Washington — Timbuktu, the remote and ancient Sahara Desert city that was until recently controlled by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, is not often thought of as an outpost of Jewish life. Yet this West African town of some 55,000, in northern Mali, is still home to an estimated 1,000 descendants of Jews who converted to Islam centuries ago.
In three villages near the city, local residents still refer to these descendants as “the Jews,” but visitors and activists report that Malians of Jewish ancestry did not suffer any form of discrimination, even with the infiltration of violent Islamist extremists to the region. It also appears that the ancient documents that serve as proof of Jewish life in Timbuktu survived the recent attacks on the city’s historic library.
Interest in this Jewish history peaked two decades ago, when a local scholar, armed with ancient trade documents containing Hebrew script, launched a research project that documented the Jewish roots of some local residents. This ignited a search for identity among some of these individuals, and brought a degree of international attention to their existence. But mutual disappointment followed amid disputes over financial aid from Jews overseas. Activists on both sides have since given up on reconnecting residents of Timbuktu to their Jewish roots.
In the West, Timbuktu, which lies on the edge of the Sahara Desert and close to the Niger River, has become a metaphor for the impossibly remote and inaccessible. But its long idyll of deep obscurity in Western consciousness ended in 2008, when jihadis affiliated with the Al Qaeda affiliate in the Islamic Maghreb took over the city — in tandem with a separatist, more secular group of Tuareg nomads in rebellion against Mali’s central government.
The Al Qaeda jihadis, who came to dominate northern Mali, soon drove out the Tuaregs. They also imposed a violent and draconian version of Islam on its inhabitants, who have long been known for practicing a moderate and tolerant form of Islam. Music, long central to Malian culture, was banned. There were public hand amputations for alleged thieves. And the gravesite shrines of venerated Sufi saints were toppled.
This past January, France sent troops to the region to help the Malian government retake the city. The rebels quickly retreated without a fight, but not before setting fire to the city’s library, which housed thousands of medieval manuscripts from the period when Timbuktu was the capital and the storied cultural center of North Africa’s Songhai Empire.
During these recent years of tension, the few channels of communication between American Jewish activists and Jewish descendants in the Timbuktu region dried up, and visits became too dangerous to carry out. Still, experts on the region believe that Jewish descendants were not targeted by the rebels and were not subjected to any hardship specially targeting them.