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Tombouctou

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After about three days in Djenné the lizards begin to talk. They scamper up the walls of the hotel in the early morning sunlight, snapping at one another’s tails. Some are the colour of dirty canvas, others indigo blue with orange heads and tails. Most of the time they just stand still. They watch and they wait. Their long digits cleave spiny crevices in the adobe walls. They vanish only to reappear, pointy snouts thrusting out with a puff of air, dust and straw. They bob up and down once and are gone. Three days is long enough. You hear their feet skating by as they race along the low parapet behind you, halt under your table, poised and motionless, chests pulsating, rising and falling nervously. They watch and they wait.

The two men lodged in the lobby had not glimpsed another guest in over a month. Each day they unlocked the doors dutifully and wandered round the yard to check that nothing had been disturbed overnight. Then they each settled themselves into one of the big armchairs that cluttered up the tiny space and yawned their way through the morning. There was nothing to look forward to until lunchtime. When I walked in asking for a room they opened their eyes and blinked, probably wondering where on earth I had sprung from.

At a loss, they looked at one another. Eventually, one of them got up and went behind the counter where he rooted about for a long time before finally pulling out a dusty ledger. It was in a sorry state, having been in use for decades by the look of it. The covers were scuffed, the cloth torn in places. The spine had lost its rigidity and was now slumped to one side, the pages inside splayed out like a pack of playing cards. Chunks had disappeared, ripped out over the years in service of one thing or another: a message, a note, a shopping list, leaving yawning gaps that spanned lost years in the life of this place. When I attempted to write in my name the paper slid sideways, slipping free of its stitching. No, there were no other guests staying in the hotel. One of the two men went back to slump in his chair, one arm thrown up to cover his eyes with his hand, exhausted by the effort. The other led me out into a yard covered in baked earth and pointed to a door.

‘If you want to eat tonight, you must say now so we can go to the market.’

‘What do you have?’

‘Chicken or fish, msieu. Better to take fish today.’

‘Why is that?’

‘Because the man who sells chickens is not a good man.’

With that he turned and sauntered back to the reception and his waiting armchair to close his eyes again. I was exhausted from the journey and cared only to get inside out of the bright sunlight. I followed the directions across the courtyard to wait out the hours until evening.

The room was simple and rich with the odour of dried earth. The bed creaked alarmingly and I thumped it a few times to get some of the dust out and to alert anything that might have taken up residence inside it that a new tenant had arrived. Nothing moved, However hot the room was, it was still and dark, and infinitely better than the twelve hours I had spent rattling about in the baking metal frame of the bus that carried me here from Bamako.so I lay down, grateful for the creaky fan that revolved overhead. It only had one speed: Very Slow. The bent metal blades gently brushed the air, hardly stirring more than the faintest of breezes. Just as I had managed to convince myself that this rhythmic motion was quite enough to ask for, the blades began to slow and finally came to a stop. I stared at them, trying to will them back into action by the force of my telekinetic powers, sweat already beading down my face, until finally I had to admit defeat. I got up and went over to open the door. One of the men from the lobby was strolling across the yard. He gave me a cursory glance.

‘Power cut, msieu. Always this hour. Every day.’

‘When does it come back?’

‘When night comes. Inshallah.’

I lay and sweated in the gloom. When I shut my eyes I saw the aching imprint of the road. However hot the room was, it was still and dark, and infinitely better than the twelve hours I had spent rattling about in the baking metal frame of the bus that carried me here from Bamako. I passed in and out of sleep, emerging as if from a fever that left me with disconcerting recollections. One of which was of a cat sitting on the table in the middle of the room staring at me. When I eventually dragged myself up from the bed in search of water I discovered it had not been a dream. The cat had eaten my supper from the plate that had been left there while I slept. Now there were fishbones strewn about the table and even the floor. A train of ants crept like a spindly tendril towards the door.

When morning came I went for a walk. In the square in front of the mosque merchants paused under the shady acacia trees and talked business while chewing sticks. Women absently waved excited flies away from their meagre piles of onions and marrows. By the end of the day I decided there was nothing else for me here.

‘How do I get to Mopti?’

The man leaning on the counter was picking his teeth with a twig. He stared at the pillar of sunlight that fell through the hotel doorway.

‘Where are you trying to get to, msieu?’

‘I hope to reach Timbuctu eventually.’

He smiled. ‘Tombouctou? There is nothing there, msieu. A lot of sand.’

‘And books,’ I said, perhaps hoping for some information. But all I got was a frown. Books?

‘Tombouctou is a long way. Tres loins. From Motpi you travel by river. Two days.’ He held up his fingers.

‘Yes, but first I need to get to Mopti.’

Behind me, the second man spoke. He had been silent up until now, and remained where he was, even now, reclining in his armchair with his eyes closed.

‘There is a taxi in the square, msieu. Always someone is going to Mopti.’

I walked back to the market square to find it deserted. C’est le heure du priere, a passer-by explained. Prayer time. I looked up at the mosque. In the fading light it resembled a giant insect with a muddy brown carapace and protruding wooden spars that punctured the air like spines.

The next morning there was indeed a taxi sitting in the middle of the market square. The only vehicle in sight, a Peugeot 504 estate. One of those very long cars, high at the back, which seem to only increase in value with time. All over Africa and the Middle East they are very popular as taxis. In Upper Egypt they call it the Omda, meaning the town mayor, as a token of respect.

The office was a small dark room. A man sat on a chair roughly made from an old wooden packing case of the kind that used to carry tinned goods or soap and candles, a long time ago. On the side faint stencilled lettering could be made out: Xenos & Pagnol, Marseilles. A feathery light from a high window brushed his lean features as he filled out the little slip and tore the ticket out of the book.

‘When will the taxi leave?’

‘When it is full, msieu.’

I went back outside to wait and noticed a narrow bench against the wall, stained the colour of dark tobacco from years of use. On this sat a boy of about sixteen. I assumed he was another passenger.

An hour went slowly by. As the sun rose steadily in the sky I watched whatever advantage I had been hoping to gain from an early start burn itself out in the stark light. Leaving my bag I went back inside. The man in the chair was sitting in the gloomy interior just as he had been, completely motionless, staring at the shadows. I felt something shuffle across the wall to my right. A fly settled on the man’s forehead and rubbed its back legs excitedly together.

‘How many tickets still remain?’

‘Yours is the third,’ the man said pointing at the pink slip he held. Meaning that none had been sold since.

‘And how many are there in all?’

‘Nine.’

‘And what happens if they are not sold?’

‘The taxi will not leave. It cannot drive if the car is not full.’ The man stared at me as though this was obvious.

Back outside the market square was a little busier than it had been before. A handful of wooden carts and stalls had been set up here and there with no apparent order. I wondered what they were selling.

‘Where are you from, msieu?’

I turned to look at the boy sitting alongside me on the bench. He was so quiet I had forgotten about him completely.

‘Where am I from?’ It was never an easy question to answer. Just thinking about providing an answer made me feel tired. ‘I am trying to get to Mopti.’

‘The taxi is slow today.’

‘Yes,’ I agreed.

‘Why are you going to Mopti, msieu?’

‘I want to get to Timbuctu.’

‘C’est très loin, msieu.’

‘Yes, I know.’ The more I heard people say it, the more determined I was to get there.

Est-ce que vous êtes Egyptien?’

His French was slow and halting, but confident. ‘No,’ I said. ‘And you? Are you from here?’

‘Yes. I am also travelling. Like you.’

‘You are going to Mopti?’

‘No, msieu. I am going to Italy.’

I examined the boy more carefully. He was young. He carried no bag or belongings of any kind. He wore a simple shirt with several buttons missing and a pair of plastic sandals, one of which was held together with a bent nail. Italy seemed as attainable as Mopti, or the moon.

The day slipped away and darkness fell. The man emerged from the ticket office and pulled the door to behind him. He slipped a chain through a hole in the door and around the door frame via a gap between frame and wall before finally attaching a padlock.

‘Try again tomorrow,’ he said as he walked away.

The men in the hotel were also locking up when I reappeared. They were surprised to see me. They looked at one another and then pushed open the door and retrieved the ledger. One of them wiped beads of sweat from his forehead as he leaned on the counter.

‘How many nights, msieu?’

The next morning the boy was sitting on the bench when I arrived. He had obviously been thinking things over because this time he had a question prepared.

‘There is nothing in Tombouctou, Msieu. Why do you want to go there?’

‘Well,’ I began, trying to think of where to begin. ‘In 1492, the Catholic kings of Spain conquered the city of Granada. ‘There is nothing in the past for me,’ declared the boy after listening patiently. ‘It is dead to me. More than dead. It has never been alive.’For eight years after that, life in the city was unaltered, but then there was a change. The Christians feared the people might still be loyal to their old rulers. Everything associated with the past was deemed a threat. Muslims and Jews were persecuted. The places where they congregated were raided. Anything written in Arabic was potentially a source of danger. Whole libraries were burnt to ashes.’

‘There is nothing in the past for me,’ declared the boy after listening patiently. ‘It is dead to me. More than dead. It has never been alive.’

‘How can you say that when you sit here?’ I nodded across the square at the mosque, with its rounded adobe walls and distinctively tapered turrets from which wooden crossbeams jutted like spars from a muddy galleon run aground.

‘It is dead.’

There was silence after that. We watched the man come out of the gloomy office and go over to the Peugeot. He walked around it, his slippers dragging in the dust. First he opened all the doors and then repeated his circuit, this time closing them again. He reached through the open window, rummaged under the acrylic wool on the dashboard for a packet of cigarettes and carefully lit one before going back inside his little office, our hope dying with every step.

I had been warned that the local men were very protective of the mosque, and that ever since a French photographer had tried to take pictures of the interior, foreigners had been forbidden from entering. I decided to try anyway. A group of children with begging bowls trailed behind me as I approached.

‘Where are you going, msieu?’

‘I’d like to look inside.’

Oh no, c’est interdit.

‘But I’m a Muslim, surely I am allowed in?’

‘Where are you from, msieu?’ They studied my appearance, my clothes. Everything about me suggested to them that I was not to be trusted. When I told them they shook their heads; ‘C’est pas vrais. This is the Soudan.’

‘That was in the old days. I am talking about the modern Sudan, which is near Egypt.’

‘You are Egyptian?’

‘No,’ I explained. ‘Today, this is Mali and that is Sudan. Before, all of this, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic, was known as the Sudan.’

They clutched their plastic bowls and looked at one another.

‘If you are Muslim then you must wash before you enter the mosque.’

They pointed to a row of taps jutting from the wall. I looked at them. Five, diminutive judges, their faces stern with age-old disapproval. OK, I nodded, allowing myself to be led over. I took off my boots and ran my feet under the water, at which point they erupted into howls. I had begun the sequence wrongly. A young man hurried over from the mosque to see what the trouble was. He dispersed the boys with a few waves of his arms, the wide sleeves of his boubou flapping like wings.

C’est interdit, msieu,’ he said, so solemnly that I could see nothing would be gained from trying to persuade him otherwise.

I took myself off, my thoughts returning to those hardy travellers who had fled persecution in Spain. They brought with them what they could save. The treasures of Al Andalus whose ‘When I get to Italy, I shall make a lot of money and then I shall buy some boots. Very expensive, but very good.’libraries contained ancient books on philosophy, poetry, optics, music, mathematics, medicine. They crossed the sea to the North African coast. They exchanged books for safe passage across the desert. Many of these works were passed down through generations of Bedouins as part of their family heritage. The desert was said to be dotted with stashes of books buried in the sand for safekeeping.

The boy was still sitting on the bench where I had left him. He had observed the whole business in front of the mosque. He watched me as I approached and sat down with a weary sigh.

‘You still want to get to Tombouctou?’

‘Caravans travelled here from Spain,’ I told him. ‘They followed ancient trade routes across the desert.’

‘They came here?’ The boy looked incredulous. ‘But why?’ He stared at me, his face a picture of disbelief, doubting me more with every word I spoke.

‘They were looking for sanctuary.’

The subject was of little interest to him. His attention was drawn to two kids who were kicking a football around on the other side of the square.

‘When I get to Italy, I shall make a lot of money and then I shall buy some boots. Very expensive, but very good.’

‘Do you have family there? Friends?’

‘No. I have a telephone number.’ He produced a scrap of paper with a number scrawled unevenly on it.

‘In which city?’

The boy dismissed the question with a shrug. What difference did it make? Allah would find a way. Then he got to his feet and jogged over to join the football game. The sun passed the zenith and began its slow descent. The car sat in the square. It looked as though it might have been left there by an alien race visiting from another planet. I watched the dust blow little eddies around the bald tyres as evening, once more, began to fall. I thought about the lizards that awaited me back at the hotel. ■

Image by Djuliet.

For more from Travel online: an interview with Robert Macfarlane, a Q&A with Charles Simic, a new Haruki Murakami story from Granta 124, Chinelo Okparanta writes a letter from Uzbekistan, Cathy Chung goes to Kung Fu school, exclusive excerpts from the magazine from Sonia Faleiro, Teju Cole and Lina Wolff.

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    Great piece. I was in Djenne in 2008 and I find myself able to recall it vividly again when I read this piece, though time has not been good to it. I hope there will be more installments from Mali-- I will look for them anyway. Many thanks for this!

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  3. Toubab

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    I was very interested to see this story which so vividly evokes the town of Djenne which is my home since 2006. I am sorry that the writer did not stay at my hotel www.hoteldjennedjenno.com which has remained open for the whole crisis period, and where there is air conditioning, food and cold drinks.
    But most of all I am sad the writer did not stay with me for another reason: I could have spoken to him about the Djenne Manuscript Library which is open to the public (www.djennemanuscrits.com). This library houses a large number of Arabic manuscripts and we are in the process of digitizing these with the help of the Endangered Archives Programme of the British Library.(eap.bl.uk)
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