Reflections on Timbuktu

By Alan Goodman | February 16, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |



A few of us caught the movie Timbuktu at a local art house theater, and I think it’s worth alerting readers that this is a film worth checking out.

Timbuktu is set in and around the fabled city of the same name in the North African country of Mali. In February, 2013 France invaded Mali and drove the Islamic fundamentalists out of Timbuktu (I’ll come back to that). But for a period—when this film is set—Islamic fundamentalist jihadists imposed their own version of a brutal, sadistic, and viciously women-hating regime there. For many of us in the U.S., this film might be the closest we get to meeting people like the ones portrayed in this fascinating, diverse part of the world, and the amazing, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, vibrant crossroads of Timbuktu. And feeling what life is like under Sharia law.

We meet a family of cattle herders who live outside of town. They make beautiful music together figuratively and literally, but have to keep the music hidden when the sleazy Sharia law enforcement police come around. We connect with a woman who might or might not have mental health issues but who jubilantly and defiantly abuses all the Sharia laws for how a woman should conduct herself in public. We sit in on a jam session of blues/jazz influenced African musicians as the Sharia law police hunt them down —unleashing 80 lashes on the woman in the group as especially hateful punishment. We see a couple stoned to death for adultery.

This is an amazing movie and we come to care deeply about the people in it. In some ways the people of Timbuktu (the film) could be—as the Clash used to sing—living in “Any frontier. Any hemisphere. No man's land.” where “There ain't no asylum here. King Solomon he never lived round here.” The day-in, day-out enforcement of Sharia law is not all that different, if you dig beneath the surface, from the law enforcement in Western democracies: property over people, men over women, arbitrary disregard for even their own rules by those in power, and social structures and morality—everything has a price, and might makes right—to enforce those body and soul killing values. If you watch with open eyes, you see echoes of the injustice in different forms in the inner cities, Indian reservations, and immigrant communities in “the Democratic West.”

And before anyone gets too self-righteous about how much better women are treated in the West, pay attention to the state of forced motherhood (no access to abortion) in much of the country and the promotion of sadistic violence against women in “hit movies” like 50 Shades of Gray (see “Fifty Shades of Grey: A Putrid Pornographic Story” at

Timbuktu—the movie (like the city)—is complex and nuanced. There are contradictions among the Islamic fundamentalist—highlighted in a scene depicting a pathetic attempt to make a propaganda video denouncing rap music. Apparently this kind of nuance in the portrayal of the Islamic fundamentalists was enough to set off some fascists in France—the mayor of a suburb of Paris denounced the movie as an apology for terrorism and had it banned (in the midst of the French ruling class and the rulers of the U.S. proclaiming themselves champions of tolerance, diversity, and free artistic expression!).

The co-writer and director of the movie, Abderrahmane Sissako, also made the 2006 movie Bamako. I haven’t seen it, but reviewers describe it as revolving around a trial where African civil society spokesmen expose the crimes of the World Bank and the IMF whom they expose as being responsible for Africa's woes.

But if anybody thinks life under the Islamic fundamentalists is some kind of radical or rebellious alternative to Western-style capitalism-imperialism (which they brand as “democracy”), this movie challenges that paradigm with a realistic picture of what that really means—it’s a horror.

Or, if you’ve adopted a smug attitude that “we” (Western capitalist-imperialist democracies) are better, pop over to YouTube and watch the murders of Eric Garner by police who lynch him on video for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, or the police execution of 12-year-old Tamir Rice for playing on a playground. France, the “liberators” of Mali, enslaved over 3 million people (literally slaves) in Africa to build their land of “liberty, equality, fraternity” and the U.S. empire was built on genocide and slavery. (See “French "Saviors" in Mali: World-Class Enforcers of Slavery, Genocide, and Oppression”).

No: There IS ANOTHER WAY. We need to do the work to bring it into being.

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Timbuktu is showing now—look up show times in your area at the IMDB page for the movie.

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