Honestly, I am not much for the reading of romances. I worked as an editor before joining the Navy and, because I had to edit romance novels, I asked a friend which romance writer was the best. She told me of Nora Roberts and I read one (uno, un, onesies) of her books. Not bad, but not my style. Still reading this story of Salaka Djicke tugged at my heartstrings. (And I thought I did not have any!)
The love story in this fabled desert outpost began over the phone, when he dialed the wrong number. It nearly ended with the couple’s death at the hands of Islamic extremists who considered their romance “haram” — forbidden.
What happened in between is a study in how al-Qaida-linked militants terrorized a population, whipping women and girls innorthern Mali almost every day for not adhering to their interpretation of the strict moral code known as Shariah. It is also a testament to the violent clash between the brutal, unyielding Islam of the invaders and the moderate version of the religion that has long prevailed in Timbuktu, once a center for Islamic learning.
Salaka Djicke is a round-faced, big-boned girl with the wide thighs still fashionable in the desert, an unforgiving terrain that leaves many women without curves. Until the Islamists came and upended her world, the 24-year-old lived a relatively free life.
Timbuktu is certainly in the news a lot these days. It used to be the Timbuktu of cities.
Timbuktu, in northern Mali, has been rendered a ghost town by the Islamists,leaving the residents with no electricity or drinking water for more than three days. Winning hearts and minds should not be difficult for the French forces there. Logistics, on the the other hand, should be challenging. As municpal elder Moctar Ould Kery (no relation to John) says: There is no water. The people have left and the Islamists too. It’s a ghost town.
Gao, a city of 100,000 people, has become a lifeless place since the Islamists took over. It was once a stopping point for tourists traveling to Timbuktu, but now the roadside stands have disappeared, bars and restaurants are boarded up and music is banned. The new strongmen proclaim their creed on signs posted at street corners, written in white Arabic lettering on a black background, that read: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”
To make matters worse, garbage collection has been suspended, leaving waste to rot in the streets at temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Around 400,000 people have already fled the Islamists. Most who have left represent the better-educated parts of the work force, like the engineers who kept the power plant and waterworks in operation. Foreign aid organizations are gone, as are government officials who were in the process of implementing a new road construction program.
“Gao is a dead city,” says Allassane Amadou Touré, a mechanic, as he drinks tea in the shade. He is unemployed, like many in the city, and says that Gao’s economic output has “declined by 85 percent” since the spring.
The Islamic police have become the city’s biggest employers. Ironically, their headquarters are on Washington Street in downtown Gao. From there, the armed police officers, most of them young men who are little more than children, are sent out into the neighborhoods to drum into residents what is considered “haram” and “halal,” or pure.
The jihadis have a headquarters on Washington Street in downtown Gao?