cover

Contents

Cover

Also by Stephen Davies

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Foreword

Map

Glossary

1 Ali

2 Kadija

3 Ali

4 Kadija

5 Ali

6 Kadija

7 Ali

8 Kadija

9 Ali

10 Kadija

11 Ali

12 Kadija

13 Ali

14 Kadija

15 Ali

16 Kadija

17 Ali

18 Kadija

Afterword

Acknowledgements

Also by Stephen Davies

Hacking Timbuktu

Outlaw

The Yellowcake Conspiracy

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For Debbie and Sven, with love.

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When I read a book, I usually skip the foreword. If you’ve ever been to Timbuktu, please do just that. If you haven’t, you will find the following information useful.

There are three groups of people in the story. They are the people of Timbuktu, the Tuareg rebels and the Defenders of Faith.

The people of Timbuktu

As you may already know, Timbuktu is a real city. You can find it on a map on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Its people are – brace yourself for two massive generalisations – poor but peace-loving. They are followers of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. They are proud of their vast manuscript collections, their wonderful music and their much-visited shrines (burial places of Timbuktu’s scholars and holy men).

The Tuareg rebels

The Tuaregs are an ethnic group in West Africa. The men are sometimes called ‘the lords of the Sahara’. They wear indigo turbans and ride camels through the desert, buying and selling salt. The Tuaregs live in Mali and other West African countries but they have always longed to have a country of their own, right in the middle of the Sahara desert. This imagined homeland, Azawad, will be at least the size of Spain, and its three main cities will be Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.

The Defenders of Faith

There are many militant Islamist groups in the Sahara Desert. One is called AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb). Another is called ‘Defenders of Faith’ (Arabic: Ansar Dine). They hate the West and its allies, including the government of Mali, and they long for a strict form of Muslim law to be imposed across West Africa.

In March 2012 there was a military coup in Mali.

The President fled from his palace and the country was plunged into utter confusion. Confusion meant vulnerability.

The Tuareg rebels saw an opportunity to conquer the northern region of Mali and establish their glorious homeland Azawad.

The Defenders of Faith saw a chance to establish the Islamic state they had always dreamed of.

The two groups decided that by working together they could achieve both of these aims.

On 30 March, they captured Kidal.

On 31 March, they invaded Gao.

On 1 April their fighters massed in the desert north of Timbuktu, preparing to attack …

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balaphone
a West African percussion instrument, an ancestor of the xylophone
baraka
(Arabic) blessing
dhikr
(Arabic) repeating the name of God over and over again
djinn
(Arabic) spirit beings in Islam, can be benevolent or mischievous
haram
(Arabic) forbidden by Islamic law
hijab
(Arabic) a veil that covers the head and chest, worn by many Muslim women
jembe
a West African drum made from hardwood and goatskin.
jihad
(Arabic) holy struggle, often seen as a call to arms
kora
a West African harp-lute with twenty-one strings
marabout
(French) a teacher of Islam
mujahid
(plural: mujahidin) (Arabic) warrior
ngoni
a West African guitar with four strings, an ancestor of the banjo
qadi
(Arabic) judge
Qur’an
(Arabic) Islam’s main religious text, which Muslims believe to be a revelation from God
sharia
(Arabic) Islamic law
Sufism
a mystical branch of Islam
Sura
(Arabic) a chapter of the Qur’an
tariq
(Arabic) a true story
timbakewen
Guardians of sacred manuscripts
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I lie on my front on the crest of the dune. The sand is hot against my chest, the goatskin satchel tight against my shoulders. I take a deep breath and pull a fold of my turban up over my nose and mouth. The newly washed fabric smells sweet, like victory.

‘Are you filming?’

Omar holds up my phone and presses a button. ‘Now I am.’

My mission is simple.

Descend the dune. Cross the wadi. Scale the wall. Smite the enemy.

‘Go with God, Ali,’ whispers Omar in my ear. ‘Think of your namesake at the Battle of Badr.’

I stand up and sprint down the dune, the sand sliding away beneath me. Lion of God with the strength of God. There is no one like Ali and there is no sword like Zulfiqaar. Fast and light on the balls of my feet, I skitter sideways down the slope all the way to the bottom. The dry river bed lies before me, a jagged scar bisecting the desert. I speed up, shorten my stride, and leap.

Reach with the arms, pedal with the legs, land with a roll.

Perfect.

The next challenge is the wall. I drop into a crouch and reach over my shoulder into the goatskin satchel. Cord in the left hand. Claw in the right. Eyes on the parapet.

Five years of shepherding in the desert is good training for a warrior of God. If you can protect your sheep, you can protect your brothers. If you can master yourself, you can master an enemy. If you can kill the lion that threatens your flock, you can kill an infidel. If you can make your staff fly high and straight to knock down a baobab fruit, you can make a metal claw fly high and straight as well.

I take a deep breath and feel its weight in my right hand. Then I swing my arm and let it fly.

Up it floats, and hooks itself neatly over the top of the wall as I knew it must. Alhamdulillah!

With my hands on the rope and my bare feet pressing against the hot concrete bricks, I climb. A mujahid is weightless. He is all spirit. With God’s help he can scale a high wall in a second.

At the top, I reach over my shoulder and take out a second length of rope. I tie it to the hook, and rappel down the far side of the wall.

I have breached the defences of the camp. On my right, two large termite mounds stand on guard. On my left, two sacks of bambara beans sleep deeply. I reach over my shoulder one last time and draw from my satchel a pistol and a hand grenade.

Call on Ali, who is able to bring about the extraordinary. O Ali! O Ali! O Ali!

I line up the pistol sights and fire two bullets into the bean sacks. Then I pull the grenade pin with my teeth and lob the deadly fruit towards the termite mounds.

Boom.

The rock quakes under my feet. Fragments of termite mound descend like rain. The enemies of God have been vanquished.

‘God is great!’ cries Redbeard, striding into view round the side of the wall. He claps his leathery hands and grins all over his desert-hardened face. Behind him come Omar, Rashid, Hilal, Hamza and the rest of the Brothers. Omar’s eyes behind his thick glasses look bigger than ever. He is still filming.

‘Forty-five seconds!’ declares Redbeard, holding up his watch. ‘You, Ali, are my champion infiltrator.’

‘Thank you, master.’

‘Behold the infidels,’ chuckles Redbeard, bending over the bambara bean sacks and slipping a finger into one of the bullet holes. ‘I don’t suppose this one will ever eat pork again.’

We laugh obediently.

When Redbeard straightens up, the smile is gone. ‘Tell me, Ali Konana, could you do it if the wall were a little higher? Could you hook it?’

Inshallah, master. God willing.’

‘What if it were night, with only half a moon?’

‘Yes, master. With God’s help I could.’

After infiltration practice comes target practice.

The fisherboys Hilal and Hamza shin up the rope onto the top of the wall and edge their way along the parapet, setting empty tomato paste tins at equal distances. The rest of us fetch our weapons from the back of a donkey cart. My AK-47 is marked with the same lopsided cross I used to use for my cows. We sling the guns across our bodies and follow Redbeard across the shimmering sand towards a distant dune, no longer a ragtag group of teenagers but a proud, invincible battalion.

‘Who can tell me,’ says Redbeard, ‘why the AK-47 is the greatest gun in the world?’

‘I know, master,’ gasps Omar, his fingertips reaching for the sun. ‘I know, I know.’

‘Go on.’

‘Easy to strip, easy to clean, easy to fire,’ chants Omar. ‘Spits out seven hundred rounds a minute. Never overheats or jams, not even in a sandstorm. A child can use it.’

‘Even my little brother can use it,’ whispers Hilal, ‘and he’s not much bigger than his gun!’

Hamza stares straight ahead, pretending not to have heard, but his nostrils twitch like they always do when he is angry. The fisherboys are twins, but they are not identical. Not even similar, in fact. Hilal is tall and Hamza short. Hilal is the comedian of the group and Hamza the thundercloud.

We trudge up the side of the dune and line up along the crest.

‘Thirty rounds each on full auto,’ barks Redbeard. ‘Go.’

We shoulder our guns and one by one we rattle off our rounds. Hamza is the best marksman of us all – five tins in four deafening seconds.

By the time it gets to my turn, there are no tins left on the wall, so Redbeard tells me to pick out a brick instead. I kick off my sandals, rest my finger on the trigger and fire.

In four joyous, bone-rattling seconds, my chosen brick and several of its neighbours dissolve to dust.

The other boys take their turns. We only built this wall yesterday, and now it looks like one of Hamza’s fishing nets.

Redbeard goes last. With his thirty rounds he strobes the weakened areas of the wall and reduces the entire edifice to a pile of rubble. Some of the boys whoop and slap each other on the back.

‘Incredible,’ I gasp.

‘I know,’ Omar whispers. ‘They say he once shot down an Algerian helicopter with that rifle.’

The cheering and clapping die down, and now there is another noise, an eerie rumbling sound that swells to a boom and then to a roar. It sounds like the voice of God himself.

Redbeard puts down his gun and stretches out his arms. ‘The desert is singing!’ he cries. ‘Who can tell me why the desert is singing?’

‘Our shooting disturbed the dune,’ gabbles Omar, forgetting to raise his hand. ‘Billions of sand grains are sliding away from the crest, each layer of sand rubbing against the one beneath it like a bow against a violin. You can’t see the sandslide but you can hear the—’

‘Nonsense!’ cries Redbeard. ‘It is joy that makes the desert sing. She hears the gunfire of the mujahidin and she knows that a new day of faith and justice is about to dawn.’

He glares around him, as if daring anyone to contradict him.

No one does.

Lunch is rice and bambara beans, as usual. We crouch in the shade, five boys to a bowl. Going sunwise round the circle, we take it in turns to palm a clump of rice and beans and raise it to our mouths.

Hilal says these beans are from the sack I shot this morning. After every mouthful, he clutches his throat and rolls his eyes in their sockets, pretending to choke on a bullet. The other boys are laughing like hyenas, which only encourages him.

‘Peace be upon you,’ says a voice behind us.

Hamza.

‘Brother, join us!’ says Hilal. ‘Sit down, if you haven’t already. I’m never quite sure.’

General cackling from the group.

‘I have a message for you,’ mutters Hamza.

‘Give it,’ says Hilal. ‘I like messages.’

The stocky fisherboy grabs his brother by the hair and knees him in the face. ‘Stop mocking me,’ he says.

After two o’clock prayers, we recite the Qur’an in unison. The name of today’s chapter is Al-Anfal. And you did not kill them, but it was God who killed them. And you threw not, when you threw, but it was God who threw that He might test the believers with a good test.

Omar and I learned our Arabic with a marabout back home in Goundam. On winter evenings we huddled round the fire in his courtyard, twelve small boys with furrowed foreheads and flapping tongues, writing and reciting long into the night. The firewood never used to last very long. In the early hours of the morning the embers glowed dim and the breeze from the Niger river made us cringe and shiver. The marabout was never cold, of course. Shrouded in a thick cotton blanket, he emerged only to correct our pronunciation or to scold us that our ink was too watery. He never talked about the Qur’an itself or told us how these peculiar Arabic verses might be relevant to our lives. However many hours we studied, our hearts remained as cold and numb as the fingers that clasped our writing boards.

This training camp is not like that. Here the fierce sun warms our bodies and the words of the Book warm our hearts. We learn about the prophets, peace be upon them, shepherds just like us. The Prophet Ibrahim, the father of nations, loved to fill his eyes with sheep and goats. The Prophet Musa walked behind a flock for forty years before God sent him to challenge Pharaoh. The Prophet Daouda chanted God’s praises with a shepherd’s crook in one hand and a slingshot in the other.

The last of the prophets was the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, the shepherd who became a warrior. We learn about his nights of solitude and prayer on Mount Hira, his visit from the angel Jibliiru, his zeal to prove to the world that there is no god but God. We learn about his friends – Omar, Bilal, Jabir, Hilal, Rashid, Iyas, Hamza – courageous in the cause of God and utterly devoted to their leader. We learn about Ali, bravest of the lot, the Lion of God with the strength of God. Wielding his shining scimitar, Zulfiqaar, he protected his master in the thick of battle.

When we first arrived at the camp three months ago, Redbeard gave us new names. He named us after the Prophet’s companions in the hope that we might also acquire their bravery and devotion.

In our camp, there is no memorisation without understanding, no recitation without conviction. Redbeard leads us in discussion and each boy gets to speak. We talk of God and Satan, angels and djinn, presidents and paupers, heroes and villains. We talk of battles to be won against disbelief, against the desires of the flesh and against the Malian army.

Those who disbelieved devised plans against you, plans to confine you or slay you or drive you away; they devised their plans, but God also had arranged a plan; and God is the best of planners!

As we recite those holy words, I realise that I am shivering – not with cold but with excitement.

After recitation, Redbeard makes an announcement.

‘I just received a telephone call, boys. Gao has fallen! The Tuaregs invaded this morning, along with one of our Al Qaeda battalions, and already they are in full control.’

A cheer goes up. Hilal whips off his turban and throws it in the air.

‘Kidal and Gao are ours,’ says Redbeard. ‘Timbuktu is next. When Timbuktu falls, we will rule the whole Sahara. We will return the desert peoples to the worship of the one true God – and after the desert, the entire world, from where the sun rises to where it sets!’

My spirit leaps. Someone in the row behind slaps me on the back. This is a golden moment.

‘Be warned,’ says Redbeard. ‘Timbuktu is not like those other towns. The army garrison is strong and they are expecting our invasion. We must be cunning, like serpents.’

A murmur of excitement thrills through the ranks. If our master needs cunning, so be it. We will give whatever he asks, and more.

‘As soon as darkness falls,’ says Redbeard, ‘Alhassan Litni will meet us here with one hundred and fifty of his best fighting men. As you know, Litni is a Tuareg chief and a courageous warrior. In the last ten years he has fought many battles against the Malian army and has inflicted heavy losses. I have allowed him the honour of commanding this operation.’

I feel a pang of disappointment. I thought Redbeard himself would lead us into battle, not that crafty camelman Alhassan Litni.

‘Litni will lead you well,’ continues Redbeard, ‘but there is one thing that he and his men lack.’

‘Soap,’ I mutter.

‘No!’ Redbeard glares at me, and for one heady moment I think he is going to strike me. ‘What Litni’s battalion lacks is stealth. If we are to have the advantage of surprise, I need ten of you boys to spearhead a silent invasion. The boys I choose must be invisible, inaudible and deadly – like djinn.’

Already there are hands in the air, pleading hands thrust up so high that every sinew strains. My hand shoots up as well, propelled by God himself.

‘They must be strong of limb, fleet of foot, utterly devoted to God and to our cause. They must be ready to kill – and to be killed.’

Omar’s hand goes up as well. There is not a single boy in this battalion who does not long for the glory of martyrdom.

‘As I said, ten of you will suffice. I choose’ – his pointing finger slices through the air – ‘Hilal, Hamza, Rashid, Malik, Bilal, Usman, Zayd, Jabir, Omar, and Ali Konana.’

I want to leap in the air and shout for joy, but that would be shameful. I just nod instead.

‘Ali, you will do for real tonight what you have done today in practice. You will infiltrate the city at dead of night, scale the wall of the Sidi el-Beckaye Fort, and lead the attack inside the enemy’s camp.’

Tonight. Yes, of course. I have seen it in my dreams.

‘There will be sentries,’ warns Redbeard. ‘Not termite mounds and sacks of beans, but living, breathing, beer-swilling infidels with assault rifles. Take no chances, Ali. If a sentry sees you, open fire. Otherwise, wait for the rest of your platoon to climb up and join you. Wait as long as possible before engaging the enemy. Keep your nerve. Surprise is on your side. Ali, Hilal, Hamza, Rashid, Jabir, you will rappel down to the ground, fight your way across the compound and open the gates for Litni and his men. Malik, Bilal, Usman, Zayd and Omar, you will stay on top of the wall and lay down covering fire.

‘Once the military camp is ours, you will split up and follow Litni’s men to the radio station, the police commissariat and the airport. I expect little or no resistance at these sites. By noon tomorrow, Timbuktu will be ours.

‘Go with God, boys. Watch your brothers’ backs, and show the enemy no mercy. Peace be upon you.’

 

Manuscript 8467: the tariq of Sidi Ahmed ben Amar

Sidi Ahmed ben Amar was one of the holy men of Timbuktu. He was a teacher at the Sankoré Mosque, well known for his love of God and his gentle spirit. He had many disciples and they all adored him.

One day, ben Amar accepted a loan from a one-eyed Berabish merchant, promising to pay him back in forty days when his salt caravan came in from the desert. Forty days came and went, and still ben Amar’s salt caravan had not arrived. The merchant went to see ben Amar and shook his fist in the saint’s face. ‘Pay me what you owe me!’ he cried.

‘Be patient, friend,’ said the saint. ‘A man makes plans in his heart, but his destiny is in the hands of God. Allow me three more days to pay my debt.’

‘Twenty-four hours,’ said the Berabish, and off he went.

Sidi Ahmed ben Amar went straight to see the chief of Timbuktu and announced to him that God’s power would visit Timbuktu that night. The chief told the minstrel, and the minstrel marched around town with a big drum. He warned everyone to stay indoors, for a miracle was on its way.

That night Sidi Ahmed ben Amar went out into his courtyard and spread out his prayer skin under the stars. He closed his eyes, leaned forward and began to pray. What happened next is sung about to this day in every nomad camp in the Sahara desert.

A huge slab of salt fell from the sky. It landed next to the spot where Ben Amar was praying, one big slab and then another.

That’s right, slabs of salt from the sky.

Ben Amar prayed for many hours. Salt fell all around him and a great wind battered the roofs of Timbuktu. People cowered in their houses, gnashing their teeth and begging Allah for mercy.

The slabs of salt fell so hard and fast that his compound became a vast crater, yet still ben Amar prayed. At three o’clock in the morning, Halimatu, the saint’s third wife, stripped off and ran outside. She clambered across the slabs of salt to where her husband knelt, and snatched the prayer beads from his hands.

‘Stop it!’ cried Halimatu. ‘You’ll kill us all! Stop it!’

The sight of his naked wife distracted ben Amar from his prayers, and the salt stopped falling.

For many months after the miracle, no one in Timbuktu paid money for cooking salt or cattle licks. They gathered it free of charge in the yard of Sidi Ahmed ben Amar. Even the one-eyed merchant went along to beg the saint’s forgiveness – and some salt.

Today there is a crater behind the Sankoré Mosque where Sidi Ahmed’s salt slabs landed. It is called the crater of Takaboundou. Ben Amar’s tomb stands in the Cemetery of the Three to the south-west of Timbuktu, and people come from all over Africa to visit the shrine and ask for things they need. They do a special whirling dance and they sing these words:

We entreat your blessing, Sidi Ahmed ben Amar,

Son of Sidi el Wafi, son of Sidi el Moctar,

For daily salt we beg thee, Sidi Ahmed ben Amar,

Let the heavens rain down on us.

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The afternoon is crazy hot, and tempers in the club are fraying.

‘Come on, girl, this is a wedding we’re preparing for, not a rally,’ says Alpha, pointing a balaphone mallet straight at me. ‘Let’s have none of your political songs.’

I am with the band at the La Détente nightclub in Timbuktu, rehearsing music for my friend Tondi’s wedding party in two weeks’ time. We perch on stools upon that hallowed stage where so many of Mali’s greats have plucked and strummed and sung their way to glory: King of the Blues Ali Farka Touré, Salif ‘Golden Voice’ Keita, Kandia ‘La Dangereuse’ Kouyaté. One day, perhaps, our names will be spoken with theirs and our photos will join theirs on the walls of La Détente. But only if we don’t kill each other first.

‘“Alla La Ke” is not a political song,’ I tell him. ‘It’s a song for peace. It’s a heart cry for our country.’

Our country. Over the last few years, a terrible shadow has overtaken us. Our radios relay news of kidnappings, uprisings and assassinations. They talk of dark forces massing in the desert, preparing to attack, and now, since last week’s coup, the fear is at an all-time high. My father says that Al Qaeda and the Tuaregs are working together now. They have control of Kidal, but they won’t stop there. They’ll march on Gao – and then on Timbuktu.

‘We don’t do political songs,’ repeats Alpha, staring me down with his sightless eyes.

‘It’s not political!’ I stab my finger in the air, not that Alpha can see it. ‘If a bird sees a woodcutter coming to chop down the tree that holds her nest, and she squawks to alert her family, do you call that political?’

‘Definitely,’ he says.

‘You just don’t want to admit you’re wrong,’ I snap. ‘What about you, Yusuf? If you and me go swimming naked in the Great River and a crocodile gets hold of me and you shout out to raise the alarm, is that political?’

Yusuf’s pupils dilate and his fingertips tighten on the strings of his ngoni. ‘We’ve never done that,’ he mutters, and the others burst out laughing.

‘We’re doing the song,’ I tell them flatly. ‘I’m the leader of this group, and I say we’re doing the song.’

I walk home with Aisha after band practice, and the millet pounders all around us put rhythm in our step. Pok-pok, pok-pok, pok-pok-pok, we bob along together in the rosy afternoon.

‘You’re cruel to flirt with Yusuf,’ says Aisha, taking my hand. ‘You know he’s mad about you.’

‘It’s not flirting,’ I say. ‘If you were Fulani, you would understand. It’s normal for Fulani to tease their cousins.’

‘And marry them too,’ she says. ‘Do you love Yusuf?’

‘Only when he’s playing the ngoni. When he stops playing, I stop loving him.’

‘Well then,’ she says. ‘Stop giving him false hope.’

We pass the Well of Old Bouctou and take a short cut through the market. The sun is so fierce at this time of year, it burns your brain – when I shut my eyes I see market stalls outlined in blue and pink on the insides of my eyelids.

‘I like giving him false hope,’ I say. ‘It makes me feel powerful.’

Aisha looks at me sharply, and I manage to keep a straight face for all of two seconds before I burst out laughing.

‘Girls, come here!’ a woman calls. ‘I’ve got something for you.’

It’s Mama’s friend, Halimatu Tal, frying bite-sized millet pancakes over a fire. She puts four pancakes in a plastic bag and hands it to me.

‘Thank you, Auntie,’ I say, and curtsy.

At the exit to the market, an old woman is bartering with a merchant for a sack of rice.

‘Forty thousand francs,’ the merchant tells her.

‘You’re killing me,’ says the woman. ‘It was thirty last week.’

‘And now it’s forty,’ says the merchant, unmoved.

‘Crazy,’ I mutter, as we walk on past. ‘Only the mayor’s wife can afford to eat rice at forty thousand a sack.’

‘If you want a sack of rice you should go and sing “Alla La Ke” outside the mayor’s gate,’ says Aisha. ‘I hear he likes political songs.’

I push her into a passing donkey and she squeals with laughter.

We leave the market by the West Gate and amble down Toumani Avenue towards Independence Square. As we pass in front of the Sidi Yahya Mosque, my father phones me.

‘Come home quick,’ he says. ‘Gao has fallen to the rebels.’

Timbuktu is a slow town, especially in the hot season. People saunter. If they are late for something, they stroll. But as the news about Gao spreads from tongue to tongue around Independence Square, there is striding and even some scurrying. If Gao has fallen, Timbuktu is next.

I can’t believe they’ve invaded Gao so fast. My father thought it would take weeks, but it’s happened in two days.

I say goodbye to Aisha and cross the square alone. In the middle of the square stands a statue of Al Farouk, the great protector djinni of Timbuktu. ‘Good luck, Al Farouk,’ I murmur as I pass. ‘You’ve got some work to do.’

I turn right up Askia Avenue and then duck through a mud-brick archway into our family’s compound.

Marimba is licking a slab of salt in his trough. When he hears the creak of his gate he looks up and whinnies at me.

‘Stay away,’ I tell him. ‘I still haven’t forgiven you for what you did to me.’

It was more than ten years ago that Marimba kicked me, but I’ve never ridden since. If a thing is dangerous, don’t mess with it, that’s what I say.

Ignoring Marimba’s liquid gaze, I skirt round the edge of the horse enclosure and slip into a narrow gap behind the hay bales. In the darkness I feel along the wall until I find what I am looking for, an ancient wooden door with silver rivets. Only eight living creatures know about this door – seven humans and one horse.

I open the door silently and tiptoe down the mud-brick steps. Ever since I was small I have loved the earthy, papery smell of this secret vault. The smell of wisdom, Baba calls it.

A paraffin lamp on a table casts an eerie orange glow across the walls of the underground chamber. The table, a chair and a sprawling bookcase are the only furniture, and the only decoration is a seventeenth-century Kabyle musket hanging on the staircase wall. Its wooden stock is skilfully inlaid with swirls of ivory, and the silver lock plate gleams.

My father is taking manuscripts off bookshelves and stuffing them into metal trunks. His back is turned and he jumps when he feels my hand on his shoulder.

‘Kadija, don’t creep up on me like that.’

‘Another power cut, Baba?’

‘I’m afraid so.’ Lit from beneath by the paraffin lamp, his face looks wan and hollow-cheeked.

‘Are you moving them out of the vault, Baba?’

‘No, I’m simply making them more portable. I do not believe the rebels will take Timbuktu. Our army garrison will be too strong for them.’

‘You said the same about Kidal and Gao.’

‘That proves it,’ he smiles. ‘I’m never wrong three times in a row. Now stop prattling, girl, and get to work. I want you to log these manuscripts for me.’

I sit down at the table and pull the notebook and pencil towards me. ‘April 2012’ reads the Arabic script on the cover. ‘New manuscript locations.’

‘Stories of the saints,’ says Baba, taking a manuscript out of the cabinet. ‘The tariq of Sidi Ahmed ben Amar.’ He lays it in the trunk.

‘Sidi Ahmed ben Amar,’ I repeat, writing in the book. ‘Trunk thirty-two.’

He gathers up another manuscript. ‘The tariq of Sidi Yahya.’

‘Sidi Yahya.’

‘The tariq of Muhammad Fodiri Al-Wangari.’

‘Al-Wangari.’

‘The tariq of Sidi el Beckaye.’

‘El Beckaye.’

The only sounds in the vault are the rustling of manuscripts, the scuff of pencil on paper and the singsong recitation of manuscript titles. The saintly names subdue our fears and cool our blood. They take us back four hundred years to the golden age of Timbuktu, an age of noblemen, holy men and scholars. They restore our hearts to peace.

Hours later, in the middle of trunk sixty-five, the sunset prayer call jolts us out of our trance and reminds us of the world of men above.

My father yawns and stretches. ‘We are going to need more trunks,’ he says. ‘After sunset prayers, I will order twenty more from the blacksmith.’ He takes out his phone and moves towards the steps.

‘Baba, wait,’ I say. ‘How are the rebels treating people in Gao and Kidal?’