“The Desert Blues“

In “The Desert Blues,” Issue No. 48 of The Atavist Magazine, Joshua Hammer writes about two friends, Manny Ansar and Iyad Ag Ghali, whose shared love of music helped create the Festival in the Desert, a world-renowned event that celebrates Malian culture. In his deeply reported piece, Hammer tells the story of Ansar and Ghali’s powerful friendship, and how radical Islam tore them apart. Ronen Bergman, author of “Operation Red Falcon,” Issue No. 47 of The Atavist Magazine, asked Hammer about writing this heartbreaking account.

RONEN BERGMAN: How did this story first germinate? 

JOSHUA HAMMER: I’d visited Mali half a dozen times before the conquest of the north by the jihadists and Tuareg militants in 2012. These visits included a two-day stay at the Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu in 2008, where I first heard about Manny Ansar. I went to Mali in January 2013 to report on the French intervention for the New York Review of Books. Shortly after French forces began their military intervention, a noted Malian journalist told me the story of Iyad Ag Ghali. An American friend, a travel agent who had organized my 2008 visit to the Festival, mentioned in passing that Ansar had been a close friend of Ghali’s, and asked me if I’d like to meet him. I responded in the affirmative, and the following day she set up a meeting at my guest house, where Ansar proceeded to tell me about his friendship and falling out with the jihadist commander. Later, when I began researching a book about Al Qaeda in North Africa, I spent more time with Ansar, and learned more about the musical connection—especially their shared involvement with Tinariwen.

Music has been part of liberation movements throughout history. In the case of the Tuareg, did it have the effect of fueling or lessening the violence?

The music of Tinariwen and other Tuareg musicians served as a rallying cry for war in the 1980s and early 1990s. There’s no question that the music—passed around the desert tribes in the form of samizdat cassettes—helped to popularize the cause and convinced many young Tuareg to join the freedom fighters. The fact that the Tuareg dream of independence has never really dimmed can certainly be attributed in part to Tinariwen. But I’d also argue that the music served as an outlet for the frustration of many young Tuareg, by helping to dim their lust for violence and making them appreciate the potential value—culturally, politically, monetarily—of peace.

If you could interview Ghali, what would be the first questions you’d ask him?

I would want to know at what point exactly he decided to embark on a course of violence against the Malian government. After repeatedly assuring his close friend Ansar that his fundamentalism was peaceful, what made him change? I’d also want to know his exact role in the execution-style killings of nearly 100 soldiers at Aguelhok at the beginning of the war, perhaps the biggest atrocity of the entire conflict. And I’d want to know whether he directly ordered the stoning deaths of a young couple for having a child out of wedlock, and whether he now has any regrets.

Do you have an answer to the question that Ansar raises: How was it that Ghali so blatantly broke his promise to his old friend and turned to the brutal ways of extremist Islamism?

I can only surmise that something pushed him over the edge into violence, perhaps his time in Saudi Arabia. I’d want to ask him more about who he met with there, and how his thinking about Islam changed.

Is it difficult for you as a journalist to persuade editors to run stories about Africa? 

Surprisingly not. The Atavist went for it fairly quickly, and the book I’ve written about Mali during the jihadist occupation (The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts) was grabbed by Simon & Schuster a few weeks after my agent circulated a proposal. Admittedly it’s an arcane subject and a very foreign place, but I think the themes of music, the preservation of culture in the face of religious extremism and the making and breaking of a friendship, are universal and transcend geographical boundaries.

When I write about events in the Middle East, I’m always thinking of the right proportion of names, dates, places, and historical events, with which I can burden readers. I wonder if and how you wrestled with this problem.

I’ve got a tendency to overload a manuscript with foreign names and places—it’s a problem that bogged down my 2003 book for S&S about the Al Aqsa intifada. (The one criticism I heard over and over from readers was that they got lost in the morass of unfamiliar Arabic names.) Since that experience, I’ve tried to be very careful about minimizing the number of foreign names and places. As someone who has been a foreign correspondent for two-and-a-half decades I tend to lose perspective and I rely on my editors to help me.

You tried to end your story on a positive note, but isn’t it true that ultimately it’s a deeply pessimistic story about a continent everybody prefers to forget?

I’ve been observing Africa for 25 years and I’ve seen examples of both horror and hope. It’s impossible to generalize. The continent has a number of stable democracies and booming economies. A middle class is emerging across Africa and modern technology—smart phones, cellular networks—has definitely touched and transformed the landscape, so there’s reason for optimism. At the same time, it’s undoubtedly true that jihadism has had a malign and growing influence, and that’s a cause for great concern.  Read “The Desert Blues.”