hameye, explained that Kabara used to be busy but its harbor began disappearing in the dry season, so boats couldn’t reach it. Now most river traffic prefers to land at Korioume, a couple of miles upstream.
Part of the road to Korioume was generously shaded by eucalyptus trees. Rice and vegetables grew alongside. All this green, so close to the desert, was visually jarring.
Korioume more closely resembled the scene Barth saw in Kabara. The Niger looked at least a mile wide, the “noble stream” of so many accounts of exploration.
Millet grew on islands far out in the river. Soldiers waiting for the ferry flirted with women doing laundry. Traders, trucks, cargo, and boats of various sizes crowded the waterfront—dugouts painted with geometric designs, fishing boats with big square nets, the big canopied boats called pinasses that carry cargo and passengers between Gao and Mopti, other port towns on the Niger. “Something comes and something goes,” said Mahamane. Today one of the things going was slabs of salt, probably from Taoudeni, lined up on the shore. In the dry season, when the river thinned, hippos came near here and sometimes threatened the smaller boats.
Within minutes of leaving Korioume, we were back in the sand and scrub of the Sahara, and the Niger was a fading green dream.
Timbuktu started as a seasonal encampment of Tuareg nomads and grew into a commercial hub that connected the Arab and Berber traders of the desert with the black tribes of the Sahel, Mali, and Ghana. Like any crossroads town it contained a babel of languages—Tamasheq, Songhai, Hausa, Arabic, Fulfulde, Wolof, Bambara. These eventually mixed and merged into a hybrid argot spoken only in Timbuktu. Residents called it Koyrachini (variant spelling Koyra Chiini), which loosely translates as “town talk.”
Koyrachini and the crazy-quilt of languages in Timbuktu were catnip for a linguist such as Barth, even when the words spoken were “The Christian must die.” Koyrachini has since been modified by an infusion of French from the colonial years. It remains the language of Timbuktu’s markets. “If you can’t speak it,” said one of my hosts in the city, “you can’t buy, sell, or fully communicate.”
Unlike Kano or Kukawa, Timbuktu created few goods of its own. Its prosperity stemmed from its location. Though surrounded by the Sahara, it sat only eight miles north of the Niger, on the big bend where the river juts into the desert. Barth was in Timbuktu during the river’s annual flood stage, and was amazed to see streams rushing through the desert near the town.
Timbuktu was the place “where the camel meets the canoe,” a place of traders and middle-men. Gold arrived from mines in the tropical south and was traded for salt from mines in the desert north. Two or three times a year Tuaregs and Berabish from Timbuktu made the brutal caravan journey 500 miles straight north into the Sahara to the salt mines of Taoudeni, a desolate hellhole where slaves labored and died. “It is hardly possible that even under the most merciless regimes,” wrote E. F. Gautier in his classic Sahara: the Great Desert, “there has ever been an industrial hell comparable to this one anywhere on the face of the earth.” The round trip took four to six weeks. The caravans returned with large grayish slabs of salt, rare and hence pricey. Salt traders still make the journey to Taoudeni, though now they often ride trucks instead of camels.
By the time Barth reached Timbuktu he was no longer amazed by the variety found in African markets far from the coasts. Europeans considered Timbuktu inconceivably remote, but shoppers there could find goods from all over Europe as well as Africa. First-time visitors who arrived from the desert must have been shocked to find fresh vegetables and fruits for sale so close to the Sahara—another benefit of the town’s proximity to the Niger.
Now as then, customers in Timbuktu’s markets haggle over tomatoes, carrots, cabbages, yams, eggplants, rice, peppers, beans, okra, and peanuts—all grown along the Niger—as well as salt, camel cheese, live chickens, slabs of beef or goat, and new items such as CDs, jeans, and flip-flops.
In Timbuktu I stayed on the town’s northern edge at a small guest house called Sahara Passion. It offered several simple, pleasant rooms. From the rooftop terrace I could watch small caravans approaching from the desert or heading into the sands. The Sahara Passion’s rooms are within the walled home of its owners, Shindouk Mohamed Lamine and his wife Miranda Dodd, who came to Africa from Whycocomagh, Nova Scotia as a Peace Corps volunteer and stayed to make a life with Shindouk.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Shindouk is the chief of a Berabish tribe, the Oulad Najim, one of several factions of a larger tribe, the Oulad Driss. His father was renowned for his knowledge of the desert and saved many stranded people. Once, the story goes, a man who had collected sand from all over the desert showed his samples to Shindouk’s father and challenged him to identify them. Shindouk’s father peered, rubbed, tasted, and pinpointed every sample’s original location.
Shindouk’s father and grandfather were salt traders. Shindouk first made the trip to Taoudeni when he was 13. His duties were to get up early, start a fire, make tea, and find the camels. These elements—tea, fire, camels, desert, salt—seem genetically programmed into men such as Shindouk. On his first trip outside the desert, to a conference sponsored by the United Nations, he had a layover in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. He unpacked his small charcoal burner and built a fire to make the sweet tea that no desert man can live without for long. He was surprised to find himself quickly surrounded by men with guns.
Every night of my stay in Timbuktu, as soon as the sun went down, Shindouk put dry grass and sticks into a round shallow-sided metal disk, about the size of a large pizza pan, and started a small fire in his courtyard of sand as the huge Saharan sky glittered above. He and a friend or two sat or reclined around the fire on carpets, talking in low voices—or occasionally making calls on their cell phones. Long before the fire had turned to coals, an abandoned boy named Abdullah, whom Shindouk and Miranda had given refuge, had rolled himself into his ragged blanket to sleep on the sand in the dark beyond the fire.
The Sahel endured a horrible drought in the late 1970s and early 1980s (for an excellent account of those times see Thurston Clarke’s The Last Caravan). The drought wiped out the herds of most desert peoples in Mali, Niger, and elsewhere in the Sahel, dealing a crippling blow to an ancient way of life. War followed in the 1990s. Shindouk spent five years in a refugee camp in Mauritania.
This life has made him thoughtful, serious, and eager to preserve and share the knowledge that he worries is dying with the desert elders. Miranda clearly seconds his respect for this knowledge. I was pleased to benefit from it and to be their guest.
“Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men,” runs a proverb from West Africa, “but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.”
The town was already known for its scholars when Ibn Battuta passed through around 1352, shortly after the construction of Timbuktu’s most famous mosques, the Djingere Ber and Sankore. Sidi Yahia, the third important mosque, is the youngster, dating from the mid-1400s.
Leo Africanus visited around 1510 and claimed that manuscripts and books “sold for more money than any other merchandise” in the market—probably an exaggeration, given the town’s lucrative trade in gold, salt, and slaves. But throughout the 16th century Timbuktu’s mosques and their associated schools did draw hundreds and perhaps thousands of scholars, students, and mystics from all over north central Africa and the Middle East.
The scholarship focused on Islam but also encompassed mathematics, astronomy, law, geography, botany, medicine, and music. Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Hippocrates were studied in Arabic translations. Because of all the visitors, Timbuktu was a polyglot town. Scholars wrote books in Hausa, Fulfulde, Tamasheq, and Songhai as well as Arabic. Ahmed Baba, one of Timbuktu’s most learned men, wrote dozens of works in Arabic and had a library of 1,600 volumes, which he described as one of the city’s smaller collections.
This golden age ended brutally in 1591 with the invasion of a mercenary army sent by the Sultan of Morocco. Their muskets shredded Timbuktu’s defenders. The town’s libraries were plundered, its scholars marched to Marrakesh and imprisoned. Timbuktu’s tradition of learning seemed demolished, its libraries obliterated.
In fact the conquered inhabitants saved many manuscripts, which spent several centuries, including the years of imperial conquest and French occupation, hidden in villages, desert camps, and houses on dusty side-streets in Timbuktu. As the years passed, some owners could no longer read what they possessed, but they treasured the manuscripts as family patrimony.
In the 1970s scholars began trying to find and preserve these precious relics before they were destroyed by other marauders—bugs, mold, neglect, time. These efforts gained steam over the next 30 years with help from the Ford Foundation, the government of South Africa, and other groups. Agents went into the countryside to find ancient manuscripts and to persuade their owners to sell them for the sake of preservation. Some owners were paid in cows or camels, some in cash. The result was a flood of recovered manuscripts—according to the Ford Foundation, more than 700,000 of them.
As a result, Timbuktu is once again dotted with private libraries holding ancient manuscripts—about 60 such libraries, according to The Hidden Treasures Of Timbuktu, by scholars John O. Hunwick and Alida Jay Boye. “The historic manuscripts of Timbuktu,” they write, “are revolutionizing our understanding of Africa, increasing our knowledge of African history and unveiling the mysteries of this paradoxically famous yet almost unknown city.”
I visited two of these libraries. The Ahmed Baba Institute, which was about to move into big new quarters on the site of Ahmed Baba’s old residence, holds about 30,000 manuscripts. Among the texts on display at the time of my visit were treatises from the 16th century on astronomy and mathematics, and from the 11th century on law, cataracts, and a commentary on the Qur’an.
Somewhere amidst the 30,000 manuscripts, said Bouya Haidara, a commentateur at the library, was a letter in Arabic sent by Sheikh al-Bakkay to the Tuareg tribes to the east, asking them not to kill a white Christian named Heinrich Barth who was traveling through their lands. The letter was found with a family in Timbuktu. Haidara told me about another letter somewhere in the stacks from Queen Victoria, thanking al-Bakkay for helping Barth. The libraries are so overwhelmed with manuscripts that their first priorities have been preservation and cataloguing. A filing system will come later.
The Mamma Haidara Library holds about 22,000 manuscripts, most of which had been cared for by a single family since the 16th century. Its oldest manuscript is a commentary on the Qur’an written on gazelle skin. The display there included poems and documents written in Arabic, Tamasheq, Songhai, Fulfulde, and Bambara between the 14th and 19th centuries, on subjects ranging from morality to chemistry, medicine, prosody, geography, physiology, logic, and inheritance laws, as well as business documents covering every sort of commodity traded between Timbuktu and Barbary, Kano, Bornu, and Egypt.
The rich wonders in these places demolish the canard, popular during the age of imperialism and still reeking today, that Africa was a continent of savages with no written tradition. Yet the libraries and their relevance to our understanding of African history are still barely known, not only in the West but in Africa. I met a Cameroonian engineer in Timbuktu who had just spent a day scoping out the market for solar panels. He had stumbled across a few of the libraries and been astonished. “This was all news to me,” he said. “Ancient works on geometry, astronomy, and history written by Africans—I couldn’t believe it. It’s not taught in university.”
Recently a new threat to Timbuktu’s patrimony has emerged. There have been reports that the fundamentalist Tuaregs who captured Timbuktu in the recent coup in Mali have looted some of the libraries, including the Ahmed Baba Institute, possibly for the purpose of selling these ancient examples of Islamic scholarship to fund their violent distortion of Islam.