Aliuf Ag Albachar knelt in the hard sand at the center of the Place de Sankore. His knees were raw, and one of his camel-skin leather sandals was missing. His indigo tunic, so carefully donned for Friday prayers, had been torn as he was dragged suddenly and deliberately from the house he was occupying and through the dusty streets of Timbuktu. His short-cropped black hair was streaked with sand, and there was mud and blood on his face from the occasional blow. He looked as vulnerable as he felt, his thin figure slightly stooped as he knelt in front of the line of men dressed all in black. His hands had been tied viciously behind his back, cutting into his wrists, which had begun to bleed, and the big sand flies had found the feast and were buzzing in a black cloud behind him, tickling the wounds. The sour smell of his own blood that wafted upward in the stifling heat was making his stomach turn, and he tried not to vomit. Above him the sun was clawing its way higher in the sky while he waited. Suddenly the wind whipped up, and the hot Sahara sand stung his exposed face, narrowing his eyes—his shameful weakness before those who had been his brothers; his betrayal, his salvation. His anger. His repentance. His fear. But oddly enough, also his peace.
He looked up, squinting through clear gray eyes at the black flag flapping in the breeze above the triangular mud minaret of Sankore Mosque. It had not been his choice, fighting as he had instead for the soothing yellow, red, and green—the colors of Azawad; but neither had he objected that fateful day when they had lowered his flag, replacing it with the Islamists flag of death. Had he not also taken the oath? Had he not also surrendered to the new laws? Had he not even replaced his tagelmust—the elaborate turban and veil—for a uniform of black?
At the end, he had to admit that he had failed. In embracing the violence, he had betrayed his great cause, but it had come so naturally. Since the very beginning of time, the Tuareg story had always been written in blood using the sharpened edge of the takouba—the traditional Tuareg sword with which they made their place in the world. They were men of honor, those fearless warriors of the sand and the sky carving out their kingdoms of dune and sun with only their indomitable will. Their destiny had always been freedom on their dry patch of land; it was their desert after all, for which they had always had to fight the great powers. The Garamantes of the Fezzan, the Romans, the Arabs, and the Ottomans—all had tried. But the Tuareg did abide, at the margins of empire and making a living from their dominion over that great sea of sand when all others blanched at the endless barrenness.
This time it had almost been theirs, his—he had been so close. Azawad, that mystical land that existed only in their collective imagination. Ideas of self-determination, of victory and glory. A place of prosperity and freedom. Doesn’t the very word for “man” in Tamasheq—amajagh—mean freeman? How close they had come to finally having their homeland, and how ironic that the epic struggle of his forefathers, laid as a mantle of opportunity upon Aliuf’s young shoulders so long ago, had ended here, under the shadow of that black flag. He knew he had nobody to blame but himself. He had turned to violence, like so many others before, but there is always someone more violent.
Congregated around him were the unwilling residents of the newest province of the caliphate. They were standing in a semicircle, having responded to the calls of their overlords to assemble in the plaza, like they always did when the Islamic Police went through the town announcing through their megaphones a more exotic punishment. He was in the center of the sandy, clean spot equidistant from the mosque and the great Ahmed Baba library. The plaza was enclosed on three sides by the mud walls of the buildings and homes, mud bricks in the Moroccan style sealed with a traditional mortar. The brown of the sand and walls continued up into the brown sky—an approaching sandstorm. The spectators stood a safe distance from him—nobody wanted to return home splattered with blood. They knew what was coming. They dared not look him in the eye, perhaps from guilt at what they were about to witness or from powerlessness at something they could not stop. Mostly they were there out of fear; Aliuf knew this. For too long he had been on the other side of the telek, that ornamental dagger used for sacrifices that was now hovering behind his neck. He could sense the cold decision of the blade and the looming malevolence behind him of the figure who once had been his greatest friend.
“Aliuf Ag Albachar.” The powerful voice cut through the dry air, bouncing off the mud and brick two-story outer walls of the great Ahmed Baba library to ricochet off the mosque and back onto the cowering assembly gathered before the condemned man.
“Yes, that is my name,” Aliuf said without emotion. He’d known this moment was coming for a long time, since long before his wistful farewell to Azter. She was safe, at last, and he was at peace with his decision—his sacrifice. His atonement.
“Do you know why you are here?” the voice behind him asked. “I am giving you one opportunity to repent so your soul may find its place in heaven even if your sins require your death.”
“I am here …” Aliuf whispered.
“Speak up so all may hear your confession and be instructed.”
“I am here,” Aliuf said, louder now, bolder—his last moments lending confidence, “because I dared to think and to learn—and to love.”
“No, you are here because you blaspheme. You deny Allah and the Prophet—blessed be his name. You are here because you are kafir, excommunicated from the faith because God no longer knows you.”
“Salif, my brother …”
“I am no longer your friend, and you are no longer my brother. I am here to carry out the will of God—nothing more.”
Aliuf felt Salif’s hand grip his hair more firmly, felt the heavy weight of his friend’s boot planted on his calves as he knelt in the sand. Then the knife drew closer, and Aliuf breathed deeply as he felt a stab of pain and saw a blinding white flash of light, accompanied for a brief instant by the image of Azter, her red hair blowing in the warm desert winds. Then the darkness.