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timbuktu

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1977

POSTMARK: Mali

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

When traveling in foreign lands, I search for the remote, the bizarre and the unusual. My idyllic quest thus led me to the ancient city of Timbuktu, “The Pearl of the Desert.” I yearned to venture there by “pirogue” (a wooden boat), but the Niger River in the present dry season was too low for water traffic. In Bamako, Mali’s capital, I met a pilot for Air Mali who gave me a free air ride to the edge of the Sahara.

Upon arrival I was captivated by a discreet and mysterious charm. For centuries Timbuktu has been a citadel of the Islamic religion. The many mosques and pyramid towers bear witness to various periods of its fabulous history. Poets refer to Timbuktu as the “Key to the Sahara,” a rightly name since to this day the city is a starting point of the most important Tuareg camel caravans transporting large salt tablets once a year from the mines of Taoudeni deep into the markets of black Africa. Timbuktu’s streets wind in and out like an elaborate maze. Large oval ovens dot the streets like ancient monoliths. Toward the top of each oven is a hole where the bread is shoveled in by long-handled flat spades. The bread is flat, but when clipped open it makes a pocket for stuffing in food.

Most of Timbuktu’s 7,000 inhabitants continue to live in the same windowless houses made of mud. Huge wooden doors with detailed carvings are opened by large central silver rings. The houses seemed more like fortresses; they are solid shelters against the “harmattan,” the dry winds that sweep in from the desert. The houses are refreshingly cool, making fine refuges from the intense heat of the Saharan sun.

So how do I know what the inside of those homes look like? Well, the people of Timbuktu, whether they are blacks, Berbers, Songhais or Tuaregs, are extremely friendly. While walking through the labyrinthine streets I was continually beckoned to visit families. Not many words were exchanged, but the eye contact and smiles compensated for the language breakdown. The most exciting adventure came when I visited an Arab household. We sat on mats on the sandy floor, speaking French and staring at each other. One woman dressed in black was beautiful with long black braids and high cheekbones. In a way she resembled an American Indian woman. I accepted an invitation for tea, then found myself being whisked up a circular stairway to a large room on the roof.

There were several finely dressed women sitting on richly colored carpets. Within 20 minutes, the entire room was crowded with females. At first I thought it was a spontaneous party for me, due to all the attention I was given. The host spoke little French so it was difficult to get the gist of all that eventually took place.  However, it was mostly a visual experience. When I asked if it was a “fete” (party in French), she nodded yes. A boy of about 10 was scooted into the room. His “boubou” was lifted revealing his naked body. With a slash of the lady’s fingers, I suddenly discovered that I had stumbled onto a circumcision ceremony.

In this part of the rite I attended apparently only women were allowed in the room. There must have been about 20 of us sitting on the floor. Soon one lady began beating a calabash gourd. Another lady began stroking an instrument in the way a violin is played. Her instrument was a small calabash with a long neck. The strings and her bow were taut cow’s hair. The melody was enticing.

A large black woman weighing at least 250 pounds stood up swaying rather delicately to the music. She turned toward me and began to make erotic gestures with her face. She rolled her eyes sideways, sometimes disappearing her pupils so that two white balls eyed me like an ebony ghost. She contorted her mouth in various directions reminding me of a camel chewing food.

She probably thought she was sexy, but to me she was a grotesque clown. Slowly she waddled towards me performing unmentionable gross gestures until her black bulk was practically sitting in my lap. Finally one sympathetic lady saw how dazed I was and ordered the creature to back off. Stunned as I was, I sighed in relief.

The next dancer was more enjoyable. Besides myself, she was the only other unmarried girl in the room. With a long silky veil this maiden began to dance very sensually. She gracefully swirled the cloth around her body and over our heads. She wore thick gold bracelets on her ankles and another pair above her elbows. She was in total harmony with the soothing music. In response, the ladies emitted shrill turkey sounds with their tongues.

The music stopped when the food was brought. The first dish looked like grass left in the bottom of a lawnmower after a fresh mow. It tasted like it too. The next round was delicious Arab couscous followed by a spicy meat sauce. The desert looked like a softball and tasted like stale cookie dough. The maid then came around pouring water over our greasy hands.

The dancing began again, but after two hours in that strange atmosphere I decided I had seen plenty. I had to say goodbye to each lady which meant a kiss on each cheek plus a light one on the lips. I carefully avoided the “black bulk.”

Dusk was approaching as I strolled to the edge of the town which is also the edge of the Sahara. A turbaned nomad mounted his camel, positioning himself on a saddle that looked like a miniature chair. With his toes he scratched the animal’s long neck making the beast rise in awkward grace. The setting sun silhouetted the harmonious couple as they rhythmically swayed westward into the sandy infinity.

Their poetic departure held me so spellbound that I could almost hear the desert winds whispering “Timbuktu” in my ear. Yet not even the: harmattan would reveal to me the secret essence of the enigmatic city. “Ah, Timbuktu, so exotic and mysterious!”

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