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Timbuktu: Global gathering

Against a backdrop of rising militancy, the organisers of Mali's Festival in the Desert hope to resurrect the nation's cosmopolitan past.

"I have opened up especially for you," Abdourahim tells me when we arrive at his tourist campsite in northern Mali. "I want you to know that there is no terrorist problem."

His protestations proved premature. The next morning, a terrorist who claimed affiliation with Al Qaeda attacked the French embassy in Bamako, the nation's capital. The attacker threw a petrol bomb at the building and then opened fire. He was later apprehended.

This incident followed the kidnapping and execution of Edwin Dyer in 2009, a tourist from the UK. Dyer was abducted shortly after attending a small music festival in Anderamboukane, a Tuareg village on the border with Niger. Subsequently, foreign offices across Europe have issued repeated warnings of possible terrorist action by the Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) group and designated all of northern Mali as a danger zone.

Abdourahim's campsite had once occupied a popular stop for tourists travelling between the Unesco World Heritage sites of Bandiagara and Timbuktu, but their numbers have tailed off dramatically in the past year.

Security warnings and terrorist attacks have also had dire consequences for the nation's annual Festival in the Desert. With its previous site in northern Mali widely considered off-limits for tourists, the event has moved to a location close to Timbuktu's city limits. Many foreign investors have dropped their funding and performances by European and American musicians have declined. A pervasive sense of unease now hangs over the gathering.

"The Government of Mali and regional authorities helped maintain stability and minimise any possible risks at the festival site," counters Manny Ansar, its founder and director. "The event [is afforded] protection by the nomads of the region, through the traditional tribal and local networks. Some opinions are focused on the security issue, but our experience has shown that none of our guests has been questioned, much less threatened by safety concerns."

Ansar asserts that the festival has become "an instrument of exchange and dialogue", helping raise awareness of Tuareg culture. Staged last month, the event commemorates La Flamme de la paix (The Flame of Peace), a moment in 1996, when 3,000 small firearms belonging to Tuareg rebels and the Malian forces were burnt to celebrate a newly established accord and the representation of the Tuareg people in central government.

This year, the festival attracted an audience of 10,000. Close to 10 per cent of the 100,000 nomads living in the area known as Sahara el Kubra attended, along with many locals from Timbuktu and a number of international visitors.

Only a handful of foreigners journeyed to Mali in the festival's early years, but by 2008, their numbers had swelled to 1,000. In 2010, in the wake of Dyer's execution, this figure slumped to 700. This year, however, the statistics were a little healthier. Around 800 people from Europe, South America, the United States, Asia and other African nations are said to have paid the €120 price for tickets to the three-day event. Malians are granted admittance free of charge.

Halaye Ousmane, the mayor of Timbuktu, inaugurated proceedings with a speech detailing the traditional social role of the annual gathering. "We'd like to thank you all for being here," he said. "Despite the difficult conditions due to security issues. The President Amadou Toure, associates himself with the festival and its ethos of communication. The festival is a special night for the Tuareg people, when the nomads come together to settle their differences, to share news, to arrange marriages, to trade camels and to do other kinds of business. Many people have come to see those they haven't seen for a long time."

The singer Haira Arby, widely known as the "nightingale of the North", opened the festival with a band, featuring electric guitars, ngoni, and calabash drums. She later collaborated with the British-based Indian vocalist Najma Akhtar. Meanwhile, Tartit, a female Tuareg group teamed up with the Italian jazz-folk artists Dinamitri. Reflecting Mali's rich musical heritage, many more national stars also graced the stage, including Habib Koité, Oumou Sangaré, and Vieux Farka Touré also.

Briefly it appeared that this year's festival would be trouble-free. One western visitor from San Francisco told me: "My wife wasn't too happy about me coming. She read the warnings on the foreign office site, but I thought that things have happened in New York, in England, in Europe. What's the difference? Danger is everywhere. You can't let that stop you from living. It's great here. The people are amazing."

But the peace was disturbed on the final day, when news filtered through that two Frenchmen - an NGO worker on his way to marry a local woman and his best man - had been murdered in Niamey, a town some 500km over the border in Niger. Many felt the incident was too close for comfort.

The Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré addressed the crowd that afternoon and thanked its members for their bravery. He reminded the audience that "insecurity exists everywhere, [and that] bans and warnings for foreign travellers, notably westerners in the Saharan zone of Mali, are unjustified".

Further, he claimed that the warnings from foreign governments were hyperbolic and incendiary. He commended the festival as a tool for local development, and a reminder of peace, before adding that trouble was being caused by people with "their eyes on the garden". This last comment appeared to be an oblique reference to the ongoing speculation that surrounds the potential for natural resources in the area. Niger, Mali's near neighbour, harbours one of the largest uranium mines in the world, and the two countries share strong geological similarities.

Far from being put off by such external factors, Ansar's aims are grander than ever. He is already planning next year's festival and hopes that the event will eventually recall 16th-century golden age when Mali functioned as a trading hub for goods and knowledge between Africa and the Middle East. His hope, he says, is "to rebuild the bridge between the Sahara and the Arabian Peninsula".

 

Alyssa Moxley is a writer based in London. Her work has previously been published on Prospect magazine's website.

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