don’t argue with those holding weapons. Timbuktu
is Abderrahmane Sissako’s superb film, depicting the
chaos created by jihadists in North Africa. The film speaks
only peripherally to Western considerations, concentrating
more on representing, as dispassionately as possible, the
paradoxes at the core of radical Islam. Timbuktu
also portrays a region virtually unknown to most
Western spectators, one with richly complex socio-cultural,
ethnic and religious interactions made all the more difficult
by the transcultural and multi-ethnic jihadist movement.
The film frames the Islamist infiltration as a colonial
invasion by a new language (Arabic), new laws (Sharia) and
a willful ignorance of local customs, culture and ethnicities.
The leaders are predominantly Arabic speakers from outside
and unfamiliar with (and apathetic to) local ethnic and
linguistic complexities. Such is the stratification that,
even among each other, the jihadists often revert to a common
second language in order to communicate. Much seems to be
lost in translation.
(Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino) is a Tamasheq cattle farmer who
lives in the dunes outside the city with his wife Satima
(Toulou Kiki) and adolescent daughter Toya (Layla Walet
Mohamed). Their lives are difficult, from a material standpoint,
yet relatively undisturbed by the jihadist presence compared
with those in the city -- although a jihadist newcomer (Hichem
Yacoubi) has his eye on Satima and comes around to pester
her whenever Kidane is away. Tragedy strikes the family
when an argument with a neighbour over one of Kidane’s
murdered cattle leads an accidental discharge of a gun and
the man’s death. Kidane is accused of murder and forced
to stand trial in a Sharia court, setting off a chain of
events that show a deep a schism between the jihadists and
the local population, as well as between themselves and
their purported religious zeal.
We begin to understand that the locals’ tacit resistance
is in fact a resistance to colonization. Forms of civil
disobedience are portrayed through powerful imagery: kids
carry on an imaginary soccer game without a ball; the shaman,
her head uncovered, blocks the progress of a jihadist truck;
a woman, who is being beaten for making music, sings her
pain; a fishmonger in the market demands that her hands
be cut off because she cannot sell fish while wearing gloves.
These examples illicit no reactions from colonizers because
they have no response except for violence, demonstrating
complete disregard for the body politic. Thus,
they circumvent local custom and culture, exercise a double
standard of justice by overlooking practices among their
own men for which locals are executed, and they completely
dismiss the sophisticated, nuanced local understanding and
practice of Islam.
Whenever the local imam (Abdel Mahmoud Cherif) attempts
to mediate with the jihadist chief -- ironically, through
a translator -- over complaints about his men’s egregious
breeches of etiquette and custom, he is met with an unequivocal
defense of their righteousness. A jihadist forces a young
adolescent girl into an illegal marriage against her and
her family’s wishes. The chief in turn automatically
condones the marriage by saying that the man is a perfect
Muslim and therefore justified in taking the girl as his
wife. The imam plays the very delicate role of teacher;
not only for the audience but also for the jihadists whose
understanding of Islam seems to be so narrow that the two
parties can mutually comprehend only the honorific phrases
used with particular holy words.
It becomes chillingly clear that the two sides’ views
will never find common ground in the Quran. The chief’s
claim to perfection and righteousness in carrying out jihad
against others speaks to a crucial elaboration of this concept
in the Quran. This concept has two iterations -- internal
and external jihad -- and the imam places all importance
on internal jihad as it represents the perpetual struggle
toward self-perfection and moral atonement in the eyes of
God, who is necessarily the only perfect being in the universe.
That the invaders view themselves as ‘perfect’
in the eyes of God feels like utter blasphemy and speaks
to a much more terrifying and mundane reality of the jihadist
project. Given that key concepts in Islam appear to be misunderstood
-- or worse, willfully ignored -- Sissako suggests that
religion, in fact, has little to do with it at all.
crucial scene, in which an older jihadist coaches a new
-- shy and awkward -- arrival to appear convincing on camera,
underscores the mundane hypocrisy of their enterprise. Symbolically,
with their AK-47s never out of reach, these men need to
craft and polish their jihadist image, just like
any propaganda, and religious zeal is the main prop. With
only a dim understanding of Islam, they are therefore wholly
justified by one thing only: power. The invaders have guns
to back up their authority and their over-inflated estimation
of themselves -- at least in public -- gives but an appearance
of zeal. Otherwise, they are shown to be man-children eagerly
discussing the finer points of soccer, as bashful adults
who lust after others’ wives and as superstitious
hypocrites who visit shamans.
Perhaps most disturbingly, they are also the leaders who
mete out violence and punishment in order to establish control;
who follow the orders of puppet masters thousands of kilometers
away, whose real purpose remains as opaque to them as to
Western understanding. Yet, as Timbuktu shows quite
succinctly, the jihadist enterprise (for that is what it
is) is perfectly clear. Power subsumes all other considerations.
Power also justifies any behaviour that satisfies the goal
of subjugating a population.
The film explodes our limited perception and experience
of the jihadist threat in a frighteningly intimate way.
The threat itself is not of one religion or other, one interpretation
or other. It is, as Sissako concludes in Timbuktu, the rule
of ignorance in the absence of reason and fanatical application
of violence in the absence of self-reflection. It is about
power and its projection -- a concept that should be familiar
enough to Western audiences.