The caravan city harbors great books, mysterious letters—and a world of intrigue.
In the ancient caravan city of Timbuktu, many nights before I encountered the bibliophile or the marabout, I was summoned to a rooftop to meet the salt merchant.
I had heard that he had information about a Frenchman who was being held by terrorists somewhere deep in the folds of Mali’s northern desert. The merchant’s trucks regularly crossed this desolate landscape, bringing supplies to the mines near the Algerian border and hauling the heavy slabs of salt back to Timbuktu. So it seemed possible that he knew something about the kidnappings that had all but dried up the tourist business in the legendary city.
I arrived at a house in an Arab neighborhood after the final call to prayer. A barefoot boy led the way through the dark courtyard and up a stone staircase to the roof terrace, where the salt merchant was seated on a cushion, his head wrapped in a linen turban that covered all but his eyes.
The giant produced a sheaf of parchment, and in a rich baritone slightly muffled by the turban over his mouth, he explained that it was a fragment of a Koran, which centuries ago arrived in the city via caravan from Medina. “Books,” he said raising a massive index finger for emphasis, “were once more desired than gold or slaves in Timbuktu.”
He works for the guides, but there are no tourists. The problems in the desert are making all of them suffer.
During my time in Timbuktu, several locals denied that the city was unsafe and beseeched me to “tell the Europeans and Americans to come.”
But for much of the past decade the U.S. State Department and the foreign services of other Western governments have advised their citizens to avoid Timbuktu as well as the rest of northern Mali. The threats originate from a disparate collection of terrorist cells, rebel groups, and smuggling gangs that have exploited Mali’s vast northern desert, a lawless wilderness larger than France and dominated by endless sand and rock, merciless heat and wind.
Most infamous among the groups is the one led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Reputed to have lost an eye fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, he is known throughout the desert by his nom de guerre, Belaouer, Algerian-French slang for the One-Eye. Since 2003, his men have kidnapped 47 Westerners.
Belaouer’s men had assassinated an army colonel in front of his young family in that neighborhood a few months earlier. “Everyone in Timbuktu heard the shots,” he said quietly. He mimicked the sound, bang, bang, bang. “The One-Eye has eyes everywhere.” And then, almost as an afterthought, he added, “I’m sure he knows you are here.”
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