Timbuktu is in the news these days, as Malian forces, aided by French paratroopers, took the city this week from al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who had held it for nearly a year. But for decades the very word Timbuktu seemed to convey a place that time forgot. In fact, when it was invoked, it was almost always as a metaphor denoting the very end of the earth.
That is why Richard Halliburton, a famous journalistic adventurer of the era between the world wars, made a point of visiting there in the early 1930s. After all, he had hid out all night in the Taj Mahal, flown near the summit of Mt. Everest, crossed the Alps on an elephant as Hannibal had done, and located and interviewed the last surviving assassin of Russia’s royal Romanov family. And he had written about all that and more in is bestselling books. So why not fly to what people in the West understood colloquially to be the end of the earth?
Once there, he and his pilot, Moye Stephens, were promptly taken in by the renowned Frenchman Pere Yakouba, an Augustinian monk who had fled modernity to study the remote region and its people. It was thoroughly characteristic of Halliburton’s penchant for connecting with interesting people during his wide-ranging travels and availing himself of their hospitality and tutelage.
He found himself quite fascinated by the Timbuktu slave market, where people seemed to embrace with utter casualness the practice of slavery as just a normal part of life. No one seemed agitated by it, not even the slaves. Spying a lively young boy on the auction block, Halliburton promptly bought him as part of his ongoing endeavor to experience life in far-flung precincts of the world as the natives did.
He developed a strong affection for the lad, though he hardly seemed worth the auction price, given his blithe refusal to respond to any directive, no matter how cheerfully or sternly delivered. Eventually, he gave the boy his freedom, along with enough money to provide an actual start in life, and he and Stephens flew off in search of new adventures. He told the story of his Timbuktu visit, and his brief career as slave master, in his next book, The Flying Carpet, published in 1932.
Today’s Timbuktu may be far away from big cities and modern bustle, but it certainly can’t be considered at the end of the earth. The French are there, trying to thwart an Islamist takeover of Mali, and the United States wants to build a base in nearby Niger so it can fly Predator drones over African nations beset by Islamist militants, including Mali. The “war on terror,” as they call it, is spreading with a seemingly inexorable force.
But it’s interesting to contemplate a time when the city represented to Westerners not much more than the romance of adventuresome travel and a place where local customs, however primitive or outrageous, were deemed to be simply fascinating examples of how other people lived.