The rebirth of Timbuktu: City comes back to life after Islamists flee

Daniel Howden witnesses the return of tailors, jewellers – and even alcohol

The Hotel Colombe in Timbuktu closed its doors at the end of March last year. In Mali's capital Bamako an army mutiny had begun while in the Saharan north, the town of Kidal had fallen to rebels using arms looted in the aftermath of Libya's civil war. The Colombe's energetic manager Mohamed Toure thought the death knell had sounded for tourism in Mali.

With no money coming in, he was reduced to one meal a day. "I didn't think I would ever see another European again." He was proven wrong this week as the jihadis fled in advance of the French troops in Mali's fabled city. Now Mr Toure's crumbling hotel is back in business. After one of the darkest years in its long history Timbuktu is coming back to life.

The artisans' market, a hive of weavers, tailors and jewellers, has reopened. Ben Ali, a jeweller, was already back working on a silver ring. Most of his business came from the traditional ceremonies that punctuate Malian life. He pointed to an ornate silver headdress in the display box behind him: "They stopped our women from wearing traditional jewellery," he said. "This is nonsense, they just came in with their sharia. These guys knew nothing about religion, they're just gangsters."

DJ Ali Biko was also back in action across the street. A young looking 19-year-old, his speakers had come out of hiding to blare reggae through the market area. "When the Islamists were here I was really stressed," he said. "We couldn't listen to music."

He chose to play music in this store because it had belonged to Arab traders, whom locals accused of backing the al-Qa'ida affiliates who occupied Timbuktu. With Malian rapper Milles Mots at full blast, Ali joked that seeing his friends dance in the looted wreck of the store was his revenge.

Such small acts of defiance are visible everywhere in a city that was famed before last year for its diversity. In the warren of stalls behind the artisan market, Abou Bakry Moussa was selling things he wouldn't have dared to display one week before. Obama belts featuring the stars and stripes and a grinning American President are outselling Chelsea hats and Real Madrid socks. "We had hidden them before," he said. "People had to ask for them." Upstairs, Radio al-Farouk has become the first station in northern Mali to go back on air. The DJ, in clear defiance of the jihadis who ruled the city until last week, relaunched by playing tracks from the legendary Malian musician Ali Farka Touré. The station should be back in full operation within a month. Four days after the first French soldiers swept into the city, cigarettes and alcohol have also made a comeback.

They were among the first items to be clamped down on by the Islamic police who were set up as the city's sole authority. Shopkeeper Alhadi Cisse, who would buy cigarettes that were smuggled across the border from Burkina Faso, said that he had $3,000 worth of American Legend brand burnt in his store by the jihadis.

Dusty bottles of warm lager and stout have started to appear. Some are for sale at the hotel where wonky tables and chairs have been recovered from store rooms and clanking generators have begun to deliver some flickering light.

The hotel came very close to being demolished, Mr Touré said. "The Islamists... told me that if there was one penny of foreign investment in the hotel they would pull it down." Had he been unable to provide documents proving that the Colombe belonged to his Malian father, it would now be in ruins.

Mr Touré can see the rubble in the mausoleum behind his hotel, where Islamists smashed graves, to know how close that threat came to being carried out.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'