Published May 3, 2015
When Mohamed Aly Ansar studied international law at the University of Bamako, in the capital of Mali, he spent his days thinking about how to bring development to his impoverished nation. But at night he had a much different dream, one that came to him over and over: He saw himself standing in the middle of the desert near a stage, watching as a helicopter descended. The chopper was carrying the Swedish pop group ABBA, and Ansar was there to receive them.
Thirty years later, on January 12, 2012, a version of that dream came true. Ansar stood on the tarmac at the airport just outside Timbuktu, searching the dark sky for the lights of a private jet. Ansar was the founder of a three-day concert series called the Festival in the Desert, sometimes referred to as the African Woodstock, and on this cool night, he was waiting for Bono to arrive.
Around 8 p.m., the plane carrying the U2 front man alighted on the small runway, and Ansar climbed aboard to greet his guest. He found Bono relaxing on a sofa with his wife and a few friends. The group was excited about the festival, and Bono, dressed as always in black, asked Ansar, whom everyone called Manny, whether he thought Timbuktu was safe.
The situation was fine, Ansar replied. And everything was fine, but he knew more than he was saying, and he didn’t want to scare his guests.
For years, Mali had been among the most stable countries in western Africa, a democratic, laid-back, tourist-friendly oasis. It also had one of the world’s most vibrant music scenes. The Festival in the Desert had flourished since its inception in 2001, and some of the most famous musicians in the world—Robert Plant, Damon Albarn, and other Western stars—had come to play with popular Malian musicians. But things had grown darker in recent months. The Tuareg, a group of nomadic Berbers who periodically rose up against the government in the remote northeast corner of the country, were restive again. Radical Islam, introduced to North Africa in the 1990s, was rapidly gaining converts. And the Arab Spring, which began as a moment of hope in late 2010, had created ethnic and religious chaos that threatened to destabilize the entire region.
Even as Ansar reassured Bono—and it was true that at that moment the city of Timbuktu was enjoying a period of temporary calm—a large group of jihadist fighters were encamped in the desert. Armed with weapons stolen from the armories of the recently murdered Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddhafi, the jihadists had announced their plans to attack the government’s weak army. Six weeks earlier, three Europeans had been kidnapped and a fourth killed at a hotel in Timbuktu. Ansar didn’t mention his fear that his famous guest might be abducted.
Bono and his entourage boarded a guarded convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles and drove to the festival grounds outside Timbuktu—a wide, sandy tract bordered by white domed tents. Troops patrolled the dunes outside the festival grounds, scanning the horizon for suspicious movement. As the crowd of 7,000 braced against the cold night air, Ansar escorted Bono to a VIP box. After an hour, Bono retired to a French-owned luxury guesthouse, where he was guarded by a dozen troops. The next day, he took a hike alone past the military perimeter and into the dunes while Ansar waited anxiously in a tent on the festival grounds.
That evening, Tinariwen (pronounced tee-na-ree-wayn), the festival’s headliner, took the stage. The band was composed of former Tuareg rebels who had achieved international fame with their haunting music, known as the desert blues. The group had formed in exile in Libya during the 1980s, and their music was deeply rooted in the Tuareg’s turbulent history: Like protest singers in the United States during the Vietnam War era, the musicians gave voice to an angry, alienated generation. They sang not about peace but about war, a fight for the dream of an independent Tuareg nation, which they called Azawad—“land of pasture.”
The crowd exploded when Bono got up to join the band, dancing and improvising with the singers and guitarists. A few hours later, he boarded his jet and flew to Bamako, in the south, far from the jihadists’ stronghold.
A year later, I sat with Ansar in the garden of a riverside guesthouse in Bamako. He described the palpable relief he felt once his celebrity charge had departed. The festival had been an artistic success, he said, and had even made some money, but there was no time to celebrate. In the weeks before the event, newspapers had predicted that the Islamist rebels would attack and Western embassies had warned that northern Mali was highly dangerous. Ansar knew too well that those fears were well founded. After all, Iyad Ag Ghali, the man who commanded the fighters, had been one of Ansar’s closest friends—and had even inspired the festival that he and his rebels now saw as an affront to their vision for an Islamic state in Mali.
The story of their friendship, sealed by music before it was severed by ideology, is in many ways the story of Mali itself, and of the fractures between radical and moderate Islam that have emerged across the globe. But for Manny Ansar and Iyad Ag Ghali, their estrangement revealed more fundamental questions—about belief and betrayal, and about how well we really know those closest to us.