Friday, June 22, 2007

How I Left NYC To Move To Timbuktu But Ended Up In Bamako Instead…

It’s Thursday evening, the 14th of June, and as I am sitting here, on the roof of the little hotel that I am staying in Bamako, I finally feel like the noose around my neck has loosened: Malé is in his car and on his way to me in Bamako. He should have crossed the Niger by now, and continued through the desert towards Douentza. He won’t get here until tomorrow evening, and I am not sure what he managed to get in the car (the kids? our clothes? household items?), but the most important fact is that he’ll be here tomorrow, inshallah, and then we finally can talk about everything that happened and what we will do next….

The Plan
When I returned to NYC towards the end of April, after having spent 4 months with Malé in Mali, my mission was clear: I was going to sell my apartment, the car, most of my things, and pack up the rest to be shipped to Mali. Things had gone reasonably well for me while I was in Mali, and things could not have gone better with Malé. Sure, there were ISSUES with life in Mali (see previous blog entries…!), but nothing unexpected, and nothing that I could not put up with for several months at a time. I knew what I needed in order to be happy: Malé; a westernized, beautifully furnished house; some pets (cats, that were not to be eaten by the little boys in Timbuktu, or dogs/turtles/birds if the cats were eaten); and enough money that every 5 months or so I could travel to a real city, or the ocean, or visit my friends and family. So off I went to NYC: it felt familiar and comfortable, but I did not have any great moments of sheer gratitude to be back. Sure, it felt great to see my friends, and each visit to the supermarket was a relief, but being there also confirmed my feeling that I was “done” there, and that it was time for me to move on. I slowly started to organize my departure, and almost every evening I spend doing fun things with my friends in the city. Soon things started to move a little faster: I found a buyer for the apartment, the car, and it looked like we had a serious offer on the house as well. I decided to have a public tag sale in the apartment, and to also use that as a farewell party. Then it was Memorial Day weekend, and while I did not have a flight yet, I was planning on leaving NYC early June, spend some days in Berlin, and then be in Mali mid-June. Now that all my possessions were either sold or packed up I could schedule a shipping company, and I did for the fifth of June. I found a flight for the following day. Everything seemed settled…

A Minor Obstacle …
Malé also had projects that he was working on in my absence. One concerned his house in Timbuktu: it would be upgraded and expanded, and as soon as he returned to Timbuktu the masons started their work. The other task was to pay a visit to his mother’s brother, the eldest male in his family. Tradition required that the eldest male is notified of mayor life events, and signs off on big decisions or plans. (Well, real tradition stipulates that the eldest male makes all the decisions, but Malé assured me that in this case the visit is a pro forma event to be polite and respectful, but it’s not like he really is requiring the uncle’s permission.) So the uncle was first paid a formal visit back in October when Malé returned from NYC. At that point we were more serious than ever about our future together, and I was planning on coming to Mali in November. Malé wanted to speak with the uncle before my arrival, and asked his older brother Papa to accompany him on this formal visit. Both Papa and Malé felt that this uncle was a difficult man (they both referred to him as fanatique – that should have tipped us off!), but they were confident that the uncle ultimately would give Malé his blessings. Had Malé not been a good son, a good Muslim, a good citizen for 40 years? He was an integral part of Timbuktu, and had fostered respectful and respected relationships with its elders, politicians, young people, merchants…He was banking on the fact that the uncle would give him some credit for everything he had done, and allow him to be with the woman that he loved.

The meeting with the uncle in October did not go well, despite several follow-up meetings. The uncle whipped out the Koran and pointed out all the reasons why Malé must not marry an infidel (=me). Malé was very disappointed and upset, but he and Papa felt that in a couple of months, after my stay, the uncle would have a change of heart, and they would re-visit him. Never once did Malé or Papa or anybody else suggest that if I were to convert, it might make it easier for the uncle to accept. My position on (any) religion was well known to Malé, and I felt that he truly accepted and respected it.

During my stay there I never met the uncle, and it was never suggested. But of course the uncle knew my every move as I was introduced throughout the town as Malé’s new wife: to the elders, the politicians, the businessmen… they all seemed genuinely friendly and embracing, and we were invited to dinners and functions. I was aware that everything I did was closely monitored and reported on, and I made sure I was on my best behavior. (No lewd parties, no dancing on tables, no running around naked, that sort of thing.) Malé’s mother was happy that her son was happy and that I did not “keep” him in NYC, and his brothers and sisters all were very relaxed and open around us. The uncle remained the only hurdle as far as family approval went, and Malé and Papa would tackle him sometime in late April/early May when Papa would be in Timbuktu on vacation.

The long-awaited second meeting with the uncle not only did not go well – it was much worse than the first meeting. This time the uncle had changed his tactics: he had over 5 months to come up with his strategy. No, not only can Malé not be with me, instead he must take his first wife back, the one he had divorced in 2003, before he and I met. No particular reason, but that’s what he had decided. Malé and Papa were thrown for a loop; they had not expected this situation. They –politely, of course- attempted to reason and argue with the uncle, but eventually left before things got too heated. When I spoke to Malé that night he was understandably upset. He understood that all this had nothing to do with his marriage to his first wife, but everything to do with sabotaging our relationship. If Malé had met and fallen in love with a woman from Timbuktu the uncle would never tell Malé to take his first wife back; instead he would give his blessings and look forward to eating some mutton at the wedding party. But, nevertheless, we know knew that the uncle was not going to be a small hurdle to overcome….

Things Are Getting Ugly
Papa and Malé went back to the uncle the next day, but his position had not changed, and this time Malé left quickly before loosing his temper. But the old goat was probably equally frustrated: as an elder he was not accustomed to giving the same directive more than once. He had a lot riding on the outcome of this conflict. Malé had gravely miscalculated the uncle’s reaction. It was precisely because Malé was well established and highly regarded that he would not be allowed to marry a white infidel (=me). God knows: if he would get away with this, all hell may break loose in Timbuktu. All his peers and the youngsters would feel encouraged to break with tradition! To prevent Malé from being with me would be to save Timbuktu from descent into modern, western debauchery. The uncle was determined to do so, and the next day he went to the Imam of the Grand Mosqué and enlisted him in this battle. The Imam and the uncle then went to Malé’s mother to tell her that she had to forbid Malé to be with me. They also left word that the Imam would like to speak with Malé. When I spoke to Malé later that day he did not want to speak with the Imam. But he realized that there was no way to avoid it, and that it would be better to see the Imam. Malé felt that he would be more reasonable than the uncle, and they always had a good relationship in the past. So Friday, after prayer, he approached the Imam, who was pleased to see him and gave him an appointment for the next morning at 8am. Since Papa was still in town he was going to go with him, and then leave for Bamako the next day.

Unfortunately Papa’s ride left earlier than anticipated, and Malé had to go by himself. He did not expect to find what he did when he entered: the Imam, the uncle, and every other important old man from Timbuktu were sitting there, ready to barrage him with their words. Malé reiterated his position, and soon left when it became clear that this was not going to be a productive meeting. His head was pounding, he felt angry, betrayed, trapped and above all alone. All of his peers/friends/acquaintances had closed ranks behind the uncle. While they privately may have been supportive of Malé, not one of them dared to say so publicly, in opposition to the uncle and the others. They were afraid. Not so much of scorn, but of magic spells. I had asked Malé on several occasions if he believed in witchcraft, and he had said no, but told me that everybody else does. And that it was that fear that kept people in line, afraid to stand out, afraid to make unconventional decisions. Malé went to the outskirts of Timbuktu to sit on a dune and watch the sun going down in the desert that he loves, trying to clear his head.

The next day, Sunday, we spoke in the afternoon. I spend every minute in the apartment, finishing up the packing process. I had the movers come on Tuesday, and I was leaving for Berlin the day after. It was clear now that we could never live together in Timbuktu. Even if Malé was not afraid, at times he would be away for business, and I no longer felt safe being there. I was not afraid of witchcraft, but I was afraid of mobs, weapons, and religious zealots. Malé told me that his mother could not stop crying anymore: she was feeling an enormous amount of pressure to turn against her own son. We decided that the best thing to do for him was to leave Timbuktu right then. It would alleviate some pressure off the mother, and clearly they would not change their minds if he stayed. He agreed that he would leave right after seeing his mother. As we spoke he heard visitors arrive in the courtyard. He told me that he believed that it was the old men again, and that I should call him later.

Pulling Out All The Guns
I did not get through again until the next day. He sounded horrible. When he had stepped out the house into the courtyard he realized what their latest scheme was: there, amidst all the old men, was his first wife, the mother of his children, deposited in the court like a bag of millet, eyes downcast. The old men greeted Malé and told him that they were there to talk with him. He said that he would be right back, and he walked out of his courtyard and did not return that night. He sought refuge at a friend’s house. He said that he did not know what to do. He had not slept properly in days, he could not eat, he was crying when he was alone, he wanted to leave, he knew he had to leave, he was scared. I tried to calm him down as much as possible. He was sounding less and less like the Malé that I knew. I was the only one that he was able to talk to, and that only when the phones were working. I asked him not to go back to the house, but he later did. His courtyard and his house were full of people: the old men, old women, his first wife, his children. Everywhere he turned there were people whose agenda it was to coerce him into something he did not want.

When I spoke to him the next day, on Tuesday, I had the movers in the apartment while he was telling me that he was fearing for his life, that they would kill him, that he would be safe nowhere, which is why he was going to just disappear, and he wanted me to promise him that I would look up his children one day. He was going to give up everything: me, the kids, the house, his mother; he was just going to leave everything. As the movers were packing up my furniture I tried to calm him, get him to speak rationally, get him to just leave and meet me in Bamako. And if he did not want to meet me there, he could meet me in Dakar, Lomé, Conachry, Casablanca, anywhere. Those old men did not have any weapons, just words, and I assured him that if he just leave and meet me we would be able to figure things out. He just needed to sleep and rest and eat and be surrounded by rational people. It was so disturbing to hear the effects of the psychological terror campaign in his voice. And there was nothing I could do except to try to call him and talk to him.

Everything Up In The Air
The next day my plane was scheduled to leave for Berlin. I was despondent. All that Malé and I had worked towards for the last two years was being threatened by the turn of events. The house that we would live in, the business that we would develop, the life that we would create for ourselves – within a couple of days everything had turned impossible, no longer feasible, unmachbar. And worst of all, I no longer recognized Malé: he was no longer the confident, rational, solution-orientated man that I knew. In his stead was a man who seemed paralyzed with fear, who was unsure of his options. As if the sand of Timbuktu had gotten into his heart, his head, his blood. And I was far away, our communication hindered by constant problems with cell phone reception, by the sudden lack of privacy that he encountered after half (or most) of the town’s elders squatted in his courtyard and his house. But I had to leave New York anyway. There was no point staying there; I would fly to Berlin. I could see the concern in the eyes of my friends – it mirrored my own. The only concrete decision that I managed was to inform the shipping company to hold my possessions until I confirm or change their destination. If I had to, I could change it from Mali to Germany…

What an odd feeling to board a flight like that: I left what was my home for 23 years, having methodically given up everything that had settled and supported me there over half of my life –my apartment, my career, my friends-, and I headed towards a totally unknown situation. What was I going to do once I got to Berlin? How was I going to stay strong? How was I going to know what to do know? What will my parents’ reaction be? I sat on the plane and I cried. I cried until we landed in Iceland, and then I cried again until I got to Berlin.

Getting My Bearings In Berlin
Over lunch in my parents’ garden I told them about everything that happened these last couple of weeks in Timbuktu. I felt pretty sure that I still wanted to go to Bamako on Monday, but I had not yet said that. I was afraid that they would not support this decision. I was also looking for their advice. Their first reaction was one of empathy for Malé: they immediately understood the extent of his dilemma, and the existential crisis that he was experiencing. To say nothing of the psychological warfare that the uncle was waging! And their next reaction once and for all cemented my belief that I could not wish for more rational, supportive parents: Of course I would have to leave for Bamako on Monday! Even if Malé had not yet left Timbuktu. It was what I would have to do to demonstrate my commitment, my determination, and my faith in him and us. It would counteract the pressure that the uncle was applying. As long as I was in NYC or in Berlin, I would remain too remote, too abstract, too far. But once I was in Bamako it would force Malé to act: either choose to bow to his uncle’s reign, or choose a life with me instead. If he could not or would not come to Bamako, I could leave and return to Berlin and implement “Plan B”. But at least I would have done everything that I decided a long time ago I was willing to do in order to live with this man from the desert who -I was convinced- was The One. And if he could not or would not leave Timbuktu, then he was not The One after all. And other thoughts emerged and soothed my fears and despondence: it’s a good thing that all this is happening now. I was glad that we were finally playing with our cards on the table, the uncle, Malé and I. No longer contained by politeness, etiquette, wishful thinking, rules of hospitality: we now know what’s what! Before all my stuff gets trucked to Timbuktu, before I settle in, before we embark on all of our home improvement/business projects. Before the same issue creeps up on us, ingrains itself into our relationship, and slowly destroys us. Here it is, out in the open, for all to see, and it’s time to shit or get off the pot! I was smart enough to know that if Malé comes to Bamako it would not be the end of this issue, but at least it would give us a chance to deal with it.

And so empowered I spend a nice couple of days in Berlin with a few people, and I talked with them about life and love over drinks during fabulously long, warm summer nights. I also was able to talk to Malé more often, and he sounded increasingly more normal: calmer, more confident, more rational, no longer talking about being afraid of dying. But he urged me not to come on Monday. He needed more time there in Timbuktu, to negotiate with the uncle and the other people who were siding with him. He assured me that his decision to be with me had not changed at all, and that he understood that while we would not live in Timbuktu, we would be able to live somewhere else happily ever after. Every day he endured visits/interventions/meetings from men send by the uncle and the imam, who wanted to convince him to not be with me, and every day he reiterated his position, his right to choose his wife, his right to make his own decisions, and his love for me. But he did not want me to arrive in Bamako without him, and he was not yet able to leave Timbuktu. I insisted that I would arrive on Monday, and I told him that I would wait for him there. And so I left Berlin, and made my way to Bamako, not really knowing what would happen, but filled with love and faith and hope.

When I arrived in Bamako Malé was not there, but nevertheless I was expected. Malé and his brother Papa had made arrangements, and a friend who normally picks up important people was there to whisk me through passport control. A driver was waiting for me to take me to Mamadou’s small hotel, and Mamadou was waiting up for me and gave me the room that we normally occupy.

At first I was not sure what I would be doing here while I was waiting for Malé; after all I was not sure if his siblings here would still welcome me and embrace me the way they had before … I did want to see them, though, for several reasons: I wanted to assess their position, plus I wanted to have something to do, plus I wanted to get rid of the small gifts that I carried for them: Ballast abwerfen, just in case I had to turn around and hightail it out of Mali. I called the person in whose support I had the most confidence, his young niece Oumou, who had traveled with us in January. Her joy at my call reassured me, and she offered to meet me on Wednesday, her day off from work. I then called his brother Papa, who had done so much for us until now, to thank him for everything and all the times that he had tried to talk sense into the uncle. He, too, seemed happy to hear that I had safely arrived. (Of course he knew that already, since he had received reports from his two contacts who met me at the airport.) I met Oumou and Papa the next day, and they were as warm and loving as ever. When I found out that Malé’s nephew was in the hospital with a broken leg, I offered to go to the hospital with Oumou, knowing that Malé’s two sisters Marie and “La Veille” would be there. Papa assured me that they would welcome my visit. And they did, each giving me a long, loving hug. Malé’s sister-in-law Kora was there as well and she was very pleased to see me. Not wanting to be too forward I decided to not immediately bring up the family drama, but to wait and see if they would. Fairly quickly they had just one question: what did my parents say about all of this? When I told them about my parents’ reaction they were pleased. I apologized to them for causing their mother difficulties. Oumou was the only one more outspoken, and privately she told me that the family was very cross with the uncle, and they wish he would take a chill pill (or something Malian to that effect).

And so empowered by their words and gestures I continued to wait for Malé’s departure from Timbuktu. He initiated yet again a conversation with the uncle on Wednesday night, and he reiterated his decision to be with me. He emphasized that he does not wish to do anything bad or bring any harm to his family, and that he does not understand the uncle’s reaction. He told him that he will leave Timbuktu on Thursday to meet me in Bamako, and that he wishes to go in peace. The uncle did not reply except to say that he heard Malé’s words. And so Malé left this afternoon with his younger brother Tall, who coincidently was there for all the drama while visiting his mother. Like I said, I am not sure what Malé loaded in the car, but at this point it does not matter, as long as we can be together. We will figure everything else out then …