Timbuktu: review

timbuktu

From the nebulous Al Qaeda to the rampaging mobs who call themselves Daesh, Islamist fighters are portrayed in our media as an almost metaphysical threat: barbaric, ‘medieval’, an enemy that defies comprehension, they are the personification of the Terror that ‘we’, the civilized, are told we must fight. The beautiful and troubling film ‘Timbuktu’, set during the Islamist take-over of Northern Mali, reframes this story.

From the opening scenes, when the local Imam orders the Jihadists out of the mosque, it is clear these men have neither spiritual nor moral authority. The rules they impose on the local Muslim population are both absurd and vicious. Music, football, sitting in the street and smoking are forbidden. The women are forced to wear gloves much as the Jews of Spain were required to wear yellow stars by the Inquisition – or as Muslim women in France are forbidden from wearing the veil today. The film demonstrates how these arbitrary edicts have nothing to do with faith and are designed solely to assert social control.

One of the most beautiful sequences shows the boys of the town playing soccer with an imaginary ball in an act of joyous, collective defiance. Yet, even as they ban the sport, the most animated conversation the Jihadists have is about football, and the local youths who have joined them have presumably done so for money or prestige rather than out of conviction. In a key scene where the protagonist recognises one of the local Jihadists, the man, clearly ashamed, claims to have come from Libya. These Islamic fighters, then, have more in common with gangland bullies, Nazi thugs or the youths of the Red Guard who terrorised China during the Cultural Revolution than they do with the ancient, scimitar-wielding foe of Christian imagination – a spectre from the ‘crusades’ that has been diligently resuscitated in both religious camps for strictly political ends.

In ‘Timbuktu’, as in real life, it is the local Muslims – the women in particular – who suffer at the Jihadists’ hands. Yet it is clear, too, that this tyranny – like all others – will be temporary. The abiding impression of these self-styled religious warriors is of a group of deeply inadequate men – men whose own impotence and longing drives them to assert illusory dominion over a natural, female and human world of irrepressible variety and beauty.

 

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