Religious thugs destroy ancient Sufi texts.
Centuries of prayers up in flames.
A millennium of scholars’ ghosts gasp
at such senseless loss.
I hope the scoundrels breathed the smoke,
that fragments of blessings
blossom in their lungs.
Poetry leaks into their blood.
Infected by art.
Septic with learning.
Culture convulses the body.
So they weep text
given by God.
I first heard of the city of Timbuktu when I was little and reading the Disney’s “The Aristocats”. In that story, bad-guy Edgar the butler attempts to send the feline protagonists to Timbuktu, but instead gets mailed there himself (does that need a spoiler alert?).
As a kid, I figured Timbuktu must be the farthest, most exotic place imaginable for it to have played such a role in the story. The presence of Edgar notwithstanding, I wanted to go there. As an adult who has learned of its incredible history and cultural richness, I still do. Unfortunately (especially for its inhabitants), it remains a risky place to travel because of a continuing jihadist threat.
I wrote this poem a couple of years ago after reports surfaced of fighters from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb destroying ancient texts in Timbuktu. The joyful epilogue is that the careful and quiet work of local scholars such as Dr. Abdul Kader Haidara actually saved many of Timbuktu’s manuscript treasures – and today restoration and preservation efforts continue anew. More of that story can be found in this PBS Newshour story: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/rescuing-the-priceless-manuscripts-of-timbuktu/ and this Guardian article: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/23/book-rustlers-timbuktu-mali-ancient-manuscripts-saved
This poem came to mind in the last couple of weeks as news surfaced of the Islamic State’s destruction of ancient cultural artifacts in the cities of Ninevah, Nimrud, and Hatra. It’s an incalculable loss and permanent tragedy for the people of Iraq and for the citizens of the globe. City Metric has a good article with more details – http://www.citymetric.com/skylines/isis-bulldozing-some-worlds-first-cities-here-s-what-were-losing-840
I offer this poem and my prayers today to in the same spirit that I did to Timbuktu in January 2013.