TAHIR SHAH’S TIMBUCTOO has arrived with eerie, serendipitous, timing. In the months leading up to its publication, a coup d’etat and ensuing power vacuum in the West African nation of Mali has resulted in extremists taking over the country’s northern region (where Timbuktu is located). Islamic militants, said to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, and who have piggy-backed on a long-running Tuareg rebellion, have since been busy consolidating their Taliban-style rule. Although the larger episode has received little coverage from Western news organizations, famous for turning a blind eye to African affairs, the most recent twists in the Malian plot have managed to focus the world’s attention, if only for a brief moment, on a forlorn corner of the world which Shah reminds us was once the obsession of Europe.
Just as Timbuctoo was being released a few months ago the Salafist militants began defiling and destroying Timbuktu’s cultural heritage of Sufi shrines and mosques. In 1988, UNESCO designated World Heritage status to over a dozen religious sites in the city. Many libraries containing a wealth of Islamic manuscripts have also been reportedly attacked. The grim episode harkens back to the Taliban’s destruction of the stone Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001. With the area lacking strategic value, the destruction of the relics of Timbuktu’s enlightened past are likely to continue without action from the West.
Of all the distant, far-flung cities of the world, none has personified remoteness, inaccessibility and the promise of exotic riches more than the fabled metropolis of Timbuktu. Situated deep in the Sahara, this erstwhile centre of Islamic learning remained well out of reach of westerners for centuries. So little was known about Timbuktu that not even far-flung Tibet or Samarkand would be able to compete with it. It maintained a unique ability to stoke the desires of explorers and the men of influence who bankrolled them, taking on grossly fictitious dimensions in the minds of those who coveted experience of it. Timbuktu was the stuff of legend, and as is always the case, the legend was built with illusion.
Just how powerful and enduring that illusion would prove to be is something easily gaged by a simple audit of our associations with the name “Timbuktu” today. It remains the exotic locale beyond all roads, the royal city in the desert, the caravansary at the end of the world, the image of veiled otherness. A memorable moment of disappointment came for me two decades ago when I saw a television report that featured the former Saharan crossroads town. All notions of grandeur and high material culture were shattered. A few camera pans yielded little more than a dust-blown village with some low, unimpressive buildings. The dissonance lingered. Even today, while we watch in horror as religious extremists defile the cultural artifacts of Timbuktu’s age of learning, it remains hard to reconcile the physical reality of the place with the mythological clichés we’ve inherited.
At the heart of travel writer Tahir Shah’s newest book, Timbuctoo, is this incommensurability between the mythos and the reality. Shah’s first work of fiction is based on a book of travel literature, published in 1816, entitled (take a deep breath): The Narrative of Robert Adams, A Sailor, Who was Wrecked on the Western Coast of Africa, in the Year 1810, was detained Three Years in Slavery by the Arabs of th...read more