Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Month: September, 2016

Running to Catch the Bus (2) – Africa


Recently I was at a seminar given by Dr Berny Sèbe of the University of Birmingham. He talked about a very interesting research project into the military forts of the Sahara, looking at the way forts had developed and been used, the way they interplayed with mobile military forces and urban settlements, the way they represented continuities with Roman military occupation, their post-Independence uses and so on. At one point he showed a grainy black-and-white photograph of a rather chubby white bus with round portholes, and commented that it was one of the buses commissioned by the Compagnie Générale Transsaharienne to carry its customers across the Sahara from the coast to Gao on the Niger bend. I was fascinated by the idea of a company running white, bulgy buses across the great desert, carrying passengers in air-conditioned comfort, in what looked like the 1930s. So I did a little reading and found that trans-Saharan motor-transport has a very different history from that across the Syrian desert to Baghdad, but an equally fascinating one.

cgs-mapWhere the Nairns built a business on fast, cheap, competitive transport between Jerusalem and Baghdad, carrying the post, bullion and passengers, the French desert convoys had quite another rationale. They arose from imperial amour-propre and a fierce competition between the two major French car manufacturers, Louis Renault and André Citroën. The two episodes epitomise so perfectly the cultural differences between France and Britain that they are worth holding up to the light together: the one pragmatic, commercial, brave and accidentally romantic; the other loftily idealistic, romantic, brave and accidentally commercial.

In the early 1920s Citroën and Renault launched a series of great quasi-anthropological expeditions across Africa, and filmed them, at about the same time that they set about the Sahara. French imperial triumphalism, a lascivious cod-ethnology and intense commercial self-promotion lay behind what were called ‘raïds’ – lavish, expensively conceived expeditions that criss-crossed the continent with ciné cameras running. Citroën filmed La Traversée du Sahara in 1923, La Croisée Noire in 1925 and La Croisée Jaune in 1932, each one “a moving visual catalogue of the French colonies.” Starting generally from Touggourt, to which the Constantine-Biskra railway line had been extended in 1918, they pushed southward, filming as they went, encouraged by the success in 1922 of  ‘Le Raïd Citroën,’ which made the first motorised crossing of the Sahara. In 1925 La Croisée Noire, a massive motorised expedition south from Colomb-Béchar split into four separate columns with very different routes, reuniting at Tananarive in Madagascar.  It was a very French imperial statement.

In 1924 Citroën established a subsidiary called CITRACIT to run regular transport on an Oran-Béchar-Toggourt-Timbuktu route (the first Toggourt-Timbuktu transit ran in the winter of 1923/4). Citroën bought the patent for the rubberised caterpillar half-track capable of driving in deep sand, designed by Adolphe Kégresse, who had worked on tank and half-track design for Renault during the war. Hotels were constructed along the route, “luxurious tent-like structures, each adjoined to an elegant dining-room” – “intended to create an ambience for men in smoking-jackets, women in gowns and dancing to live music under the stars.” Three boats were built raid-citroenand installed on the Niger for travelling between Bouarem, Timbuktu and Gao.

Citroën was in a hurry. Unlike Renault which took almost four years from founding the company to launching a commercial service, Citroën wanted instant results:

Il faut que la réussite de cette entreprise étonne le monde par la rapidité avec laquelle la réalisation aura suivi la conception. A peine la nouvelle du projet sera-t-elle connue, et déjà les bordjs seront sortis de terre en pleine desert; ils seront meublés, organisés, eclairés à l’électricité et fonctionneront. Les voitures munies de chenilles auront tout transporté à travers le chaos des terrains désertiques, tandis que d’autres véhicules appropriés à leur nouvelle destination, rapides et confortables, auront été conçus, construits et expédiés, leur personnel entraîné aux solitudes désertiques et les premiers voyageurs transportés d’une rive a l’autre de la mer saharienne …

halftrack-w-peopleA magnificent launch event was planned for January 1925, a journey from Colomb-Béchar, a military base on the Algerian-Moroccan border reachable by rail from Oran since 1905, through Beni Abbès, Adrar and Gao to Timbuktu. In the convoy were to travel King Albert II of the Belgians and Maréchal Pétain. It is hard to imagine a more grandiose, more prestigious launch event.

Beside Citroën, competing with quiet determination, was Renault, more oblique and perhaps marginally subtler in its approach to publicity. Eschewing the most grandiose self-promotion, it too ran African expeditions, and it too filmed them: the 1924 ‘Mission Gradis’ was filmed, though the film is now lost; and the Oran-Cape Town ‘raid’ of 1926 produced Les Mystères du Continent Noire. For the Sahara run itself, Renault produced La Première Traversée rapide du desert (329 heures), a not-at-all-subtle dig at Citroën’s slower half-track expedition, La Première Traversée du Sahara: Renault ran six-wheeled, double-tired trucks which moved much faster than Kégresse’s quasi-military vehicles.

Aimageslongside both, Peugeot was up to much the same gambit, if in a lower key, with its expedition and film of 1926, L’Image d’Afrique. But the real struggle was Citroën versus Renault. The latter started to push out exploratory crossings of the Sahara with a view to a regular service, just as Citroën did. Much of the infrastructure was already in place. Tourism in French North Africa had grown through the second half of the nineteenth century. Railways ran inland from the coast at Constantine to Biskra (1905), extended to Touggourt in 1918; and from Oran to Colomb-Béchar (though the Béchar line was mostly military). Biskra first, and after it Touggourt, became tourist destinations, Biskra in particular suffering from rampant commercialism and vulgarisation. Desert camping trips became common. The first Cook’s tour to Algeria was in 1875 and Cook’s first desert excursion in 1886; and soon parties were being taken to Touggourt and El Oued.

After the Great War tourism really took off, officially promoted and growing fast. The 1920s and 1930s were golden decades in this respect. The Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, dominant in the shipping of tourists to Algeria, built dozens of hotels in collaboration with Renault across French North Africa – 44 of them by 1930, many luxury establishments like the Mamounia at Marrakech and the Jamai Palace at Fes, but others small fort-like bordj-es deep in the desert, to serve circuits like the 27-day Marrakech to Algiers tour which took tcgs-bus-modelen passengers at a time 1700 miles ‘in armchair seats’ across the desert. By 1926 Renault vehicles were taking parties out into the Grand Erg Occidental on camping and hunting trips from the new railhead at Figuig. Between 1920 and 1925 SVHNA, a subsidiary of CGT, established no fewer than 22 auto-circuits in the desert, on which it ran 270 vehicles.

So when the idea of a trans-Saharan ‘bus’ service began to emerge in the early 1920s, it was not new, and much of the hardware already existed. The railway line came as far south as Colomb-Béchar, an oasis military base on what is now the Algerian side of the Moroccan-Algerian border (later used as a French missile-testing ground), and although the first crossings started in Touggourt, it was from Béchar that regular services eventually ran.

Partnering with Renault, a Bordeaux businessman called Gaston Gradis bought several Renault six-wheelers and established the Compagnie Générale Transsaharienne. The president of the company was General Jean-Baptiste Eugène Estienne, who had been a major force behind the wartime development of French tanks and half-tracks – and thus the boss of Adolphe Kégresse who was developing Citroën’s desert half-tracks. (This double association is a reminder of the close links between desert transport and the military – the great Marmot-Herrington articulated buses that the Nairns operated in the 1930s came from a US manufacturer specialising in armoured vehicles.)

Gradis’s first exploratory voyage (ironically using Citroëns) took place in the winter of 1923-4, andcompagnie_generale_transsaharienne_poster consisted of four trucks pulling an aeroplane from Beni Ouif through Adrar and Tessalit to Colomb-Béchar. He set up the Compagnie Général Transsaharienne, its name chosen deliberately to echo the dream (dating back to the mid-19th century) of a French north-south railway – the Transaharien – which was supposed to meet an equally putative Djibouti-Senegal line at Timbuktu. (Four ‘raïds’ organised by the Commission for the Transaharien had ended in disaster with the massacre of the Flatters expedition in 1881). Gradis ran a number of preparatory expeditions, after the first using Renaults and carrying Renault engineers. The second crossing was from Colomb-Béchar to Gao and back again, in the course of which he marked out the southern sector of the track, known as ‘Bidon V,’ with empty oil barrels. The third ended with an extraordinary journey from Savé in Dahomey to Colomb-Béchar in just six days.

The two companies were running very much head-to-head, though Gradis puritanically disliked the notion that they were in any way racing; and in January 1925 Citroën looked ready to deliver the knock-out blow with its VIP maiden voyage, studded with celebrities and royalty. Alas, the military authorities decided at the last moment that the security situation couldn’t be relied upon: there was tribal unrest in the desert, and a big raid was reported just to the south of Colomb-Béchar. The King of Belgium cancelled. The voyage was postponed several times and then itself cancelled; and CITRACIT collapsed, like an over-inflated balloon, shortly afterwards.

cgs-bus4There is some apparently well-founded suspicion that Renault was behind the convenient and devastating intelligence of rebellion in the desert. Whether or not this was the case, the collapse of CITRACIT left the field to Gradis and Renault, who ran a regular service between Béchar and Gao from the winter of 1927-28, at first fortnightly and then weekly. In 1926 a luxurious sleeping-car was commissioned for the service by Georges Estienne, the general’s son, who became president of the company in 1926. His vehicle, looking like a cross between and ocean liner and a piece of retro-design modern kitchen equipment, was what I had seen in the photograph I mentioned above. “Trans-Saharan Transport,” as one writer puts it, “which annually handles hundreds of travellers and tourists and delivers them at their destination in safety and comfort, and a schedule which may be compared favourably with those of any well-organized ocean line …” and of the buses themselves, they “come through with a kitchenette, steward, wireless operator, compass, like ships on schedule.” Accommodation en route was found at hotels in Reggane – the famous Bordj Estienne – Gao and Niamey, the latter being an optional extension from Gao, mainly for hunters, with many of the tourists alighting at Gao to travel to Timbuktu.

This trans-Sahara service ran until the war. As war approached, the Compagnie Générale Transaharienne found itself increasingly militarised, moving large numbers of troops northwards from Gao to Colomb-Béchar and keeping open the transport line that connected French possessions in West Africa to those in the North. But the World War and the struggle for Algerian independence that followed killed off large-scale tourism, and by the fifties air transport had largely eliminated the need for buses. Gradis was originally an air-man himself, president of Nieuport-Astra aeroplane company, and the Compagnie Générale Transaharienne had been founded to explore the possibilities of both land and air transport. Soon after the end of thcrois-noiree war it was running air services between French possessions in North and West Africa.  Meanwhile Georges Estienne, having left Compagnie Générale Transaharienne in 1933, founded another company, SATT, which operated an eastern bus route, from Algiers to Kano, and he too took his company into aviation.

Much later of course the same sort of mechanical bravado was displayed in the Paris-Dakar Rally, known latterly and with a pleasing symmetry as the Dakar Rally Raïd. Here too the French car companies slugged it out in the sand, Citroën, Renault and Peugeot dividing the honours over the years, though diluted by Mitsubishis and Volkswagens. The ‘Raïd’ hasn’t run in North Africa since 2008, AQIM having played the same sort of role as the revolting tribes of 1925 played then. It now takes place in South America, a sort of Latin Raïd. The Sahara though, remains what one writer describes as “the ultimate testing-ground of the French automobile,” and French troops at least seem able and willing to intervene today in armoured cars, in the stamping grounds of these splendid, ancient hi-tech bus companies.


Running to Catch the Bus (1) – Baghdad


Snaking across the gravel deserts of Syria and Iraq, Algeria and the old Soudan in the 1920s and 30s were lines of oil-drums. Crossing the Syrian desert they were a mile apart: after Adrar, going south across the Sahara, they stood every kilometre along Bidon V, marking water depots, and neatly numbered. They indicated motor-routes, on which first heavy-duty cars and then huge custom-built buses roared across the hard surface of the desert, making unprecedentedly fast land-links across empires and for a couple of decades competing successfully with nascent air services on price (and occasionally on speed). The Sahara was conquered by French entrepreneurs and drivers, the Syrian desert by New Zealanders. It is a wonderful story – or pair of stories. I had been dimly aware of the Amman-Baghdad buses run by the Nairn Eastern Transport Company, but only recently at a lecture on the French forts of the Sahara did I see a photograph of a slightly less massive, elegant and air-conditioned Renault bus built for the Compagnie Generale Transsaharienne, running between Colomb-Béchar and Gao, and I wanted to know more. Both stories are old stories, and I re-tell them with pleasure but not originality.

overland_mail_posterThe Great War saw the Middle East and North Africa overrun with ‘modern’ transport, from aeroplanes to armoured cars and from motor-bikes to lorries. (I wrote a year or so ago about early post-war air transport, the disastrous Aerial Route Number One from Paris to Cairo, in a post called Biffy, the Bombers and Disorganised Morale.) Two of those left behind by the tide of war after fighting under Allenby in Palestine and Syria, with a fascination and an aptitude for motor mechanics, were a pair of New Zealand bothers called Norman and Gerald Nairn. Without capital but very determined, they set up and ran a transport business, first as a cross-country taxi route between Haifa and Beirut – in those days a very difficult journey of 19 hours with no road south of Akka, and stretches of driving along beaches and across ploughed fields – and later as a longer-distance service running to Baghdad and eventually to Tehran. These last became the ‘Nairn buses,’ the famously safe and reliable express mail-coaches of the day which travelled off-road, for long stretches at 70 mph and more, mainly at night, across very hostile terrain and in the early days much attacked by Bedouin and Druze bandits for the gold they often carried – though as they liked to boast, they never lost a passenger.

Interestingly, both routes more or less coincided with projected (but unbuilt) railway lines. The British had planned a line from Haifa to Baghdad (the only other line into Baghdad was an Indian Army narrow-gauge line from Basra), but it was unfinanceable. As for the French, efforts that began in the mid-nineteenth century to build a trans-Saharan line continued into the Second World War, when Jewish slave labour from Vichy France was used, but in the end the line consisted only of two stretches, Dakar to Bamako and Oran to Colomb-Béchar (1905) – with a very big gap in the middle. Cars and trucks made better financial sense.

The Nairn business really got under way with an exploratory drive in April 1923, supported by the British representatives in Beirut and Damascus, the former, Captain McCallum, accompanying the expedition with his wife. Three cars – a Buick, a Lancia and an Oldsmobile – crossed in three days from Damascus to Baghdad, and the Nairns quickly tried more crossings, five that summer alone. The British authorities in Iraq were unwilling to support the service, though Nairn quite quickly won a five-year contract for delivery of Iraq government mail from the Baghdad Post Office, which underwrote a successful business between Haifa on the Palestine coast and Baghdad, a journey of 450 miles or so across some of the more hostile terrain on earth.

The route varied over time. To begin with their cars, carrying three passengers each as well as mail and sometimes bullion, crossed in convoy on a northern route from Damascus via Rutba to Baghdad, but after the 1925 Druze rebellion this anyway dangerous and bandit-infested route became unusable, and the longer southern route from Jerusalem via Amman, Mafrak and Rutba became standard for the Baghdad passenger service. By the end of 1923 the brothers had bought a fleet of six seven-seater powerful and indestructible Cadillac Type 63s, and quickly won the French government’s Damascus-Baghdad mail contract too. They then, over time, upped the stakes by buying larger and more powerful vehicles: six-ton, 16-seater Safeway buses in 1926, which drove at night and cut the time down to 20 hours. These were supplemented in 1932 by specially commissioned 70-foot double-decker Marmon-Herrington trailer-trucks which seated 38 and offered reclining seats, buffet meals and toilets. The buses moved fast, over 70 mph on firm gravel, mostly at night. Finally in 1937, the brothers commissioned two stainless steel Pullmans from Budd of Philadephia, air-conditioned, articulated and fast – they cut the journey time down to 18 hours. The Pullmans ate tires (they used 10 at a time), which had to be changed every 2,000 miles until Firestone developed special rayon-based tires for Nairn that could stand the heat much better than cotton-based tires, and lasted more like 18,000 miles each. These monster buses ran until the company closed in 1959, each clocking up, quite incredibly, over 2,000,000 miles. They were serious vehicles and even leaving aside the details of their mechanical excellence, they set new standards of luxury in surface transport, self-consciously imitating the airliners of the day. Here is a 1937  description of them by Edgar Jones:


The first trailer had luxurious accommodations for 19 seated passengers and the second for 14 travelers who would spend their long overnight journey in private upper or lower sleeping berths.

The plans incorporated Budd’s experience in building streamlined railroad car and auto bodies, with the Nairn need for an economical, speedy, lightweight, rugged bus which could travel the rough terrain with a minimum of difficulty. To guard against the extreme temperatures of desert night and day (zero at times and often as high as 140 degrees), complete insulation and conditioning of air were specified. Leg room to equal Pullmans cut passenger capacity to seventeen in the day bus and fourteen in the sleeper. Extra wide chairs limited double seats to one side of the aisle and singles to the other.

The new buses lop nine hours from former crossing time and make the six-hundred-mile trip over trackless waste in fifteen hours, while passengers comfortably sway on rubber cushions. Coach seats face the front, but the sleeper is divided into compartments with seats facing each other. At bed time, the seat backs swing up to form upper berths supported by tubular frames. The gap between the seats is filled with an extra cushion and the lower is made. Sheets, pillows, blankets and curtains make the berths ready for sleepy travelers. Lighting and adjustable outlets for conditioned air are provided for each berth.

bus-005b_fitzgibbondd2Following a formula akin to the hostess or steward plan on American airlines, an attendant throughout the trip comforts passengers with ice water, tea and coffee as well as box lunches with wrapped sandwiches and fruit. Lockers for storing blankets, pillows, clothing and miscellaneous equipment are in the front of the trailer, while the rear has a dressing room which also contains wash basins and toilet facilities.

In 1926 the Nairns took over their only rival, the Arab-owned Eastern Transport Company, forming the Nairn Eastern Transport Co. The ETC brought with it routes it had developed into Persia, continuing from Khaniqin through Kermanshah and Hamadan to Tehran, though with a rail link from Baghdad to Khaniqin because the road was terrible. This route was eventually abandoned after disputes with the Persian government.

The whole ethos of the company seems to have been one of courage, extreme efficiency and a cowboy swagger. The convoys rode armed, but didn’t normally fight when attacked, putting the safety of passengers first. In the whole history of Nairn they only lost one driver. The drivers were tough men from all over the world. Gerald Nairn described the early Cadillac-drivers as

… a great bunch, tough but good. They never let their passengers down, and their fidelity and endurance were known throughout the Middle East. We all packed a gun in those days. There were New Zealanders, Aussies, British, Americans and Canadians. Among the characters was John Reid, with one eye, who once, in a Cadillac, chased a cheetah down and shot it, and of course Ryan, the Aussie, who was very fond of the bottle. Passengers often complained he had been drinking, but I could never catch him or find liquor in the car. Finmally I discovered that his chargals (water bottles with straws) were full of arak … He had wealthy parents in Australia who wanted him to come home but he refused, and eventually drank himself to death in Persia. Sometimes a car would get shot up by the Arabs and to get drivers to go out with a relief car and bring it in, we would have to drag them out of hotels or brothels. So we gave them a house to live in and a girl each …

They drove very fast into the night following the light of their hugely powerful headlights, coping with appalling conditions (there were impossibly boulder-strewn lava-fields between Amman and Rutba, and in winter, regular floods and snow). They handled their huge vehicles with precision, after long apprenticeships on smaller cars and trucks, and didn’t have careless accidents. There are regular references in accounts of the company to their proficiency at the ‘Gilhooley Manoeuvre,’ which sounds obstetric, but was in fact the emergency control of a vehicle spinning through 360 and more degrees (often several times) at speed on a flat, wet surface – impressive, but it must have worried the passengers.

During the rainy months of January and February, water collects in the hollows of the desert. Puddles and mud, hundreds of yards wide and several miles long, spot the trail. As there is no telling the extent of this area, it is impracticable to detour. Drivers with an acquired Oriental fatalism on coming to mud, warn passengers, then drive at full speed to slide across on the belly of the bus. As a concession to this practice, the new trailers (turtle-like) have completely enclosed bottoms. Sandstorms force a complete stop (seldom over an hour or so). The tight fitting doors and windows prevent discomfort.

That must have shaken the iced water and dislodged the sandwiches.

Like the French in the Sahara, but on a smaller scale, they catered for passengers at their stopovers. But where the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique and CITRACIT built a chain of hotels, known as bordj-es across the interior to cater for tourists on long trips, the Nairn Co. with its much shorter single route needed only one, at Rutba, which like its French counterparts attracted a mixture of spurious exoticism and travellers’ needs:

The one and only scheduled stop between points is Rutbah which is the nearest thing in real life to the movie conception of a desert outpost. Grim walls, radio towers, and detachments of soldiers remind travelers of Beau Sabreur and the Foreign Legion. The hotel, a large restaurant, and an ice-making plant do a thriving business at this meeting point for air and motor travelers. Possessing the only wells which do not go dry during the hot spell, Rutbah attracts the Arabs who camp outside the fort with their camels and livestock. 

Or, as Freya Stark described it,

…. the palace planted in the wilderness when Aladdin’s uncle rubbed the lamp; how else could it have got there? It is 200 empty miles from anywhere. It has beds to sleep in and waiters who spontaneously think of hot water. You walk into a room and dine on salmon mayonnaise and other refinements … the British, returning from summer leave, are all talking shop or shootings and look nice and clean …

nairn_bus_in_the_desert_smallEvery Arabian traveller from Gertrude Bell to Philby, every diplomat and businessman used the Nairn bus. Writing in the 1930s, Stark (Baghdad Sketches) described the journey, with its odd mixture of excitement and banality, though she was travelling “the cheap way, being poor and also democratic by nature,” and her Armenian taxi-driver “spends the twilight racing the Nairn down an open wadi.” into Rutba Wells. The convoy is large and miscellaneous, “the long grey chassis of the Nairn, travelling in respectable seclusion; and in and out of all the greater monsters, the indiscriminate crowd of small cars, Chevrolet, Morris, Fiat, Ford in every stage of smartness and dilapidation, but chiefly the latter …”

Even now the crossing of the desert is an everyday affair, and although the Nairn Motor Transport do what they can, and cook your breakfast-sausage romantically for you in the open desert over a fire of camelthorn, with an old paraffin box ready to help in case of need, they do not quite succeed, one must admit, in giving the true nomadic feeling to any except the most innocent travellers. In the place where the old Arabian singers saw the three blackened hearthstones of the Beloved in the deserted camp, we now pass derelict skeletons of cars …

The Nairns retired in the early 1950s, with pressure building to localise the company. Rather than surrender it to the governments of Syria and Iraq, they left it to their employees and it operated until 1959. They had, as one Beirut newspaper put it, “done more to unite Syria and Iraq in a year than all the politicians in Arabia and Europe had ever achieved.”


Just ash, floating


There’s a rather predictable trope concerning the destruction of cultural artefacts, which essentially asks why it is that we labour and mourn over stones, when human flesh is at risk. To my mind, the clearest symbolic answer to that is given by the death in 2015 of Palmyra’s 82-year old Director of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad, who spent a lifetime working on, and writing about, the ruins of Palmyra and, having hidden from Daech as many of the city’s treasures as he could, died rather than reveal their whereabouts, hanged by barbarians from a pillar in the forum of his ancient city. Here was a man who needed no convincing of the centrality of symbolic cultural artefacts in the humane biosphere.

There’s something seductive but also silly in the ‘why-worry-about-buildings-when-people-are-dying’ argument. Of course, on the one hand, it’s true (a truism indeed): people, as all our mothers said to us as young children, are more important than things and faced with one of those artificial philosophical choices of the ‘Shall-I-shoot-this-child-or–smash-this-statue’ sort, few of us would answer ‘Waste the kid. ’ But the silliness comes from the false binary, the assumption that the world can indeed beruins-1 divided into ‘people’ and ‘things.’ Good enough for children, it won’t do for grown-ups, who understand, sometimes with pain and reluctance, that the two categories are inter-penetrating; that things draw their meaning from people, and people place some of their deepest collective feelings in things. Think of the intense emotional investment in regimental colours or a Roman Eagle; the Ark of the Covenant or the Kaaba; the relics of saints, the Stars-and-Stripes, the Crown of St Stephen or the tombs of ancestors. In all of these, people, blood and manufacture, not to mention God, are blended to make what we call material culture. It is this intense blending, this kneading of emotion, identity and history into the dough of creation that makes things with special power.

And these things are the things that those who wish to destroy whole peoples also destroy, because of the power that they have absorbed from the feelings invested in them, and the feelings they in turn catalyse, often over long periods of time. Destroy them, and you destroy the heart, perhaps even the coherent reality, of a people. Christopher de Bellaigue writes, when travelling in Iran, of a visit to Yazd. He asked a Zoroastrian priest, charged with keeping alight the eternal sacred flame, “what happens if the flame at Yazd goes out?” The priest replies: “Nothing. Except that the endeavours, toil and devotion of our forefathers will have come to naught.” George Clooney, in his otherwise embarrassingly schlocky film Monuments Men, puts it like this, and rather well: “You can wipe out a generation of people, you can burn their homes to the ground, but somehow they still come back. But if you destroy their achievements, their history, it’s like they never existed, just ash, floating.”images

This is one of the reasons why seeing unexplained objects in the abstract is so strange and disturbing: they are without their meaning. We can dig up quantities of Neolithic art, some of it clearly of vital symbolic importance, but we can only guess what these objects meant to their makers, because there is no one to tell us, and no one left whose sense of self and of the universe is wrapped up in it. The destruction of such objects is tragedy enough, but it is of a different order from the destruction of ‘living’ cultural objects – those whose meaning is still alive, supple and real, seeping across the permeable membrane between people and things.

As Robert Bevan has pointed out, this is why the original draft of the Genocide Convention, drafted by Raphael Lemkin, the tormented and eccentric Jew from Lemburg, wrapped the destruction of a people up, so urgently, with the destruction of their culture: they aren’t separable. It isn’t sufficient to say that without the people the stones have no meaning. Precisely the opposite is just as true: without the stones, the people have no meaning. This is uncomfortable, in an age fixated by the primacy of the individual, but true.

And loss of meaning is more than just a cultural loss, in the superficial usage of that word. The Chicago philosopher Jonathan Lear, in a wonderful book called Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, starts from the extraordinary remark of an Indian chief, Plenty Coups of the Crow tribe, looking back on the signing of the treaty which confined the Crow to their reservation in the 1880s. Looking back, decades later, on a long life, he said of that moment, apocalyptically, “After this, nothing happened,” by which he meant not that no events had taken place (he himself was busy and successful), but that they were without meaning – the meaning that is theirs in the society from which they sprang. The loss of this kind of meaning destroys the whole subjective world in which a people live, which Lear compares to the fate of a sentient chess-pieceplenty-coups which he imagines as reflecting, “humans get bored with playing this game, and the game of chess goes out of existence. My problem is not simply that my way of life has come to an end. I no longer have the concepts with which to understand myself or the world … the concepts with which I would otherwise have understood myself – indeed the concepts with which I would otherwise have shaped my identity – have gone out of existence.”

This destruction of significance is what cultural obliteration is all about. When Daech set about destroying the Yazidi temples and people of Sinjar, its black myrmidons knew what they were doing: they aimed to obliterate a people in the way that it was done in ancient Mesopotamia, by destroying every physical trace, killing its menfolk and enslaving its women. And when the tatterdemalion jihadis invaded Timbuktu in November 2011, they quickly began to do the same. In particular, they attacked the shrines of sufi saints, bulldozing and obliterating these ancient religious buildings as a way not just of imposing their iconoclastic, primitivist puritanism on the people of Timbuktu, but as a way of extirpating, as they thought, the cultural memory that they embodied. Attacks on sufi shrines are a widespread manifestation of salafi-jihadism, seen in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt as well as northern Mali. Sheer venom apart, they represent a desire to cut a people off from its religious roots, the more easily to bully them into the bizarre Year Zero devotional habits of their new masters. To knock over the chess board and scatter the pieces.

What marks out Mali is that the commissar responsible for demolishing shrines and sites of more public importance like the 16th century Sidi Yahia mosque,  was not only captured but has been put on trial in the Hague. The International Criminal Court’s very first prosecution for the destruction of cultural heritage saw in the dock ‘Abou Tourab,’ the jihadist kunya of Mohamed Ag Mahmoud Al Faqi, a local salafi quickly drawn into the occupying government in which his own father was a beating-shooting-and-amputating judge of the sharia court. In one sense the trial was a bit of a let-down. Abou Tourab pleaded guilty and apologized. But the principle was established, publicly and declaratively: cultural destruction is a war crime.

The interesting thing is how much anger the trial has aroused. Some say and with justice that more important jihadists got away, some released to facilitate ‘reconciliation.’ That Abou T was by no means the worst. That anyway Abou T should be being prosecuted for the awful things he did to people, not to old brick and pisé walls. All this is no doubt true, but misses the point. The current trial of Mohamed Ag Mahmoud Al Faqi is the first great, public acknowledgement that cultural destruction is as much a war crime as killing. His old teacher wrote recently a rather sad defence of him as a ‘little fish,’ and ended by saying:

The cutting off of people’s hands and the executions that took place during Ansar Dine’s “new style” sharia for almost a year appear to be lesser crimes than the destruction, in which Al Faqi played a part, of Unesco World Heritage sites.

No: apples and pears, M le prof.  This is a point that needed making, and better to do it with a repentant little fish than a sly and unrepentant great shark. But just as important is the fundamental misunderstanding of why it is important. Not because what were destroyed were “UNESCO World Heritage sites,” though those sites are an inexact attempt to record and preserve what is important. What Abou T and his morality brigade did was not an attack on UNESCO, or Western priorities: it was an attempt to derail a set of values and religious practices that were integral to the people of the city – to destroy the embodiments of a collective memory and an ancestral religiosity. To knock the chess-pieces off the board and abolish the rules of the game.

So it is important and splendid that Abou T, a sad little man with unruly hair and a shallowly simplistic understanding even of his own religion, be condemned for this crime. And it’s very important too, that he publicly recognized his guilt. This is what the prosecutor said in her opening statement:


[Timbuktu] was, to be sure, the cradle of education, where enlightenment was nurtured for the benefit of generations of students, attracting scholars from far and wide. Some of these sages would be venerated as Muslim saints, and mausoleums would be erected on their graves to honour their memory as well as the notable contributions they made to the lives of the people of Timbuktu, and beyond. These mausoleums, which survived the ravages of time, have continued to play a fundamental, even foundational, role in both the life within the city’s gates and beyond the city’s borders. These monuments were living testimony to Timbuktu’s glorious past … But above all, they were the embodiment of Malian history, captured in tangible form, from an era long gone yet still very much vivid in the memory and pride of the people who so dearly cherished them. The mausoleums also testify to the historical role Timbuktu played in the spread of Islam in Africa and in the history of Africa itself. They are relics of a great chapter in humankind’s intellectual and spiritual development on the continent, which gave Timbuktu its standing in the world. This is particularly important in a society that is partly rooted in oral tradition. And it is notably for these reasons that they are so precious, and were inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1988. What’s more, the mausoleums of Timbuktu played and continue to play an important religious role in the daily lives of the city’s inhabitants. Mausoleums are sacred places of worship. They are frequently visited by the city’s residents.  Pilgrims would also come from distant places to pay their respects and to pray.  Going to the mausoleums was and still is an expression of one’s faith and religious piety. It is specifically these deeply rooted religious practices and beliefs that Ansar Dine and AQIM wanted to annihilate by destroying these mausoleums. Through their brutal and callous acts, they made it impossible for the inhabitants of Timbuktu to devote themselves to their religious practices during the ten-month occupation of their city.

And the lawyer for this scraggly, banal little vandal, crammed into a suit and tie for the occasion said, in pleading:

He wants to be truthful to himself and he wants to admit the acts that he has committed. And he wants to ask at the same time for pardon from the people of Timbuktu and the Malian people. He regrets all the actions that he has committed.

This is progress.

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