In the ancient caravan city of Timbuktu, I was summoned to a rooftop to meet the salt merchant. I had heard that he had information about a Frenchman who was being held by terrorists somewhere deep in the folds of Mali's northern desert. The merchant's trucks regularly crossed this desolate landscape, bringing supplies to the mines near the Algerian border and hauling the heavy slabs of salt back to Timbuktu. So it seemed possible that he knew something about the kidnappings that had all but dried up the tourist business in the legendary city.
I arrived at a house in an Arab neighborhood after the final call to prayer. A barefoot boy led the way through the dark courtyard and up a stone staircase to the roof terrace, where the salt merchant was seated on a cushion. He was a rotund figure but was dwarfed by a giant of a man sitting next to him who, when he unfolded his massive frame to greet me, stood nearly seven feet tall. His head was wrapped in a linen turban that covered all but his eyes, and his enormous warm hand enveloped mine.
We patiently exchanged pleasantries that for centuries have preceded conversations in Timbuktu. Peace be upon you. And also upon you. Your family is well? Your animals are fat? Your body is strong? Praise be to Allah. But after this prelude, the salt merchant remained silent. The giant produced a sheaf of parchment, and in a rich baritone slightly muffled by the turban over his mouth, he explained that it was a fragment of a Koran, which centuries ago arrived in the city via caravan from Medina. "Books," he said raising a massive index finger for emphasis, "were once more desired than gold or slaves in Timbuktu." He clicked a flashlight on and balanced a mangled pair of glasses on his nose. Gingerly turning the pages with his colossal fingers, he began to read in Arabic with the salt merchant translating: Do men think they will be left alone on saying, 'We believe,' and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and Allah will certainly know those who are true from those who are false.
I wondered what this had to do with the Frenchman. "Notice how fine the script is," the giant said, indicating the delicate swirls of faded red and black ink on the yellowing page. He paused, "I will give it to you for a good price." At this point I fell into the excuses that I regularly used with the men and boys hawking silver jewelry near the mosque. I thanked him for showing me the book and told him that it was far too beautiful to leave Timbuktu. The giant nodded politely, gathered the parchment, and found his way down the stone stairs.
The salt merchant lit a cigarette. He had a habit of holding the smoke in his mouth until he spoke so that little puffs would tumble out along with his words. He explained that the giant did not really want to sell the manuscript, which had been passed down through his mother's ancestors, but that his family needed the money. "He works for the guides, but there are no tourists," he said. "The problems in the desert are making all of us suffer." Finally, he mentioned the plight of the Frenchman. "I have heard the One-Eye has set a deadline."
During my time in Timbuktu, several locals denied that the city was unsafe and beseeched me to "tell the Europeans and Americans to come." But for much of the past decade the U.S. State Department and the foreign services of other Western governments have advised their citizens to avoid Timbuktu as well as the rest of northern Mali. The threats originate from a disparate collection of terrorist cells, rebel groups, and smuggling gangs that have exploited Mali's vast northern desert, a lawless wilderness three times the size of France and dominated by endless sand and rock, merciless heat and wind.
Most infamous among the groups is the one led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Reputed to have lost an eye fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, he is known throughout the desert by his nom de guerre, Belaouer, Algerian-French slang for the One-Eye. Since 2003, his men have kidnapped 47 Westerners. Until 2009, AQIM had reached deals to release all of its hostages, but when the United Kingdom refused to meet the group's demands for Edwin Dyer, a British tourist, he was executed—locals say beheaded. His body was never found. In the weeks before my arrival, Belaouer and his cohorts had acquired a new inventory of hostages: three Spanish aid workers, an Italian couple, and the Frenchman.
"Belaouer is very clever," the salt merchant emphasized. He described how AQIM gained protection from the desert's Arab-speaking clans through Belaouer's marriage to the daughter of a powerful chief. One popular rumor describes him giving fuel and spare tires to a hapless Mali army patrol stranded in the desert. Such accounts have won him sympathizers among Timbuktu's minority Arab community, which in turn has angered the city's dominant ethnic groups, the Tuareg and Songhai.
Up on the roof the temperature had dropped. The salt merchant pulled a blanket around his shoulders and drew deeply on his cigarette. To the north, the city's lights gave way to the utter blackness of the open desert. He told me that the price AQIM had set for the Frenchman's life was freedom for four of its comrades arrested by Malian authorities last year. The deadline to meet these demands was four weeks away.
I asked him why the Mali army did not mount an offensive against the terrorists. He pointed the red ember of his cigarette toward a cluster of houses a few streets over and described how Belaouer's men had assassinated an army colonel in front of his young family in that neighborhood a few months earlier. "Everyone in Timbuktu heard the shots," he said quietly. He mimicked the sound, bang, bang, bang. Then he waved the cigarette over the constellation of electric lights that revealed the shape of the city. "The One-Eye has eyes everywhere." And then, almost as an afterthought, he added, "I'm sure he knows you are here."
Read the rest of the story in National Geographic's January 2011 issue, available on newsstands December 15th.