“There’s no ‘Yo man’ any more. We’re into religion”

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Four days ago Niger surrendered to the International Criminal Court a Malian man called Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who has been indicted by the court for the destruction of religious buildings in Timbuktu. This man, who calls himself Abu Tourab, insists on being addressed in Arabic by the Court, though he was born about 100 kilometres from Timbuktu and is a Tamasheq-speaker. He is a leader of what were apparently called the ‘Manners Brigade,’ the benighted thugs who terrorised Timbuktu when it was under foreign Arab occupation, blowing up tombs, burning books and bullying the population into behaving as they imagined seventh century Hejazis to have behaved. This Ahmed is, individually, of no interest at all, just an example of the small man burning with resentment and self-loathing, looking for revenge through bullying and destruction on a world he doesn’t understand. But his indictment is interesting and important because it highlights the place of cultural destruction in today’s conflicts – and the newfound preparedness of the international community to confront and punish it.

By chance, the night before reading in today’s paper about the indictment of this man, I had sat up watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s fabulous new film Timbuktu, which follows the Manners Brigade as they attempt to impose their stunted culture on a small Malian town. The invaders are defiantly foreign, scorning the Malians’ attempts at Arabic but making not the slightest effort to speak Tamasheq themselves. They come from the north, the ‘Green Land’ of Libya, and have no interest in the rich culture of Timbuktu, a centre of learning and high Islamic culture for centuries. They help themselves to women, blustering that they are following the instructions of the Prophet. They punish mercilessly the singing of sacred music. They forbid a ludicrously predictable range of things from bare female hands (even on the wet fish stalls in the market where gloves are obligatory) to football, long trousers, smoking and shaved chins (there’s a barber’s placard, fleetingly in the background of one shot, on which the profile faces without beards are obliterated with red crosses). In fact, as one of them puts it, “It is forbidden to do any old thing.”

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There are no burned books or blown-up shrines in Timbuktu. In fact there are no public buildings or recognizable shots of Timbuktu: despite its name the film is set in an almost abstract Malian village-scape of ochre mud-brick alleys and metal doors, and in the semi-desert around it. In the alleys of the town Abdelkrim and his bully-boys swagger and punish; in the country they are much less confident, careering incompetently after gazelle in their pick-up trucks, sneaking off for illicit cigarettes behind the dunes and pestering Satima, the wife of the film’s central character Kidane, when he is away from his tent. They may come from the Green Land, but they are creatures of the town, comfortable in small bureaucratic huddles, dealing out ‘sharia’ punishments in gloomy rooms and scribbling in exercise books with sandy biros. They hunt down the strains of music caressing the night air, climbing on rooftops and entering private homes to find and punish those who are “singing praises to the lord and his prophet.”

The action of the film is personal, and gently symbolic. Abdelkrim, the lecherous bandit leader, says disparagingly to Kidane, “What do you know about inner strength and goodness?” – when of course it is Abdelkrim who knows nothing, and Kidane who in his very human way exemplifies both those qualities. Kidane is a herdsman, a singing idler who loves his family and keeps out of trouble. His wife Satima says of him “the reason he’s still alive is because he plays the guitar and sings. He’s not a warrior. Warriors die young.” When he forgets this distinction and takes revenge on the fisherman who has killed his prize cow, GPS, the fragile security of his little world unravels and he is led inexorably through cursory trial to execution. Kidane accepts his fate, yearning only for a sight of his wife and daughter before he dies. His is the noble role, his the inner strength.

Music is central. Kidane sings, and so does the girl whose voice draws the Manners Brigade through the night to her gentle gathering of friends. The boy who is reproved for his lack of conviction in denouncing to camera his rapping past (“There’s no ‘yo man’ any more. We’re into religion”) finds it difficult to forswear music with any conviction. But defiance is musical too, and the singing girl bursts into anguished song as she is lashed, her voice rising above the squalid scene in the market place in a sublime cadence of pain and endurance.

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Defiance is all. The girl sings as she bleeds. The man who is told to roll his trousers up because they are too long, takes them off entirely. The football-playing boys obey the letter of the new law by playing without a ball, in an exquisite ballet of mimed passes and shots at goal, while the puzzled thugs glide sulkily by on a motor-bike, unable to complain. Zabou, a statuesque eccentric driven mad by a long-ago earthquake, wanders insouciantly through the film in ragged turquoise finery, her hair uncovered, her hands ungloved and her tattered black train brushing the dust behind her. She takes no notice of the Manners Brigade, at one point stopping their pick-up truck by blocking the narrow alley with her arms spread wide: they have no vocabulary to deal with her, and Zabou glides on, unmolested.

Also defiant, though gently so, is the imam of the mosque, a quiet, measured man who reasons firmly and uncompromisingly with the jihadis about jihad and about their behaviour. Never aggressive, always civil, he makes them very uncomfortable and is never reproved for his impertinence: these jihadis are not good at confronting integrity, whether it is that of a saint or a madwoman. And finally there is the enigmatic figure of a water-seller whose face we never properly see, a Malian Everyman who threads his way through the film on his motorbike, delivering water in yellow jerry-cans to tents and houses, weaving from scene to scene in flashes of his green robe. It is he who at the end of the film brings Satima to Kidane for the last snatched glimpse of her face before they die together; and he who races away on his motorbike, like the gazelle at the beginning of the film, while a truckload of barbarians pursue the symbolic figure at speed, black banners waving, shooting their automatic weapons incompetently at his back.

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Timbuktu is extraordinarily beautiful, cutting from a village of browns and reds with painted swirls on the walls and moonlit nights full of distant music, to a landscape of dunes, lakes and small shrubs, through which cattle amble. The lake shots, great silvery panoramas, with silhouetted men like Indonesian shadow-puppets at the centre, are exquisite. The landscape cries out to be caressed, a cry that even reaches the dimness of Abdelkrim’s brain when, frustrated by Satima’s scorn for him, he spots a suggestive tuft of grass between dunes, a dark declivity which stirs some lecherous cupidity in his dull heart. He blazes viciously away at it with his Kalashnikov, mowing the grass into submission.

In appearing to ignore the destruction of physical culture – the shrines, tombs and libraries which offended the shrivelled souls of the puritanical jihadis – Sissako allows the oppression of the human inhabitants of his Timbuktu to stand for all. The culture that is oppressed is represented by music, love, compassion, normality. The destruction, by flogging, stoning, shooting and abusing. But there is one very telling scene of cultural annihilation, right at the beginning of the film: a row of traditional dark wooden carvings, of female figures with large breasts, is lined up on the sand and shot. We don’t see who is shooting, though we know at once; but we watch the material culture of an old and civilised society being shattered by unseen idiots in a parodic firing-squad, and we know that this lies in the background to the whole film.

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It is a delicately brushed and sensitively represented balance. In the last couple of years we have heard a lot about the choice between ‘people’ and ‘things’ – about the obscenity of concern about material culture when flesh and blood are at stake. It is right to worry at these questions as Palmyra trembles, Nimrud falls and eleven million Syrians flee their homes. But in the end, the two are not easily disentangled. A few weeks ago I wrote about Palmyra, and the problem of ‘people’ and ‘things,’ and I shall risk quoting myself and – more importantly – Robert Bevan, here:

In a particularly good article  in the Evening Standard, Robert Bevan, a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, discusses this whole issue very wisely, writing that “until the West can demonstrate that it understands that the fate of peoples and the fate of their culture are interlinked, there can be no resolution to the ongoing attacks on both.” He discusses the insights of Raphael Lemkin, the Byelorussian Jew who drafted and promoted the 1948 Genocide Convention (having coined the word). Lemkin linked the two voices of annihilation – against people and against their culture – in his drafting of the Convention, but the UN removed reference to the destruction of culture, with disastrous results. Not that Lemkin confused the two. Bevan quotes him as saying, luminously, “Burning books is not the same as burning bodies, but when one intervenes against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.” 

Sissako’s balance is right, with every stick of dynamite and every blow by bulldozer fully implicit in the singing of the flogged girl and the shooting of the gentle Kidane. The tombs of Timbuktu’s saints have mostly been rebuilt since the relief of Timbuktu, and the books were largely hidden before the vandals reached them, so the material damage is all the more easily subsumed into the human. Now at least one of those responsible for the double destruction will appear before the ICC, a Touareg pretending only to understand Arabic.

As for Kidane, the representative Malian, “the reason he’s still alive is because he plays the guitar and sings.” Yo man.

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