Timbuktu. When I was four, I loved the way the name tripped off my tongue. This word bouquet coincided with my first ice cream sandwich which was gloriously mysterious, even without the added intrigue of coming from a vending machine.
Timbuktu. A name layered in grade school songs, and pulled into games like a piece of geographic Playdo. Let’s fly to Timbuktu. I’m king of Timbuktu. You’re going to the island of Timbuktu. It had the same exotic flair as Lake Titicaca, but with a slightly more sanitized piqué, and seemed accessible, like one day maybe I could travel there--mostly because my mother always told people we lived in out in the boonies, in Timbuktu.
But we didn’t really live in Timbuktu. Never did. And, as I found out when I was eleven, Timbuktu is real place. With real people who do normal things like go shopping and eat dinner together and laugh at Seinfeld. It is a city on Mali. So I guess the island part was right. If you count a landlocked desert as an island.
Never did I think Timbuktu would be a place of horror and the disembowelment of history. But when I read of the takeover by al Qaeda forces and the looting of art, the burning of libraries with papers dating from the 1300s, I was ill. The attack felt like a pedophile loose in Neverland.
On January 23rd al Qaeda backed militants finally left Timbuktu after imposing harsh, Shariah law and mowing down shrines from the 14th century. For eight months they terrorized the people of Timbuktu using the Malian Solidarity Bank as their Islamic Police Headquarters. All this horror in the name of religion.
Timbuktu is home to more than 100,000 ancient texts, and as the French government moved in with Mali troops the end of January to release the city of 50,000 from their tormentors, the AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) decided their final act of terror was to loot and burn libraries.
It’s the same mentality that leaves a young school girl dead on a bus, the victim of a man with a gun who doesn’t think she should learn to read and write. Really? That one little girl is a threat to your religious views? Those 900 year old documents are a threat? Shrines are a threat? Hogwarts is a threat? Catcher in the Rye? A threat? How insecure are you?
In 2001, a general in charge of blowing up the two ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan (dated to 544 AD and 560 AD) in Afghanistan, was asked by a British reporter if it was difficult for him to destroy such works of time and history and art. She asked if it was a personal challenge to remain on task. Ruefully, he said yes, it was difficult for him. He then went on to explain in excruciating detail the reason it was so hard was because the shelling took three days, non-stop, and his men grew tired. The end result was also disappointing--the statues were not sufficiently destroyed to his own satisfaction.
Torture, rape and murder—all are the high cost of war and are revolting, horrific, and unthinkable. But destroying human history carries its own horror. If we cannot cherish and protect and revere our history of all that which has made us human over millennia, then we will lose ourselves. These objects and papers are irreplaceable.
The feeling I get in my stomach is the same as when I read or watch anything about the poaching of elephants and I am reduced in my dark hours to thinking we deserve all that we will get—we are such a selfish and stupid species. We will destroy ourselves with global warming, some nut will push a button, some idiot will release a virus or bacteria meant to destroy some other…the “enemy,” and that will be that. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Let insects inherit the earth.
And then I read about the archeologists who, ten years later, just days after the borders were open, began repairing the Buddhas. How 28,000 documents were saved from the fire that January night, smuggled out by donkey cart under the watchful eye of a security guard and an historian, and of those documents that did meet a terrible fate and were burned, all, yes all were digitalized beforehand. The keepers of humanity persevered.
This gives me hope, makes me wonder at the dainty shape of the hand of a newborn or glory of some piece of art hanging on a wall: we are a magnificent species.
And yet, that feeling is fleeting. Chaos, as we all know is easier to wreak than order to maintain. Entropic forces are at work all the time in the physical world, eroding mountains and lending pinball machines their ludicrous ability to entertain. Entropic forces are seemingly at work at the societal level as well. It is easier to blow up a building than to build one. Seconds compared to months or years.
At the root of all this chaos is religion. I stand by what I say. It is religion. Every. Single. Time. Couple that with Jared Diamond’s claim that all war is for land and resources, and we all have cause for great concern.
Here’s the toddler mentality: My land. My resources. And my god gives me the right to take them both.
Just as we maintain an Endangered Species List, UNESCO maintains a List of World Heritage in Danger. The smaller Buddha will be taken off that list this year. The larger one was determined to be too shattered to repair and his stump will be left intact as a reminder of the violence.
The problem is, those motivated to destroy these works in the first place don’t care and we who do, don’t need reminders. Those who destroy are focused on some afterlife and reward. They see art and education and history as a threat to their god. And I am talking about Christians who burn books as fast as Islamic fundamentalists. About those who believe the earth is 6,000 years old, science is an affront to Allah, God, Yahweh, and humans were formed in a garden with a talking snake. That heredity and genetic theory only apply to raising their livestock and crops, and that evolution is “just a theory.”
As I applaud the rational and brave people of the world for protecting and preserving our art and history, I fear we are a species of selfish toddlers marching around with machine guns and bombs and claiming “mine, mine, mine.”
And I am afraid chaos will reign. If only chaos were “just a theory.”