Cultural revolution in Mali against an unholy war

In Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, three World Heritage centers, terror silenced singing, rage destroyed mausoleums and flames scorched manuscripts. On the front line against Al-Qaeda there was a mobilization of the military, museums and musicians. Among the latter are Amadou and Mariam, who came to perform at the Lisbon Coliseum. (Read more...)

Men walk by a building damaged by fighting between the Malian army and jihadists in Gao, Mali, March 13, 2013

The Au Roi du Café in Paris is emptied of its usual customers and occasional tourists when Fatoumata Diawara makes her entrance like a majestic kaleidoscope: from her poise to her multicolored bracelets and piercings topped by her painted red braids flowing from a flowered turban.

I arrive here at Rue de la Chapelle where negritudes intersect, African skins and Jewish Orthodox hats, and the symbolism of this meeting point immediately emerges.

The restaurant, brasserie and bistro is just off a metro station that is named after Marx Dormoy, a socialist activist arrested and murdered in 1941 during the Nazi occupation of France, because of his opposition to an attempt to give extensive powers to Marshal Pétain and the Vichy government.

Fatoumata, 30-years-old, actress, dancer, songwriter and performer, formed a super band determined to defy groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which are trying to establish a caliphate in northern Mali.

The band is composed by 40 musicians who sing: Do we want to kill each other? Do we want to betray each other? Are you allowing them to divide us? We are all the same blood!

Mali is a state in West Africa that since becoming independent in 1960 has faced four coups in the North and descended into chaos when the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA, separatist Tuareg) attacked the Malian army, on January 18th 2012, and joined forces with AQIM and other groups such as Mujao and Ansar e-Dine. They are supporters of a “holy war” and have managed to take over two-thirds of the territory.

These events were followed by a military coup, on March 22nd 2012, which overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré. On January 11th, 2013, before the advance of Islamists to Bamako, the capital, France decided to intervene militarily.

The withdrawal of more than 3,000 soldiers that were mobilized began four months later but a force of about a thousand will remain in the former French colony to support an African mission under UN mandate.

While they were controlling three administrative provinces classified by UNESCO as World Cultural Heritage – Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal – jihadists wrecked mosques and mausoleums of Sufi saints (mystics of Islam).

They burned, stole and smuggled valuable manuscripts. They whipped women who did not use veil. They amputated limbs of suspected thieves and of those playing guitars. They stoned suspects of adultery and imposed sex segregation…

“I was in Bamako [the capital], when I began to hear that they were destroying koras and ngonis, n’jarkas and xalams, baras and balafons, sokus and shekeres, dununs and djembes, and several other musical instruments [of strings and percussion]. More dramatic: they were preventing people from singing”, Fatoumata recalls.

“‘What can I do?’, I wondered. We must rebel in defense of our culture, our roots. I did not know back then that France was already preparing to intervene; a few days after the troops’ arrival, I decided to write a song that would serve as an appeal for peace, unity and reconciliation.”

“Once it was finished, I was on the phone for three days calling all the artists that I knew. It was amazing the positive feedback that I got from everyone.”

“Three days later we were recording, working on arrangements and editing. In little more than a month, a seven-minutes video was completed. I called it Mali-ko (Peace/La Paix)”. Watch it here.

Fatoumata Diawara formed a super band. They are 40 musicians who sing: “Do we want to kill each other? Do we want to betray each other? Are you allowing them to divide us? We are all the same blood!”
© Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

In an effort to amplify a unified patriotic voice, Fatoumata ensured the presence of beloved figures from across West Africa, namely Khaira Arby, “the goddess of Timbuktu” (whom Islamists threatened to cut off her tongue) and the reggae singer Tiken Jah Fakoly, expelled from his native Ivory Coast and declared persona non grata in Senegal, but who keeps filling stadiums to capacity in Bamako.

She also confirmed the presence of Tinariwen, Tuaregs who raised to fame in the legendary Festival au Désert (cancelled this year of 2013 because of regional instability), and of Amadou & Mariam, a blind couple who last February won a second “Victoire de la Musique” award, the French equivalent of the Grammies, with Folila.

It is this album, a rock-blues-jazz-soul-pop-funk combination featuring indie Santigold, rappers Theophilus London, French singer Bertrand Cantat and American guitarist Nick Zinner (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), that husband (Amadou) and wife (Mariam) will present in Lisbon at the Coliseum on [April 25th 2013].

Amadou Bagayoko, who met Mariam Doumbia when they were both members of the Institute for Young Blind’s orchestra in Bamako, in 1979, was leaving for the capital when he answered our questions by telephone.

“We were thrilled to receive the award because in the current context of war it also represents a victory for the people of Mali,” he exulted. “Following the coup d’état and the beginning of the Islamist offensive, an entire country was left in a state of shock.”

“While in Bamako and the South the situation is calm, the music interdiction represented for us a violation of national identity,” Amadou underlined: “We supported the French intervention because it allows us to continue to fight for the values ​​of democracy and secularism.”

“We are committed to foster understanding, not hatred. We can accept autonomy for the Imazighen [or “Freemen”, who reject the term “Berber”] in the North, but never independence. The country is indivisible!”

It was January 11, 2013 when Operation Serval was launched at the behest of President François Hollande. On the 16th, with the French infantry already battling on the ground, the jihadists “avenged themselves” by kidnapping hundreds of foreign workers at a pipeline in the extreme southeast of Algeria.

On the 19th, after Malian troops recaptured the city of Konna, the gas central was stormed by Algerian’s special forces: 38 hostages and 29 captors were killed. From the 21 of January onward, troops from Mali and France (to which were added some 2000 soldiers from Chad) in turn regained Douentza, Gao, Timbuktu, Kidal and Tessalit.

Amadou and Mariam. He said: “We supported the French intervention because it allows us to continue to fight for the values ​​of democracy and secularism. We are committed to foster understanding, not hatred. We can accept autonomy for the Imazighen [or “Freemen”, who reject the term “Berbers”] in the North, but never independence. The country is indivisible!”

Fatoumata Diawara is aware, she said, that the war “is far from over, although it is easier to win it than to build peace” in a country with plenty of poverty and lack of justice. She does not hide “disgust” with allegations of “summary executions”, in particular of the Tuareg, by Malian troops.

“We need to understand that the oppressors were mercenaries from outside – not our people. The album and the video that we recorded also serve to show the importance of remaining united. I was amazed at the overwhelming response because relatives had warned me to avoid taking political risks.”

“Nevertheless, several radio stations play the song a dozens of times every day”, mentions the women’s rights activist, whose latest album, Fatou, includes a libel against female genital excision. In one of the tracks, Boloko, she denounces: “Ils ont coupé la fleur qui faisait moi une femme” [“They cut the flower that made me a woman”].

For this rebel, who at 18 went to Paris to escape the future her family had planned for her, Hollande’s intervention “was a godsend”. The Malian community in France is one of the largest in African diaspora (120,000 people).

Their houses – every floor and every room – correspond to a village and/or tribe in Mali – and this same pattern applies to the associations that they belong to”, the Paris daily Le Monde reported. “In areas that rarely exceed 15 square meters, it is not unusual to see at least six people living there.”

Elders have the privilege of sleeping in beds while newcomers sleep under blankets on the floor. Without documents and holding only a three-month tourist visa, many Malians “rent” (in exchange for fees) their permits of residence to relatives with physiognomic similarities.

Most of them work primarily in restaurants, construction, domestic service, private security and cleaning companies.

Khaira Arby, “the goddess of Timbuktu”, whom Islamists threatened to cut off her tongue

Ian Birrell, who helped found the musical project Africa Express (in which Fatoumata, Amadou & Mariam and other griots [“memory keepers”] have participated giving concerts around the world), was not surprised to see that “in the liberated areas, people shouted Vive la France, and celebrated with the flag of their former colonizers.”

For a long time, “after the military coup and the Islamist offensive, few in the West apart from France, cared about the implosion of Mali, a corrupt democracy”, Birrell said, in a telephone call from London, where he was deputy director of The Independent and speechwriter to British Prime Minister’ David Cameron.

“It was ventured that the Sahel war was the legacy of Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow in Libya, and some predicted another conflict similar to the one in Iraq or in Afghanistan”, Birrell added. “However, what we are witnessing in Mali is a cultural war between those who want modernity and those who seek to impose a theocracy. “

“There is no country in the world like Mali, where music is an intrinsic part of the social fabric and of the political life; so it was not a surprise, to me that musicians – not unscrupulous politicians and generals – positioned themselves against those who wanted to demolish centuries of tolerance of Sufism”, Birrell added.

“After the end of colonialism, Malian singers who possess a rich oral tradition, used hymns of praise and mediation as the grout which united disparate communities.”

“Music is a powerful force everywhere but it is much more so in Africa because it serves as protest and hope – Fela Kuti fought against a military dictatorship in Nigeria and Miriam Makeba challenged the apartheid regime in South Africa.”

An unidentified worker looks after some of the 20,000 preserved ancient Islamic manuscripts that rest in air-conditioned rooms at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2004. @Ben Curtis | AP Photo

An unidentified worker looks after some of the 20,000 preserved ancient Islamic manuscripts that rest in air-conditioned rooms at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2004
© Ben Curtis | AP

In Paris, we visited UNESCO’s headquarters at Place de Fontenoy, trying to assess the destruction inflicted by the Islamists until they were forced to disperse by French troops.

“The information we are getting from the ground is terrifying,” admits Mrs. Karalyn Monteil, one of the experts from the World Heritage Centre. “Since May 2012, especially in Timbuktu and Gao, there were repeated attacks that caused brutal damage.

At least 11 of the 16 mausoleums found in Timbuktu are in ruins, two of them located in the Mosque of Djingereber the largest in this city and also at the El Farouk monument. The Tomb of Askia is at high risk.”

As for manuscripts (about five million in Timbuktu alone), “it is believed that most of these texts, from academic treaties to religious edicts are safe but more than 2,000 are believed to have been burnt, looted or sold after an assault on the Islamic Institute’s Library Ahmad Baba“, in Bamako, Mrs. Monteil reveals.

“These compendia of knowledge, Astronomy and Medicine are proof that Africa had a written History before the Europe Renaissance.”

“More than ever there is a great urgency in getting support from everywhere and in particular from neighboring countries to ensure the preservation of what was not destroyed and to prevent the repetition of such crimes, including international trafficking through porous borders which amounts to about 8000 million dollars per year”, Mrs. Monteil said.

The French Minister of Culture, Aurélie Filippetti, who accompanied President Hollande to Mali together with UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, assured that a plan involving the European Union is already under way to train custodians of the precious heritage under threat, especially in Timbuktu the millennial city that attracted distinguished figures as D.H. Lawrence and Leo, the African.

Founded by the Magcharen nomads, around 1100 b.C., Timbuktu remained for two centuries an important center on the routes of salt and gold. However, when Europeans arrived here in 1830, it was already in decline.

A Malian national guardsman (L) takes up a post along a street outside the Grand Mosque before Eid al-Fitr prayers in Bamako August 8, 2013. The Eid al-Fitr festival marks the end of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan
© Joe Penney | Reuters |

According to Mr. Samuel Sidibé, director of the National Museum of Mali, if on one hand the burned manuscripts “are lost forever,” the mausoleums “may still be rebuilt because there is documentation on their structure; and they would not be difficult to reproduce because many were built of terracotta.

For now, he tells us in an interview, “The priority is to make a thorough assessment and then develop an action plan that must be effective.” Initial estimates point to the need for 4 million euros.”

Considered by Mrs. Monteil as “exemplary not only in Africa but in all countries where heritage is in danger”, the National Museum of Mali was created in 1954 but only since the 1980s, Mr. Sidibé said, has it “benefited from funding that made it an art center with great professionalism and ambition, visible in their collections and exhibitions, both permanent and temporary.”

The museum’s director is aware of families that have been “burying their manuscripts for centuries”, passing them from hand to hand, from parents to children and grandchildren. They do that in order to preserve the documents from the Islamist predators. Mr. Sidibé regrets that he’s never had the chance to meet one of these families.

Old manuscripts have resisted heat and humidity thanks to the quality of their skin covers, paper, the ropes that they’re sewed with and the ink used in calligraphy.  In spite of all the efforts “there are families who have been forced to sell their treasured belongings in order to eat or avoid being killed”, Mr. Sidibé grieved.

“The crisis in Mali is not only cultural, but culture should be used by the international community to help us promote national cohesion”, the director of the museum in Bamako recommends. “We cannot encourage the idea that this is an inter-community conflict. We are forced to live together. Jihadism is a global threat, not a local problem.”

A woman in yellow robes, and a child walk past the Sankore mosque, built in the traditional Sahel style, Timbuktu
© Lonely Planet

This article was originally published, in Portuguese, in the daily newspaper PÚBLICO, on April 19, 2013

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