For most of us, Timbuktu has been a noun and an adjective-a shorthand for a far off place. I also knew of Timbuktu as the title of a Paul Auster novel. Over the decades, Timbuktu has come to acquire the same kind of mystic aura that is reserved for places like Casablanca, thanks to the classic Hollywood love story. What has happened in the case of places like Casablanca and Timbuktu is that cinema and literature have turned a real place into a mythical landscape
Yet, in the last few days, Timbuktu has been hogging the limelight for all the wrong reasons-the desert town had been captured by Tuareg nationalist rebels and Islamic extremists and the French army had to intervene to flush them out.
In the process, it was reported that something very precious was lost-a treasure trove of ancient Greek and Islamic texts. The rebels had torched a library (The Ahmed Baba Institute) that was the repository of these ancient texts. They also destroyed some sufi shrines, "claiming such shrines were forbidden" in their version of intolerant Islam.
The loss was mourned internationally and it was on the news everywhere. The rebels, who were adamant on imposing shariah laws, were condemned.
You can't miss two ironies here. One, Islamic extremists setting fire to texts that were part of their own heritage. They were not the infidel Mongols who had raided and destroyed the ancient libraries in Baghdad in 1258. During the siege of Baghdad, many books on subjects ranging from medicine to astronomy were destroyed. The siege marked the end of the Islamic Golden Age.
Two, the saviours in Timbuktu were the French. In 1789, when Napoleon entered Cairo and "vigorously appeased conservative Muslim clerics in the hope they might form the bulwark of pro-French forces in the country," there were many revolts against his occupation. "Many other Muslims saw plainly the subjugation of Egypt by a Christian from the West as a catastrophe;" writes Pankaj Mishra in his brilliant book, From the Ruins of the Empire, "and they were vindicated when French soldiers, while suppressing the facts against their occupation, stormed the al-Azhar mosque, tethered their horses to the prayer niches, trampled the Korans under their boots, drank wine until they were helpless and then urinated on the floor."
One can argue what Napolean's army did was more an act of bravado, showing how they could morally subjugate an occupied people and disrespect their culture; something quite different from an act of pure philistinism as was demonstrated by the fleeing extremists in Timbuktu.
How do we square these ironies? Let's put it this way: time heals everything, people are ennobled by forces of civilisation and there is redemption in God's kingdom.
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