Watching the film Timbuktu last night was a strange experience, both beautiful and painful. The film is set against the backdrop of real historical events — the al Qaeda occupation of Timbuktu in 2012. It is precisely the same backdrop I used for my new novel BLOOD & INK, which comes out this Thursday.
In April 2012, when jihadists invaded Timbuktu, I followed developments closely. It was my job to pay attention. As West Africa field leader for World Horizons, I had to coordinate the evacuation of our team from the Niger Delta and plan for their possible evacuation from Mali. At the time, my family and I were living just across the border in the north of Burkina Faso. Although we were a hundred miles from Timbuktu, the distance was not in itself reassuring. Westerners all over the Sahel were being kidnapped with alarming regularity. A hundred miles of sand and scrubland is easily traversible by Landcruiser.
As the weeks and months wore on, the news coming out of Timbuktu remained gloomy. A harsh form of sharia was being imposed within the city. Human rights were being violated. World Heritage sites were being systematically destroyed. In August that year I blogged about the horrors of occupied Timbuktu and the very real threat that the riverside town of Mopti might be next: Timbuktu to Mopti: what has become of the Mali I love?
In early 2013, French and Malian forces succeeded in repelling Islamist forces in Mali. Citizens of newly-liberated Timbuktu began to tell their stories to the world’s media – stories of persecution, yes, but also of resistance. We heard about moments of short-lived, fiery protest (women marching against the imposition of the veil) and about ingenious smuggling operations (thousands of priceless manuscripts being spirited away from Timbuktu, hidden under crates of cabbages!). Sarah Pakenham at Andersen Press drew my attention to one particular BBC article by Naveena Kottoor How Timbuktu’s Manuscripts were Smuggled to Safety and I responded glibly that there was ‘a novel in there somewhere’. Sarah took my reply seriously and a book contract was drawn up before the week was out.
For three months I researched, plotted and outlined, and by the start of NaNoWriMo in November I was ready to write BLOOD & INK. Back then the novel’s working title was ALI AND KADIJA, because of the novel’s Romeo-and-Juliet-like plot. Ali is a jihadist, Kadija is a singer, and their love is as intense as it is impossible.
Whilst I was working on BLOOD & INK, Mauritanian-French filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako was working on his film TIMBUKTU. I’m glad that my book was complete before I even heard about the film, because there are striking similarities. As I watched TIMBUKTU last night, there were two or three moments that gave me literal goosebumps, so exact was the convergence of our stories. I saw Ali clearly in the character of the teenage jihadi chauffeur, and I saw Kadija in the character of La Chanteuse (beautifully played by Fatoumata Diawara). Kadija in BLOOD & INK and La Chanteuse in TIMBUKTU both get lashed as punishment for their ‘crimes’; both respond to their punishment in the same incredible way.
I should say right now that I loved the film TIMBUKTU. I have reservations about it, which I’ll come to later, but first here are some of the (many) things I loved:
1. The invisible football match and the jihadi World Cup banter
All the reviewers are talking about that invisible football game, and rightly so. It’s one of the cleverest pieces of cinema I’ve seen in ages. The boys of Timbuktu play football outside the city, but football is banned, so they play without a ball. The sequence is beautifully choreographed and the music is wonderful. A penalty taker lines up the invisible ball and waits patiently for a donkey to walk across the pitch before taking his shot. A young lad in a Messi T-shirt scores a wonder-goal and wheels away celebrating. Two jihadis pass by on a motorbike and the teenagers stop their game and pretend to be stretching and doing situps.
I have written before about the almost comic collision of Islamism and football. Here’s a section from my article Garibous of God, published more than ten years ago:
Mustafa is no ordinary 16-year-old. He is the son of a well-known Sheik in Niamey, and has studied under 11 maribouts in five West African countries. Since his arrival here in Djibo his eloquence and charisma have made him something of a leader amongst the garibous (students of religion). He is well on the way to memorizing the entire Qur'an, as well as an intriguing variety of apocrypha and folklore. He declared yesterday that football is deeply wrong and that in the afterlife a football-sized stone would crush the head of anyone who had played it here on earth. The garibous accepted this without comment and then continued to discuss Mali's prospects in the African Cup of Nations.
In Sissako’s film, the jihadists outlaw football, sure, but they still can’t help talking about it! In one scene, a group of them discuss the World Cup. “France has never won anything in football,” says one fighter. “What about 1998?” says another. “Ah but that was against Brazil,” retorts the first. “Brazil is a poor country. France gave Brazil a boatload of rice and Brazil let them go two goals up in the World Cup final.” Their conversation is utterly bonkers and (for anyone who knows the Sahel) totally authentic.
2. The good imam
TIMBUKTU has some very strong writing, and nowhere more so than the scene near the beginning of the film where the Imam of Timbuktu (played by Adel Mahmoud Cherif) tries to reason with jihadist Abdelkerim. Here is that speech in full, in all its defiant, rambling glory:
Who am I to say renounce jihad? I don’t take care of others’ jihad. I do jihad to myself. I swear I don’t have time for other people’s jihad. Were I not committed to my moral improvement, I’d be the first to join you. I pray to Allah, the Almighty, hoping that He’ll forgive me and that He’ll forgive you. May he Help us reject vanity and pride. Stop this! You cause harm to Islam and to Muslims. You put children in danger in front of their poor mother. You even hit the mother of two children without any good reason. Before you came, a woman was here to complain that you forced her to wear gloves — here they are — without any explanation, without convincing her of their usefulness. Remember the words of Allah, the Almighty: So pardon them, consult them in the matter...Speak with them, and once you’ve made a decision, put your trust in Allah, for he loves those who rely on him. Where is leniency? Where is forgiveness? Where is piety? Where is exchange, exchange? Where is God in all of this?
3. Stunning cinematography
The cinematography of TIMBUKTU is simply outstanding. Soft light on desert-hardened faces, clouds of dust from the hooves of cattle, turbaned silhouettes at dusk, an uberwide lens on the great River Niger, rich colours inside a Tuareg tent, this film is a real looker, a celebration of the Sahel’s rugged beauty. It would have been even better had it been shot in Timbuktu itself, with its striking sudanic architecture, soaring mosques and fine carved doors, but that was not possible for security reasons.
4. Hauntingly beautiful soundtrack
I have mentioned Fatoumata Diawara’s appearance as ‘La Chanteuese’. Her song ‘Tombouctou Fasso’ was written specially for the film.
The song is in Bambara, but here are the words in English.
This is Timbuktu, my homeland,
Where the children are mourning in gloom,
This is my land, Timbuktu ‘the Maliba’,
The land of love,
The land of warmth,
The land of dignity,
This is my nation.
Why are we crying?
Why are the children crying?
Why are the young crying?
Because of injustice,
Because of violence,
Fearing the future.
Here is my home.
No matter what, Timbuktu will remain.
Okay, here are some of my reservations about the film TIMBUKTU:
1. The myth of the noble Tuareg
Dear old Kidane lives on his pristine dune with his wife, his daughter, his guitar and his favourite cow called GPS. All he wants is a quiet life, but he has somehow been caught up in the horror of the jihadi occupation. Ah yes, the myth of the noble Tuareg, the romantic ‘blue man of the desert’, that inscrutable, turbaned, photogenic, peace-loving pastoralist and family man. Sissako’s film panders to French obsession with the Noble Tuareg and completely ignores the historical events which led to the takeover of Timbuktu. The MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Liberation d’Azawad) was entirely made up of men like Kidane, except they wielded Kalashnikovs rather than guitars. The MNLA and AQIM were behind the takeover of Timbuktu. They executed scores of Malian soldiers and committed terrible atrocities during the occupation. So it is a bit rich to see a picture postcard Tuareg herder playing the victim in this film.
2. The myth of the cuddly jihadist
Sissako rightly refuses to demonize the jihadists. He dares to show them as real people – totally human and even at times sympathetic. But I think he goes too far – these fellows are just too likeable.
Sissako says: “The most terrible thing is that [the jihadists] are people like us. It’s always hard to say. But they are.” In humanizing the jihadists, Sissako has avoided the most obvious pitfall. The ‘normal’ course (and the one Hollywood would definitely have taken) would have been to make the jihadists two-dimensional monsters – unremittingly evil and barely human – whereas Sissako has done something much more interesting and courageous. But has he taken it too far? Consider the jihadist fighter Abdelkarim.‘The fact that his daughter will soon be an orphan upsets me,’ Abdelkarim remarks to his translator, ‘but don’t translate that.’ Abdelkarim listens patiently to criticism from the imam and does not pass comment of any sort. He even turns away from the lashing of La Chanteuse. Why? Is it too violent for his taste? Abdelkarim and his cronies seem muddled about sharia, embarrassed by their own behaviour and somewhat sad that events in Timbuktu have come to such a pretty pass. Even during the stoning (the most shocking moment of the film) Sissako cuts away to a jihadist dancing barefoot on a rooftop – a beautiful, floaty, desperate dance, so out of keeping with the horrors going on below. Poor chaps, having to enforce sharia law, when all they really want to do is ballet.
3. Where are the manuscripts? Where are the mausolea?
According to an ancient saying, the soul of Timbuktu is not in its city walls, but in the writings of its scholars, the tombs of its saints and the worship of its God. Worship of God is dealt with in this film, certainly, but the manuscripts and the mausolea are conspicuous by their absence. The smuggling of ancient manuscripts out of Timbuktu and the destruction of ancient mausolea by the jihadists are crucial elements of the story of Timbuktu 2012, and Sissako should have included them. Instead he has gone for a herder-fisherman story as the central conflict of the film. I don’t get it. Conflict between nomads and settled people is as old as humanity itself, and is totally irrelevant to the story of the city’s jihadi occupation. Our hero Kidane decides to take a handgun to a confrontation with a fisherman. His wife Satima tells him not to take the gun with him. She tells him to think of his daughter Toya. He ignores her and takes the gun, kills the fisherman by mistake, then spends the rest of the film admonishing judges to think of his daughter Toya! Hmm. It’s a personal thing, but I’d rather have seen less focus on Kidane’s story and more on the plight of La Chanteuse.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Sissako’s TIMBUKTU, wonderful though it is, would have been even wonderfuller had it been made two years later and been based on BLOOD & INK.
Haha, there, I’ve said it!
Timbuktu is in UK cinemas now, and is also available to rent on Blinkbox.
BLOOD & INK comes out on 4 June and is published by Andersen Press.