Timbuktu: A real place

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Last weekend I went to see the Oscar nominated film Timbuktu.

When I was little I thought Timbuktu was a mythical place. Whenever I heard the word, it seemed to refer to some exotic place at the end of the world where nobody ever went and if they did, they certainly never came back. It was a Dr. Seuss word, he mentions it in Hop on Pop: “My father can read big words, too. Like CONSTANTINOPLE and TIMBUKTU”.

When I moved to Africa I learned about Timbuktu. It was a real place and it had a rich history. During the 13th and 14th century it was a thriving trading center and became a world center for Islamic learning through to the 17th century. By the end of the 20th century it housed 30,000 important manuscripts.

Timbuktu is in a remote area at the center of Mali on the southern Sahara desert and is mostly sand. The Niger River is twelve miles away. There used to be a flight into Timbuktu once a week but you could not rely on it and it might not show up to take you out for a couple of weeks. Now it looks like there are two or three flights a week but I don’t know how reliable they are.


The director, Aberrahmane Sissako was born in 1961 in neighboring Mauritania and grew up in Bamako, the capital of Mali. He went to film school in Russia spending ten years in Rostov and Moscow. He currently lives in France.

He said he was inspired to make Timbuktu after an incident that took place in a town called Aguelhok in northern Mali in 2012. At the time, a foreign Islamist group occupied the town. A couple was publicly stoned to death because they had children out of wedlock. The perpetrators made a video of it and posted it online. Sissako was stunned by this outrageous act.

The incident is in the film but it plays a very small part. In 2012 the same Islamist group occupied Timbuktu. The movie follows a Toureg family living in a traditional tent outside of town as well as the everyday life of the townspeople. The occupiers are mostly outsiders and many of them don’t speak the local language so conversations often go through interpreters who choose to translate or not.

Most days there are new rules broadcasted over loud speakers through the town. No smoking, no playing soccer, no music, women must be covered and wear gloves and socks. Keep in mind the average temperature in Timbuktu is 100 degrees F. We see the townspeople living in fear and yet their defiance comes out here and there even though they know the consequences. One woman tells them she will not wear gloves. She says to go ahead and cut off her hands. Then, how will she wear gloves?

The occupiers are full of contradictions. They smoke and discuss world soccer. There is humor woven in through out the film even while horrible atrocities are being committed. The people are real and believable.

One thing that struck me was how strong and noble the women in the film are. Even though they are the lowest form of life, they are the backbone of the society. They are the ones who have the courage to stand up for what they believe and protect their family. Yet, they remain eerily calm through it all. Them seem to accept what they are doing will have consequences but they have to do it anyway.

The scenery is stunning. The desert dunes, the animals, the people and the town are all beautifully displayed on the screen. This film will move you, make you laugh, and disturb you. It is worth it.