Mali has been in the news for weeks, and it is now the legendary Timbuktu that is grabbing the headlines as France’s military roll in to save it. Sad news though that the fleeing Islamists have allegedly torched a library of precious, ancient manuscripts. Why? Why destroy such heritage, and a Muslim one at that? The library rings a few bells with me, in fact clanking back 8 years when I finally made it to Timbuktu, overland from Bamako to Djenné, then by river and 4WD. What a journey.

Mali, Djenné mud mosque & woman

Djenné proved to be the highlight of Malian culture  – from its pinnacled mud mosque, to a heaving marketplace and narrow backstreets where mud walls again were the architecture du jour. In some places I spotted tufts of plastic bag sticking out – a sad reflection of the pollution of the Niger river, source of the mud – and the far-reaching rule of plastic.

Mali, Djenné backstreet, woman and mud walls

Djenné backstreet of mud walls

Mali has always been close to me thanks to its music which I came to know while living in Paris. I have piles of cds by the greats of that country from Ali Farka Touré to Toumani Diabaté, Oumou Sangaré, Amadou and Mariam and the wonderful Salif Keita plus a few bootlegs by lesser known musicians I bought in the country itself. However, less enthralled by these extraordinary rhythms, the radical, puritanical Islamists of northern Mali ordered a total ban on music, dubbing it “of Satan” – which led to an exodus of musicians and artists – mostly to France, their colonial alma mater.

Mali and the Niger River with fisherman

Cruising along the Niger River

But now, what a blaze of colour, pattern and texture comes back to me as I sift through my old slides (my trip was before I very belatedly converted to digital), of bold patterns, woven hats, dye-vats, of mats, of medecine men, of mud mosques, fishermen, tailors, market women, mud walls and villages, Dogon dancers and of course lanky berobed and turbaned Tuaregs from the desert – the same people I met in southern Libya a couple of years later. So in the absence of most of my evocative Mali pics, here’s one of young girls at a Tuareg festival in Ghat – a mere hop and skip across the Sahara in southern Libya.

Libya, Ghat, Tuareg girls

Ghat festival in Libya – Tuareg girls

I’ve just dug out my notebook from the Mali trip. The Timbuktu section towards the end is written in pencil – my pens must have dried up by then, or dropped en route, and I know I was exhausted from sleeping on rooftops, in tents, and by the dry wind. “Dust dust dust” I scrawled as we bounced across the Saharan savannah. “Boys with herds of pack donkeys, a man sits on a half-built bridge over a wadi, eyes barely visible swathed in a huge white turban”. As we reached the Niger river and an agonisingly slow ferry I noted “Basic hovels made of sticks and matting, kids in rags & adults sit outside”. Hardly uplifting.

Mali, Niger river, fisherman

Niger river and fisherman, crossing to Timbuktu

Finally we (an Algerian tour guide, an Italian journalist and myself) reached Timbuktu but I decided “It doesn’t feel like Timbuktu is supposed to be”, having spotted large signs for NGOs, dozens of 4WDs and motorbikes as well as advertisements for the local mobile phone network. I remember how crystal clear the network was when I chatted to my partner in London from beside the Niger river earlier in the trip – so it hardly felt like being in the back of beyond, and not exactly living up to its “Timbuktu” reputation.

Mali, Timbuktu mud mosque

Timbuktu’s Djingarey mud mosque

After describing the fly-blown nature of this once great centre of trade and learning, my notes went into overdrive about the 14th c Mosquée Djingarey, built in five years by an Andalucian architect from Granada. Like Djenné’s famous mosque, this was a spectacular example of Saharan mud architecture where long, shady alleys of columns were lit only by skylights. For more about Saharan mud architecture, read my post on Libya’s incredible jewel, Ghadames.

The mosque entrance was through hefty, studded Moroccan doors though they didn’t prevent the drift of sand, blown inside by the desert winds. I summed it up succinctly: “Men in blue + mud + sand”. The impeccable condition of the mosque structure was apparently due to it being renovated every year by the community – up to 1000 worshippers squeezed in. So why didn’t the Islamists take note?

Mali, Djingaray mosque, interior

Timbuktu’s Djingaray mosque with prayer-mats

Later I spotted a “Tuareg man in a woolly hat and trench coat, glued to a mobile, loping past an open sewer” then minutes after I saw him buzzing past on a motorbike. The surreal details of travel. Someone explained the meaning of Timbuktu as “le puits de la femme”, or a woman’s well. Not sure how elliptical that is. Finally I’ve underlined a sentence “If a girl walks too much she’ll become a bandit, so that’s why they put heavy anklets on.” Clearly a man’s (my guide’s?) words, and a classic male solution to his perceived problem.

I’ll finish with a scary quote about Timbuktu from an Islamic website I came across while looking for pics of the mosque above, which partly answers some of my questions.
The genocide lives on as people remain robbed economically, persecuted spiritually and left with an educational system that would produce everything but a true Muslim.
It gives an inkling of what the French troops and Malian army have to contend with, but it’s not only in Mali, it’s elsewhere too.

2013 update: this year I came across a little known Quranic library in southern Morocco, due north of Timbuktu, full of incredible ancient manuscripts. Read about Tamegroute here