Five years since the occupation of Timbuktu

Even though the word Timbuktu is often used as a metaphor for a primitive place far from civilization, Timbuktu is a real city with a glorious history. When Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, Timbuktu was a centre of African civilization, trade and scholarship.

The city’s recent history has been less glorious. This week marks five years since Timbuktu was invaded by Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda militants. Five years since the town’s Sufi population began to suffer the imposition of sharia and its ghoulish punishments. Five years since the town’s famous librarians started an ingenious smuggling operation to save thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts from destruction.

Today there is both good and bad news from Timbuktu. The bad news is that bandits and radical Islamists are still present in the region, launching sporadic attacks on the town and its peacekeepers. The reach of extremist teaching throughout the Sahara is expanding, not contracting.

The good news is that in Timbuktu itself, many of the World Heritage landmarks have been restored. Local craftsmen have rebuilt many of the shrines to the saints of Timbuktu, and the instigator of their destruction imprisoned for nine years. The exquisite ‘Door of Heaven’ in the Sidi Yahya mosque has been repaired. The values of Timbuktu, its so-called ‘seven gates’, remain intact: tolerance, honour, dignity, generousity, hospitality, honesty and justice.

And what of those famous manuscripts? Currently in exile in Mali’s capital city Bamako, the manuscripts are being well looked after. The Herculean task of cataloguing and preserving these ancient texts continues.

Blood & Ink is fundamentally a thriller and a love story. As a thriller it contains chases, smuggling operations and a locked-room mystery. As a love story it features a Malian Romeo and Juliet, drawn together in spite of their cultural and religious differences.

And yes, as a piece of historical fiction, the novel by necessity explores the theme of violent jihad. I had the honour of participating last month in the Cologne literary festival, where I read and discussed the novel with teenage festivalgoers. Their questions went right to the heart of the matter. What are the causes of radicalisation? Is religion itself to blame? Was I nervous about the controversy my book might cause? Finally – and essentially – what is the solution to Islamist extremism?

At a recent conference in Vienna, Timbuktu’s chief librarian Abdel Kader Haïdara was asked this same question. He replied that he looks for solutions in the Timbuktu manuscripts themselves. ‘Many of these ancient Islamic manuscripts deal with conflict resolution, including many which have not yet been translated or published. I am hopeful that the manuscripts will one day foster a better understanding of the world of yesterday and the world of today, as well as the promotion of tolerance and a culture of peace.’

I am not nervous about the controversy my book might cause. Controversy entails discussion, more useful than any awkward silence. My highest hope for Blood & Ink is that, like the Timbuktu manuscripts themselves, it might foster understanding, tolerance and peace. My rather more modest hope is that it proves a gripping, exhilarating read.

This post was written as a guest post for the Aladin Verlag blog: link

Blood & Ink: Die Bücher von Timbuktu

I’m delighted to announce that Blood & Ink has found a publishing home in Germany. On 28 July this year (my fortieth birthday, as it happens) Aladin Verlag will publish a hardback version translated from the English by Katharina Diestelmeier and titled Blood & Ink: Die Bücher von Timbuktu. The book is beautifully designed and printed, and contains on the inside covers this striking, almost luminous, map of the Timbuktu area (click to enlarge).

Blood & Ink: Die Bücher von Timbuktu map
map by Christian Schneider

Aladin’s founder Klaus Humann used to run Carlsen Verlag, a Hamburg based publishing house. Carlsen were not a big publisher when Humann started there, but that was before they bought the rights to Harry Potter and Twilight. As you would expect, these two series did them a bit of good.

After fifteen years at Carlsen, Humann got tired of running a big company, so in 2012 he founded Aladin Verlag – an independent children’s publishing house. His five-member team publish just 28 books a year, but they have complete creative freedom to seek and acquire ‘unique and special’ books.

Klaus Humann - Aladin Verlag
Klaus Humann (picture by Nina Stiller)

What I particularly love about Aladin is the ethical value that they attach to children’s publishing, summed up by this quotation from Klaus Humann himself:

The good thing is you’re doing something worthwhile for society, because if you bring the best stories to children then it’s going to be a better world — at least this is what I hope. There’s still hope that with good stories, there are better children, better people, and better human beings.

Is this too idealistic? Too much weight on the shoulders of us frail children’s authors? I hope not. Humann’s bright-eyed positivity reminds me of something similar which Amanda Craig wrote last year:

It is children’s authors who are what Shelley called “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. From them, as much as from parents, a child receives an idea of how the world could or should be.

Though a tense and at times violent read, Blood & Ink is a well-intentioned story, and I am thrilled that Humann has judged it unique and worthwhile enough to publish. It is about radical Islamism, a subject of global relevance and concern, but it is also about radical courage and radical compassion, and I hope it is received in that spirit.

I shall be visiting Germany this autumn and speaking about Die Bücher von Timbuktu at the Harbour Front Literaturfestival in Hamburg on 21 September. The event will include a dramatized reading by German actress Verena Wolfien, which I am really looking forward to. More about that another time.

Harbour Front Festival in Hamburg
Harbour Front Festival (photo: Jonas Wölk)

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

This wonderfully titled book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts is written by renowned travel writer and journalist Joshua Hammer. It tells the true story of Abdel Kader Haidara, the mild-mannered librarian who spearheaded the smuggling of Timbuktu’s priceless manuscripts out of the city in 2012, when they were under threat of destruction by Islamist extremists.


My own novel BLOOD & INK recounts the same story from the point of view of Timbuktu’s teenagers. Whereas my book is YA historical fiction, Hammer focusses on the adults and sticks to the facts. He recounts these facts in truly dramatic fashion, though – the story has been called ‘a heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven’. Reviewer Jeffrey Brown comments that ‘the stories of Haidara’s colorful and sometimes perilous journeys to gather manuscripts make for some of the book’s most exciting passages’.

I look forward very much to reading it myself.

THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS OF TIMBUKTU comes out tomorrow, published by Simon and Schuster.

BLOOD & INK is already available in the UK, published by Andersen Press. It comes out in the US later this year, published by Charlesbridge, and in Germany, published by Aladin Verlag.


Jihad etc.

In March 2012, my friend Mohammed Ciise came to visit me at home in Djibo, Burkina Faso, on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. His face was grave.

‘A time of violence is coming,’ he said. ‘Many of my people in Mali will flee Timbuktu and come to stay with my family here in Djibo.’

‘Many of my people’ turned out to be an understatement. Over the course of the following weeks, Mohammad’s hospitality was tested beyond breaking point by the arrival of fifteen thousand Tuareg refugees on overloaded lorries and bush-taxis. The women and children set up their makeshift tents and prepared themselves for a long stay. The men returned to Timbuktu to fight the Malian army.

This was not the first time that Tuareg rebels had taken up arms in the name of independence, but the difference in 2012 was their ill-judged alliance with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) and other militant jihadi groups. Within a week they had invaded and captured Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the three most strategic desert towns in Mali. As soon as the jihadis were in control of these towns, they betrayed their Tuareg brothers in arms and forced them to leave.

The invaders imposed a harsh form of sharia law on the townspeople of Timbuktu, not unlike what we are seeing in parts of Syria and Iraq today. Music, dancing and football were banned. The full veil was enforced for girls over the age of ten. Men and women were forbidden from talking in public. Famous shrines to the medieval holymen of Timbuktu were destroyed in iconoclastic fervour.

Across the border in Burkina Faso, my Muslim friends and neighbours shook their heads in dismay. ‘Those AQIM fighters are not fit to call themselves Muslims,’ they muttered. ‘A thug who prays five times a day is still a thug.’

‘They are not thugs,’ piped up a young Qur’anic student sitting in the marketplace. ‘They are good people, applying God’s law to the letter. In the name of God, hear this: I hope they come here and do the same in Djibo.’ On hearing this, a small group of bystanders turned on the hapless student and beat him soundly for hoping such a thing. ‘Islam is not a violent religion,’ they told him.

During thirteen years of living amongst Fulani Muslims in Burkina Faso, I saw hundreds of Osama bin Laden T-shirts, but very few of the wearers were actually in favour of waging war on infidels. My family were welcomed warmly and we made close friends. We attended naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals. I spent many hours sitting on grass mats with Muslim religious teachers, finding acres of common ground as well as expected points of difference.

I did meet a few jihadi sympathizers. They were usually ‘garibous’, teenage boys who had been sent far away from home to study with a Muslim religious teacher. These lads spent their days collecting firewood, making ink, and begging door-to-door for food. They spent their nights writing and reciting Qur’anic verses around a roaring fire.

I remember talking one afternoon with Mustafa, Ali, Boureima and Adama, four garibous from the far north-east of Burkina Faso. They were warm, good-humoured lads, whose conversation ranged from goat-herding to religion to the fortunes of Real Madrid. But one afternoon, when the conversation turned to the subject of 9/11, these good-hearted boys were oddly jubilant. ‘Praise be to God for the victory of our brothers,’ cried Ali. ‘Did you see the towers fall? It was glorious.’

Ali and his friends had swallowed a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ narrative, which in their eyes was entirely compatible with the Book they had been memorizing.

I protested, of course, and tried to make my brothers see sense. I encouraged them to imagine what that day was like for the families of those who died, including the families of the hijackers. Imagination is a powerful tool. Within five minutes Ali declared fervently that the killing of innocent civilians in the Twin Towers was every bit as inglorious as the killing of innocent civilians in US drone attacks.

I do not imagine that the task of deradicalisation is always so easy. I doubt I would have lasted long in Al-Qaeda occupied Timbuktu. But in the case of Ali and his friends, it helped that I spoke their language and that I had spent many hours in their company, drinking gunpowder tea and herding pygmy goats with them. It also helped that I knew their families and that I spoke from a vantage-point of faith myself.

My recent book BLOOD & INK is set in occupied Timbuktu and is narrated from two alternating viewpoints. Ali is a shepherd boy who has become addicted to the adventure of jihad. Kadija is a daughter of Timbuktu who loves singing and dancing, even though such things are outlawed by the radical new regime. The novel charts their relationship from straightforward enmity to something approaching love.

Authors of YA are not known for shying away from controversial themes. Today, with young people in Britain facing real risk of radicalisation, we need more and better YA books about the battle for the soul of Islam. We need books that will subvert the Clash of Civilizations narrative and replace it with a more nuanced understanding, maybe even hope. Imagination is a powerful tool.

Books for Keeps BLOOD & INK review

It’s not just Ali and Kadija who leap off the page but their friends, family and neighbours too. The story is gripping, full of excitement, romance and heart-stopping moments.

BLOOD & INK got five stars from Books For Keeps and is currently their Book of the Week. Read the full review.

They asked me to write a short feature to accompany the review: an introduction to BLOOD & INK.

TIMBUKTU film review

Watching the film Timbuktu last night was a strange experience, both beautiful and painful. The film is set against the backdrop of real historical events — the al Qaeda occupation of Timbuktu in 2012. It is precisely the same backdrop I used for my new novel BLOOD & INK, which comes out this Thursday.

In April 2012 jihadists invaded Timbuktu. A harsh form of sharia was imposed within the city. Human rights were violated. World Heritage sites were systematically destroyed.

In early 2013, French and Malian forces succeeded in repelling Islamist forces in Mali. Citizens of newly-liberated Timbuktu began to tell their stories to the world’s media – stories of persecution, yes, but also of resistance. We heard about moments of short-lived, fiery protest (women marching against the imposition of the veil) and about ingenious smuggling operations (thousands of priceless manuscripts being spirited away from Timbuktu, hidden under crates of cabbages!). Sarah Pakenham at Andersen Press drew my attention to one particular BBC article by Naveena Kottoor How Timbuktu’s Manuscripts were Smuggled to Safety and I responded glibly that there was ‘a novel in there somewhere’. Sarah took my reply seriously and a book contract was drawn up before the week was out.

For three months I researched, plotted and outlined, and by the start of NaNoWriMo in November I was ready to write BLOOD & INK. Back then the novel’s working title was ALI AND KADIJA, because of the novel’s Romeo-and-Juliet-like plot. Ali is a jihadist, Kadija is a singer, and their love is as intense as it is impossible.

Whilst I was working on BLOOD & INK, Mauritanian-French filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako was working on his film TIMBUKTU. I’m glad that my book was complete before I even heard about the film, because there are striking similarities. As I watched TIMBUKTU last night, there were two or three moments that gave me literal goosebumps, so exact was the convergence of our stories. I saw Ali clearly in the character of the teenage jihadi chauffeur, and I saw Kadija in the character of La Chanteuse (beautifully played by Fatoumata Diawara). Kadija in BLOOD & INK and La Chanteuse in TIMBUKTU both get lashed as punishment for their ‘crimes’; both respond to their punishment in the same incredible way.

I should say right now that I loved the film TIMBUKTU. I have reservations about it, which I’ll come to later, but first here are some of the (many) things I loved:

1. The invisible football match and the jihadi World Cup banter

All the reviewers are talking about that invisible football game, and rightly so. It’s one of the cleverest pieces of cinema I’ve seen in ages. The boys of Timbuktu play football outside the city, but football is banned, so they play without a ball. The sequence is beautifully choreographed and the music is wonderful. A penalty taker lines up the invisible ball and waits patiently for a donkey to walk across the pitch before taking his shot. A young lad in a Messi T-shirt scores a wonder-goal and wheels away celebrating. Two jihadis pass by on a motorbike and the teenagers stop their game and pretend to be stretching and doing situps.

In Sissako’s film, the jihadists outlaw football, sure, but they still can’t help talking about it! In one scene, a group of them discuss the World Cup. “France has never won anything in football,” says one fighter. “What about 1998?” says another. “Ah but that was against Brazil,” retorts the first. “Brazil is a poor country. France gave Brazil a boatload of rice and Brazil let them go two goals up in the World Cup final.” Their conversation is utterly bonkers and (for anyone who knows the Sahel) totally authentic.

2. The good imam


TIMBUKTU has some very strong writing, and nowhere more so than the scene near the beginning of the film where the Imam of Timbuktu (played by Adel Mahmoud Cherif) tries to reason with jihadist Abdelkerim. Here is that speech in full, in all its defiant, rambling glory:

Who am I to say renounce jihad? I don’t take care of others’ jihad. I do jihad to myself. I swear I don’t have time for other people’s jihad. Were I not committed to my moral improvement, I’d be the first to join you. I pray to Allah, the Almighty, hoping that He’ll forgive me and that He’ll forgive you. May he Help us reject vanity and pride. Stop this! You cause harm to Islam and to Muslims. You put children in danger in front of their poor mother. You even hit the mother of two children without any good reason. Before you came, a woman was here to complain that you forced her to wear gloves — here they are — without any explanation, without convincing her of their usefulness. Remember the words of Allah, the Almighty: So pardon them, consult them in the matter...Speak with them, and once you’ve made a decision, put your trust in Allah, for he loves those who rely on him. Where is leniency? Where is forgiveness? Where is piety? Where is exchange, exchange? Where is God in all of this?

3. Stunning cinematography


The cinematography of TIMBUKTU is simply outstanding. Soft light on desert-hardened faces, clouds of dust from the hooves of cattle, turbaned silhouettes at dusk, an uberwide lens on the great River Niger, rich colours inside a Tuareg tent, this film is a real looker, a celebration of the Sahel’s rugged beauty. It would have been even better had it been shot in Timbuktu itself, with its striking sudanic architecture, soaring mosques and fine carved doors, but that was not possible for security reasons.

4. Hauntingly beautiful soundtrack

I have mentioned Fatoumata Diawara’s appearance as ‘La Chanteuese’. Her song ‘Tombouctou Fasso’ was written specially for the film.

The song is in Bambara, but here are the words in English.

This is Timbuktu, my homeland,
Where the children are mourning in gloom,
This is my land, Timbuktu ‘the Maliba’,
The land of love,
The land of warmth,
The land of dignity,
This is my nation.
Why are we crying?
Why are the children crying?
Why are the young crying?
Because of injustice,
Because of violence,
Fearing the future.
Here is my home.
Stop crying!
No matter what, Timbuktu will remain.

Okay, here are my only reservations about the film TIMBUKTU:

1. The myth of the noble Tuareg

Dear old Kidane lives on his pristine dune with his wife, his daughter, his guitar and his favourite cow called GPS. All he wants is a quiet life, but he has somehow been caught up in the horror of the jihadi occupation. Ah yes, the myth of the noble Tuareg, the romantic ‘blue man of the desert’, that inscrutable, turbaned, photogenic, peace-loving pastoralist and family man. Sissako’s film panders to French obsession with the Noble Tuareg and completely ignores the historical events which led to the takeover of Timbuktu. The MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Liberation d’Azawad) was entirely made up of men like Kidane, except they wielded Kalashnikovs rather than guitars. The MNLA and AQIM were behind the takeover of Timbuktu. They executed scores of Malian soldiers and committed terrible atrocities during the occupation. So it is a bit rich to see a picture postcard Tuareg herder playing the victim in this film.

2. The myth of the cuddly jihadist

Sissako rightly refuses to demonize the jihadists. He dares to show them as real people – totally human and even at times sympathetic. But I think he goes too far – these fellows are just too likeable.

Sissako says: “The most terrible thing is that [the jihadists] are people like us. It’s always hard to say. But they are.” In humanizing the jihadists, Sissako has avoided the most obvious pitfall. The ‘normal’ course (and the one Hollywood would definitely have taken) would have been to make the jihadists two-dimensional monsters – unremittingly evil and barely human – whereas Sissako has done something much more interesting and courageous. But has he taken it too far? Consider the jihadist fighter Abdelkarim.‘The fact that his daughter will soon be an orphan upsets me,’ Abdelkarim remarks to his translator, ‘but don’t translate that.’ Abdelkarim listens patiently to criticism from the imam and does not pass comment of any sort. He even turns away from the lashing of La Chanteuse. Why? Is it too violent for his taste? Abdelkarim and his cronies seem muddled about sharia, embarrassed by their own behaviour and somewhat sad that events in Timbuktu have come to such a pretty pass. Even during the stoning (the most shocking moment of the film) Sissako cuts away to a jihadist dancing barefoot on a rooftop – a beautiful, floaty, desperate dance, so out of keeping with the horrors going on below. Poor chaps, having to enforce sharia law, when all they really want to do is ballet.

3. Where are the manuscripts? Where are the mausolea?

According to an ancient saying, the soul of Timbuktu is not in its city walls, but in the writings of its scholars, the tombs of its saints and the worship of its God. Worship of God is dealt with in this film, certainly, but the manuscripts and the mausolea are conspicuous by their absence. The smuggling of ancient manuscripts out of Timbuktu and the destruction of ancient mausolea by the jihadists are crucial elements of the story of Timbuktu 2012, and Sissako should have included them. Instead he has gone for a herder-fisherman story as the central conflict of the film. I don’t get it. Conflict between nomads and settled people is as old as humanity itself, and is totally irrelevant to the story of the city’s jihadi occupation. Our hero Kidane decides to take a handgun to a confrontation with a fisherman. His wife Satima tells him not to take the gun with him. She tells him to think of his daughter Toya. He ignores her and takes the gun, kills the fisherman by mistake, then spends the rest of the film admonishing judges to think of his daughter Toya! Hmm. It’s a personal thing, but I’d rather have seen less focus on Kidane’s story and more on the plight of La Chanteuse.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Sissako’s TIMBUKTU, wonderful though it is, would have been even wonderfuller had it been made two years later and been based on BLOOD & INK.

Haha, there, I’ve said it!

Timbuktu is in UK cinemas now, and is also available to rent on Blinkbox.
BLOOD & INK comes out on 4 June and is published by Andersen Press.

Timbuktu movie released in UK

I am so excited that TIMBUKTU has finally been released in the UK. With its Academy Award nomination, great reviews on the Guardian and Independent sites, and 99% ‘fresh’ rating on Rottentomatoes, it seems set to do extremely well.

It is an extraordinary coincidence that the film should come out just six days before my novel BLOOD & INK. When I completed the novel last year I was unaware of Abderrahmane Sissako’s upcoming film. It’s a different story, but with the same historical backdrop.

I’m hoping to watch TIMBUKTU on Sunday night, and will post my own review of it next week.

Coming Soon: BLOOD & INK


I’m really excited about my new book, BLOOD & INK, which is coming out on 4 June 2015 and is already available for preorder. It might be the best thing I’ve ever written. It is certainly the riskiest. At the heart of the novel is the 2012 invasion of Timbuktu and the foundation there of an Islamic Caliphate. It’s part thriller, part love story. All of the characters in the novel call themselves Muslim.

I finished writing BLOOD & INK long before the emergence of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but the novel is scarily relevant to current events there. I in no way intend to glorify the horrifying actions of Islamic State and similar groups. If anything, I hope that this novel will contribute to an understanding of that historical situation, and the many faces of Islam.

The final cover was unveiled today. It was designed by the ubertalented artist Joe Cruz. And here is the back cover blurb.

The town is Timbuktu.
The year is 2012.
Ali, 16, is a mujahid, a holy warrior. His battalion is massing in the Sahara Desert, preparing to invade Timbuktu.
Kadija, 15, is a daughter of Timbuktu on the verge of becoming a Guardian, a keeper of the town’s mysterious ancient manuscripts.
The two of them are now set on a collison course. Ali hates Kadija’s spirit and her outlawed passion for music. Kadija scorns Ali’s confident, ruthless fanaticism. So when they find themselves falling for each other, they try desperately – and hopelessly – to resist.
BLOOD AND INK is an unflinching glimpse into the heart of jihad.

NaNoWriMo Day 30 – I did it!

It is 5.30 a.m. in Ouagadougou, and I have just typed the 50,000th word of my new novel SCROLLS.


There will be time over the weekend to reflect on my experience of NaNoWriMo – for now, suffice to say that IT’S OVER AND I’M HAPPY!


Update (14 January 2016) : This NaNoWriMo novel was published last year by Andersen Press under the title Blood & Ink