The word “Timbuktu” is slang in the West for East of Nowhere, but in the film Timbuktu, this city in Mali on the edge of the Sahara is an epicenter, a volatile crossroads for several distinct cultures. There are African women in radiant colors, white-garbed Muslim men in mosques, fishermen who live along the river and nomadic herders who pitch their tents on dunes. And then there are the most recent arrivals: an al-Qaida-affiliated group called Ansar Dine that in 2012 took over Timbuktu and announced the enforcement of Sharia, or Islamic law.
That’s the film in a nutshell: Sharia meets multiculturalism.
A remarkable thing about Timbuktu is that it’s often on the verge of being a comedy. It’s in five languages: French, a legacy of 20th-century colonialism; Arabic; Bambara, an African language; Songhay, a group of dialects heard around the Niger River; and, finally, English, though that’s used in desperation when one man can’t make sense of another man’s Arabic. An Islamist judge must interrogate a man in Arabic and wait impatiently as his words are translated into French for the offender and Bambara for the victim’s family — funny even if the outcome is an execution.
You have to laugh when an eccentric diva in resplendent colors sashays down the street and blocks a convoy of gun-toting jihadis, her arms spread wide as if casting a spell, while the young men clearly think, “What the hell do we do now?” It’s amusing to watch jihadis stumble over rooftops looking for the source of forbidden music — but the lashings that follow strangle the laugh in your throat. Moderate Muslims, meanwhile, look on in disapproval. This is not their Islam.