In 2012, jihadists took over the Malian city. After liberation, the threat is far from over – but artists are getting back on stage
Gold jewellery glinting, robes changing from blue to green under the lights, the diva of Timbuktu sang of Allah, salt mines and camels. Her audience sat silently around a courtyard, watching, listening, giving nothing away.
Then, as she began Sourgou, her haunting Tuareg song, two men who could no longer contain their joy leapt on stage with her. They began to dance, crowns of charms around their heads, streaming turbans following their swooping movements.
Khaira Arby had been away from home for a long time, but on a Tuesday last month, she brought her music back to Timbuktu, the legendary Malian city of poetry and learning that has, in recent years, been silenced by a prolonged and complex conflict.
Hers was the first of a series of monthly concerts to be put on by Timbuktu Renaissance, an organisation whose mission is to bring the town’s people back together through culture.
Curious Timbuktiens kept arriving at the Auberge du Désert, one of the last functioning hotels in a former tourist magnet, following the sound of Arby’s voice, electric guitars, and an ngoni. Most had not known the concert was happening: its organisers had given very little advance notice for fear it would be targeted by the extremists who are still believed to have eyes and ears in Timbuktu. Soon, behind the silent sitters, there was an excited crowd.
“It’s a long time since I saw anything like this,” said Agaly Dicko, a shy security guard in a “Sacramento, California” hoodie. “There’s not been anything at all since the crisis.”
Singer Abdulrahman Cissé at his Timbuktu home. His band, Buktu Jazz, have found the crisis a creative time. Photograph: Ruth Maclean for the Guardian
The crisis is far from over in northern Mali, though the citizens of Timbuktu hope they have suffered the worst of it already.
Secessionists and Islamists linked to al-Qaida seized control of the city in 2012. The latter, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) enforced Islamic law, forcing women to cover up, flogging people for wearing perfume, and tearing down saints’ graves and a mosque door that legend had it would remain closed until the end of the world.
Musicians received death threats; their instruments were burned. One Islamist arrived at a radio station that had collected decades’ worth of local music one day and carted all the tapes away in rice sacks.
But some look back on it as a time of great musical creativity. “We composed a lot of music during the crisis, but inside houses, in secret,” said Abdulrahman Cissé, a mechanic and musician known locally as Adé, who did backing vocals for Arby, sitting crosslegged on a duvet laid out in a nook of his small courtyard. “We were singing about what we were going through, to transmit the message about what happened.”
“It’s still your city. Even if there’s war, or fire, it’s better for you to stay in your city. Put up with the smoke in your city, soon the fresh air will come back,” he sang in Songhai, then Arabic, then Tamashek – just three of the six languages he uses.
The jihadists fled when French soldiers advanced, in January 2013, and since then life in Timbuktu has edged towards normality. Groups of women in lipstick and red-gold dresses pray openly at the tombs of the city’s 333 saints. Giggling teenagers tease each other in an ornate doorway, leading to the house where the German explorer Heinrich Barth once stayed. Young women in leggings, three to a motorbike, whizz round the earthen Djinguereber mosque, their hair flying.
But in the region outside the city, attacks continue against the UN, military, and civilians. Four days before the concert, five workers installing fibre-optic cables were killed to the south of Timbuktu.
A succession of forces has tried to wrest back control of Mali’s vast northern plains; the latest of these, the G5 Sahel, is composed of soldiers from the five countries affected by the crisis – Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad – and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have just announced that they will contribute $150m, in addition to the $60m from the US and $59m from the EU.
Timbuktu itself is not immune to attack. After the concert, armed guards stood round the carpeted courtyard where Arby sat relaxing with a cup of tea. She seemed nervous.
“There are always people with bad intentions so I do feel scared, of bandits, of being kidnapped, but when I’m with the people, I feel another emotion that makes me forget the fear,” she said.
The door to the Sidi Yahya mosque, which was partly torn down by jihadists, and later repaired. Photograph: Ruth Maclean for the Guardian
Sitting next to her, Cynthia Schneider, co-founder of Timbuktu Renaissance and a former diplomat, was elated.
“The whole point was to make people in Timbuktu feel better and have a sense of real life, and a brighter outlook on the future, and it all seems to have happened,” she said.
Arby’s fear of being kidnapped is very real: ransoms have made AQIM an estimated $100m, according to a new report, and the UN’s presence in Timbuktu is no guarantee of safety: last year a Swiss missionary was abducted from her home for the second time, and later appeared in an AQIM video.
Given the risk, Arby has made an impressive promise: she will move back to Timbuktu if a recording studio is built there. The studio is one of the things Schneider and her fellow directors are trying to raise funds for; also in the works are a youth centre with free wifi, and a project with Ishkar, a shop selling crafts made in conflict zones, to sell embroidered scarves.
When Timbuktu was full of tourists, there was plenty of work in hotels, as a tour guide, or making souvenirs to sell. Now, there is a different market for the distinctive silver crosses of Timbuktu and its skins decorated with Arabic calligraphy: the thousands of UN peacekeepers stationed by the airport.
Diahara Maiga sells watermelon seeds, desert dates and fried fish in the Timbuktu medina. Photograph: Ruth Maclean for the Guardian
Because tourists no longer wander the town’s sandy alleyways, former tour guides are learning how to install solar panels instead, and groups of young men sit on street corners hoping to be hired as day labourers.
“A toubab? In Timbuktu? Do I, myself, even exist?” Diahara Maiga, an incredulous snack-merchant, exclaimed when she saw me in the town’s medina, using the ubiquitous west African word for “foreigner”. She threw fish into a pot of spitting oil at her feet, golden baubles jangling at her temples.
The morning after the concert, Adé was still humming the night’s music as he lit a cigarette and left his house for a jam with his band, Buktu Jazz.
Rumours that some of the next concerts might feature Mali’s hip-hop scene brought out his old-fashioned side. “Hip-hop doesn’t work here,” he said, shaking his head and tutting. “You need to play something young and old people will like.”
For Adé, Timbuktu’s music is powerful enough to begin to solve many of its problems.
“What happened last night was very important,” he said. “When you do this in public, it’s a strong message. When people go home and think about this overnight, it’ll make them think of reconciling with each other.”