Gritty meals, death threats, child guides, ocular trades, comforting hums, Ali Baba George Washington & Mali.
Late afternoon in Timbuktu. An old man in robes approached me at the hotel bar. He carried an antique shaving kit in a brown leather case.
Monsieur. Il est temps de se raser.
He touched a finger to his wrist. Like I was late. I hadn’t requested a shave, but couldn’t deny the need. My face was a nasty, scraggly mess. And his timing was spot on. I’d just finished my drink.
Okay. I’ll take a shave.
The old man led me to a sand-swept courtyard near the hotel’s main gate. It was like every afternoon in Timbuktu, dusty and hot. Hot, but cooler than midday, when the tall Tuaregs in their indigo robes lay down to rest beneath any spare sliver of shade.
He put the razor to my neck. And that’s when I heard the voice.
There were others out there, a few teenagers and young boys. The older ones worked as guides, fixing visits to local mosques or out to the edge of the city to watch the camel trains returning from trips to the great Saharan salt mines. Which was why we were in Timbuktu, to film the camel trains.
I spotted Ali Baba George Washington sitting on a low wall. He was sixteen and, like many young guides in Mali, had taken an Americanized nickname. He waved.
Hello, Mr. David. Shave beard, eh?
Yeah. Guess I need it.
Ali Baba George Washington wore rust-colored jeans, a T-shirt and a loose turban he’d wrap around his face when the dust kicked up. He was also wearing my sunglasses, which I had swapped for his own pair two days prior. Mine were new and polarized, his old and falling apart. But they were also strange and cool. We were both happy with the trade.
The rest of the film crew was on an overnight trip to the desert. I’d stayed behind, blaming a stomach bug. I was faking. I wanted a break, a quiet day drinking warm beer and watching the satellite feed in the hotel bar. And I was sick of the sand. Sand got into everything in Timbuktu. Your clothes, your bed, your breath. It blew into the outdoor ovens where they baked the bread. Even after a few beers, my mouth was still gritty from my last meal.
He again placed his hand on my shoulder. It was rough as a field glove and smelled of shea butter.
There was a single wooden chair in the courtyard, facing away from the gate. The old man motioned for me to sit, and he threw a sheet over my chest. He made a lather and brushed it in swirls across my cheeks and neck, then pulled a straight razor from his kit and drew it across a leather strap.
He tapped under my chin. En haut, s’il vous plait.
He put the razor to my neck. And that’s when I heard the voice. It was a young man’s voice, loud and sharp, coming from somewhere close by. Not on the hotel grounds, but not far.
He shouted, I KILL YOU.
I thought, That’s weird. Good thing it’s not about me. I thought it must be a couple of boys squabbling over something in the street. The way boys do.
AMERICAN, I KILL YOU. It was about me.
I tried to sit up, but the old man put his hand on my shoulder. He shook his head. He made shushing sounds and started to hum. I thought, I don’t know this man. I glanced at the young men standing nearby. I don’t know these boys. I was the only foreigner, the only American, the only infidel. And the man with my face in his hands had a blade.
AH, YES. HA, HA, HA. YOU. I KILL YOU.
I heard footsteps running off, and the voices of young men shouting in the local dialect. Shouting at the shouter. He didn’t stop.
I KILL YOUR FAMILY. I KILL YOUR MOTHER. I KILL YOUR FATHER.
Sand got into everything in Timbuktu. Your clothes, your bed, your breath. It blew into the outdoor ovens where they baked the bread.
There was a little boy there called Alisane, no more than nine. Alisane and other younger boys would tag along when we went out to film, offering to fetch cold drinks for spare change. He came to me. His voice was cracked and pleading.
Don’t listen, Mr. David. Please, don’t listen.
It was a lot to ask. Next came what sounded like a scuffle on the street, more people now, shouting and moving fast. Then sharp banging, a fist on sheet metal. WHAM. WHAM. WHAM. And the voice again, now straining and struggling. Screaming.
YOU ARE COCKROACH. COCKROACH. COCKROACH.
The old man continued to shave and hum. The way I remember my mother humming when I was five and I sat in her lap as she rocked me at the doctor’s office, sobbing and shivering after a painful round of allergy shots, knowing there were more needles to come. He again placed his hand on my shoulder. It was rough as a field glove and smelled of shea butter.
One last time. I KILL YOU. OKAY, AMERICAN? OKAY? YES. YES. Then nothing more. That was it. He was gone.
The sudden silence was as jarring as the shouting. The air buzzed, and I could hear the blood pumping through my ears. And the tug and scrape of the blade against my cheek. And the old man humming his song, until at last he patted my back.
C’est bon, c’est bon.
Sometimes nothing scares any of us quite like the shouting.
I felt my face. It was a clean shave considering he was using a straight razor and I was trembling. I handed him a wad of cash. I have no idea how much, but he accepted it without complaint.
Little Alisane was still next to me, hands over his face and choking back tears. I had seen him cry before, when some of his friends went off to school one day and I asked why he didn’t go with them. Too poor, another boy said. No family. Which made Alisane cry. Which explained why he slept alone in a pup tent near the hotel.
It’s okay, buddy.
So sorry, Mr. David.
I reached into my pack, found a mechanical pencil and gave it to him. A lousy gift. He smiled anyway.
I turned and saw Ali Baba George Washington. He was standing behind me, facing the gate. Fists balled at his sides, my sunglasses masking his eyes. Taking deep breaths.
Is good, Mr. David.
Who was that?
Is good now, is good. No trouble.
Another guide known as Kid Chicago stood next to the gate, watching the street. He turned and gave us a thumbs-up.
Ali Baba looked at the ground. He kicked the sand.
This is a good place, Mr. David.
We are friends, yes?
Of course, we are friends. But who was that?
Is no one. I take care of my friends.
Thank you, Ali Baba.
That is not us.
I know. I know.
I believed him. Believed him though the shouting scared me. Sometimes nothing scares any of us quite like the shouting.
These were different days in Timbuktu, back when the only protection visitors needed was the will of a few boys eager to make them feel at home. A few years later, jihadists would arrive and overrun the city. They’d lash musicians and ransack libraries. And the child guides would be forced to find something else to do. By then there was no one left to guide anyway.
The old man gathered up his kit and slipped through the gate, out into the late-afternoon haze. A few boys arrived with a soccer ball, and Alisane ran off with them to play. I invited Ali Baba George Washington and Kid Chicago back inside, out of the West African sun, and did the only thing I could think of to do for them.
I bought them a Coke.
David Coats is a marketing strategist and creative director, recognized for his work with brands like Jack Daniel’s and Motel 6. He’s also a lifelong traveler of back roads and backwaters. David is currently at work on a book about his days living and crewing aboard an old hippie tall ship sailing the South Pacific.
Lead image: Marco Dormino