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.
“There is no reason for them to be discriminated [against],” said Ralph Austen, professor emeritus of African history at the University of Chicago. Austen noted that descendants are no different from other Muslims in the region. If anything, he said, “Middle Eastern roots,” as opposed to African ancestry, “would be considered as a yikhes” using the Yiddish word for “pedigree.”
Timbuktu’s short-lived revival as a remote center of Jewish interest can be attributed almost completely to the work of one historian, Ismael Diadié Haidara. In the early 1990s, Haidara began researching the story of Jews in the region. He had little to work with: a few old commerce documents with notes in Hebrew written in their margins; several family names that lived on in local versions; remains of Timbuktu synagogues and of Jewish graves, and the fact that in three villages along the Niger River, locals still identified some of the residents as “the Jews.”
In the process, Haidara learned that his own ancestors were Jewish from the Abana family which came to Timbuktu in the 19th century.
From medieval times up until the 20th century, Timbuktu served as a major trade and cultural hub for travelers and merchants crossing the Sahara. And Jewish travelers and traders were among those it attracted. Jews moved to Timbuktu in small waves from the 14th century. Some fled to North Africa following the Spanish inquisition. And as late as 1859, Rabbi Mordechai Abi Serour, an immigrant from Morocco, became one of the city’s most successful merchants. Serour brought with him another 10 men, in order to set up a minyan required for Jewish prayer.
The city never became a significant Jewish outpost, but it was home to Jews who sought a temporary base for their trade business. And over time, the Jews who settled in Timbuktu converted to Islam, some coerced by rulers’ decrees and others voluntarily.
Haidara’s work and a book he wrote, “The Jews of Timbuktu,” sparked interest among those Jews’ descendants. None of them considers themselves to be Jewish. But some of them created Zakhor (also known as the Timbuktu Association for Friendship with the Jewish World), a local organization aimed at strengthening the Jewish identity of the descendants. The group’s main achievement was a manifesto, issued in May 29, 1996, calling on the international Jewish community and on the respective presidents of Mali and Israel to recognize that “we are Jews because our ancestors were Jews, whose genes are found in all our families.”
The statement, published in a local newspaper, also makes clear that the descendants are not seeking new religious or national allegiances: “It is God who made Timbuktu our land of refuge, and we are Muslims.”
Irwin Berg, a retired lawyer active with the organization Kulanu, which is based in New York and according to its website is aimed at supporting “isolated and emerging Jewish communities who wish to learn more about Judaism,” made the trip to Timbuktu in 2001. He was shown a dusty roadway still known as the “Jewish street,” and visited two villages in which Jewish descendants live. In one, they resided in a separate quarter and married only among themselves, but none, he noted, kept any Jewish traditions or rituals.
Another visitor was Rick Gold, who worked for the United States Agency for International Development in Mali during the 1990s. Following Haidara’s work, he visited the region and later began conveying the inhabitants’ story to American Jewish audiences. “They feel that because others see them as descendants of Jews and call them Jews, it is important for them to learn more about their Jewish ancestry,” Gold said.
Both travelers noted they did not encounter any discrimination against the Jewish descendants, and according to Berg, in one of the villages a man with Jewish ancestry served as mayor.
Upon discovering their Jewish background, Zakhor and the local Jewish descendants stated their goal as “re-establishment of a Jewish community and identity.” In practice, however, little happened. Haidara, who was the driving force behind the program, moved on to other projects in order to document the diversity of Timbuktu. Jewish activists, including Gold and Berg, brought word of the new community to America and had raised some funds for the cause.
“My impression was that they were looking for Jewish money,” Berg said. The funds sent to Haidara led to a dispute between him and the descendants, who wanted to see American money used for development projects in their villages rather than for funding research programs. “It was a bit sensitive,” Gold said, “because the people in the villages were asking for the money.”
Haidara, in an email to the Forward, declined a request to be interviewed for this article, saying it would not be the right time to draw attention to Jewish descendants in Timbuktu.
Zakhor is now all but defunct, and Jewish American groups, which had little interest in Timbuktu to start with, are no longer actively pursuing the issue.
The documents establishing the Jewish connection to Timbuktu are believed to be safe. The fire set to the library by rebels destroyed many Muslim manuscripts, but most were spirited to safety beforehand and hidden by local families devoted to their preservation over many generations. The documents relating to Jewish activity in the region are believed to be safe in the hands of Haidara or in possession of these villagers.
Jewish groups state that they are still open to helping Timbuktu’s Jewish descendants, if such interest exists. “Our goal is not to put a yarmulke on every head,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization reaching out to disconnected Jewish communities. “If the descendants there want more information on Judaism or Israel, we will try to help.”
Austen added a cautionary note. Raising too much attention to the issue could “do everybody a disservice,” he said, because “then their Jewish identity becomes a problem.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.