In February 2012 I was living with my wife and daughter in the arid north of Burkina Faso, West Africa. We had learned Fulfulde, the language of Fulani cattle herders, and were experiencing the normal joys and frustrations of cross-cultural living. For my day job I worked in a tiny, oven-hot recording studio, producing radio dramas in Fulfulde with local actors. In my free time I wrote adventure stories, mostly set in Africa’s Wild West, the Sahara Desert.
photo courtesy of Mark Gibson
One day my friend Muhammed Mintao came to see me at home. We sat under a straw shade shelter and made gunpowder tea on a tiny wire stove. Muhammed is a camel trader from Timbuktu. He came to Burkina Faso as a refugee in the 1980s.
photo courtesy of Mark Gibson"Trouble is coming," muttered Muhammed, his anxious eyes gazing out between the voluminous folds of his turban. "The Tuaregs of the Sahara are going to mount a rebellion. They are digging up the rifles that they buried long ago."
Two weeks later Muhammed’s prediction became a reality. His extended family became hosts to thousands of refugees who were pouring across the border to escape the violence in Mali. For my own part, radio drama quickly took a a back seat to humanitarian aid work. Many of the refugees had arrived with nothing but the clothes they wore.
photo courtesy of Joseph HunwickMuhammed was disturbed by the stories these refugees were telling. The Tuareg rebellion had been hijacked by a group of well-funded Islamist extremists. The proud Muslim cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal were being subjected to a harsh and alien form of sharia law. Music and dancing, even musical ringtones, were banned. Girls as young as five were being forced to cover their faces. Playing football was outlawed.
photo courtesy of Mark GibsonNot all of the stories were so gloomy. There were tales of spirited resistance, of a women’s protest march, of secret singsongs and romantic trysts. Perhaps most amazing of all, they told of a heroic smuggling operation being undertaken by Timbuktu’s librarians, trying to prevent the city’s treasure trove of ancient manuscripts from being plundered or burned by the occupiers.
photo courtesy of Joseph HunwickBlood & Ink is my first foray into historical fiction. Although I had long been writing adventure stories, I had never encountered a real-life Saharan drama which so completely demanded my attention. I wrote the book during NaNoWriMo 2013 and redrafted it in subsequent months. On its UK publication, Cethan Leahy called the book “an exciting combination of sweeping romance, adventure, danger and history”. I am excited about its upcoming US publication and grateful to Charlesbridge for enabling it to reach a wider audience.
Other writers and film-makers were similarly inspired by stories coming out of Timbuktu, including the great Malian film director Abderrahmane Sissako. His 2014 film Timbuktu is an arresting and tender portrayal of a city under sharia. The football-less football clip below is one of many memorable scenes from the film that show people’s determination to remain true to themselves in spite of the pressure of religious extremism.
My family and I returned to the UK in 2014. We are now living in London, which has also come under the shadow of terrorism in recent times. How do we resist extremism yet at the same time recognize the humanity and fragility of those who have been beguiled by extremist narratives? I hope that my novel Blood & Ink explores this question in good conscience and that it might even suggest some answers.
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