“If They Want to Ban Our Music, They Will Have to Kill Us First”

In the aftermath of political upheaval, Mali struggles to preserve its Islamic heritage

©UNESCO/Lazare Eloundou Assomo, Timbuktu, Sankore (Mali) - 2005

Amid all of Mali’s recent violence and political upheaval, protecting its cultural heritage might seem like a relatively low priority. However, in 2012, extremists wrecked many of Timbuktu’s 500-year-old mausoleums, important artifacts integral to the history of Islam in North Africa. Ever since then, the restoration of the country’s architecture and other cultural patrimony has become a symbolic quest, seen as essential to preserving Mali’s identity.

“We want the community to rebuild their own heritage,” Lazare Eloudou Assomo, the UNESCO Representative to Mali, said at a United Nations press conference this past June. “It's not just about rebuilding stones. It's also about keeping the cultural significance and keeping the role that the mausoleum had in structuring the life of the community.”

© UNESCO/F. Bandarin, Timbuktu (Mali) - 2005

Out of the 16 mausoleums included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Salafist extremists obliterated 14. The mausoleums contained shrines to Sufi Islamic saints, the veneration of whom is blasphemous to the rigid religious beliefs of the Salafists. In addition to the restoration of the structures, Malians are now also searching for a number of related, centuries-old manuscripts, hidden away by locals during the conflict. It’s estimated that 4,000 of around 40,000 texts from the Ahmed Baba Institute, dating back to the 13th century, were destroyed or disappeared, although the exact loss is still unclear. By donkey, boat, and bicycle, some 1,000 trunks full of the texts bound in rag paper were smuggled out of the city to safety by Malians during the strife, but the conditions around the conservation efforts have been less than ideal. What the extremists did not burn is now at risk of rotting.

And Mali is still about $8 million short of what it needs to even complete the Timbuktu architectural repairs alone. On March 14, UNESCO launched an $11 million rehabilitation project of the historic West African city, but funding stalled at $3 million in April, partly due to the project’s lack of urgency compared to other global humanitarian plights.

Timbuktu—more frequently a synonym for a far-flung place that might as well be off the map—remains mostly uncharted in the international consciousness, despite long being an intellectual crossroads. And news from Mali—not least the Air Algerie crash last month—centers on communities still struggling with the aftereffects of the coup, which culminated in an Islamist insurgency in January 2013.

Photo by Emilio Labrador

Considering all of the violence and displacement, restoring ancient tombs and fragile texts might seem small in comparison. Yet Timbuktu, with its incredible mud architecture and history as a home for libraries and universities, is fighting to hold onto its rich traditions. Initiatives like the Timbuktu Renaissance Action Group are working to encourage cultural preservation as a means of sustainable economic redevelopment. The group has partnered with artists like Malian musician Fadimata Walet Oumar, who proclaimed during the extremist occupation in 2012 that if “they want to ban our music...they will have to kill us first.”

Fierce pride like Oumar’s will hopefully assure a continued voice for Malian heritage, but that’s only if the rest of the world starts to pay attention. The next phase of the Timbuktu restoration was intended to take place this coming September following the rainy season, but progress is at a crawl, as UNESCO and other groups struggle to raise the necessary funds. Conflict continues in parts of the country, with the French stepping in once again to take on Mali’s Islamic militants—local cultural treasures and important pieces of national heritage are still at risk. It’s time the world started paying attention to Mali’s cultural quest, and what it means to a people fighting to rebuild.

© UNESCO/F. Bandarin, Timbuktu (Mali) - 2005

Julian Meehan

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