Miniskirts and Music in Muslim Mali

Miniskirts and Music in Muslim Mali

By the time I exit the Bamako airport, I am drenched in sweat. My shirt clings to me like a sopping wet towel.

On the bright side, the sweat is not the result of fear or anxiety.

On the less bright side, it is 108F (42C) outside. The air is neither dry nor humid, languishing in a semi-damp purgatory.  The forecast looks similarly scorching. Two years in Boston and two more in San Francisco have made me soft.

I am greeted not only by a wall of heat and blinding sunshine, but also a veritable army of touts. “SIM card?! Money change?!”

They attempt to guess my reason for visiting Mali. “UN? French army? Tennis player?”

I am not sure whether to be more incredulous at being considered French or a tennis player.

Terrorist Mali

Unlike Middle Eastern or African hotspots like Afghanistan or Burundi, Mali avoided the global radar until recently. The West African country of 15M people is located east of Senegal and south of Algeria. In early 2012 fighting broke out  in the north between the government and Tuareg, a historically nomadic group seeking autonomy.

In short order, the negative news piled up: a coup d’état and the coopting of the Tuareg rebellion by Islamist extremists. The Islamists were largely comprised of foreign fighters who hoped to impose sharia law throughout Mali. In January 2013, French troops intervened. By February, Malian and French troops recaptured all Islamists strongholds.

A few months later, The Atlantic published “The New Terrorist Training Ground”, featuring Mali. The country’s reputation was cemented – and my curiosity piqued.

Taxi through Bamako.

Taxi through Bamako.

Deserted Mali

The first person I meet in Mali is Bruna, a young Portuguese woman. We sit on the patio at the deserted Sleeping Camel hostel, cold beers and whirring fans vainly fighting the sweltering heat.

Bruna was in Bamako for both the 2012 coup and subsequent Islamist campaign in the north. She recalls, “Things were certainly tense for a few days in Bamako during the coup; but since then, everything has returned to normal.”

I meet my CourchSurfing host, Jereon, a friendly Belgian. He confirms what the eerily quiet hostel vividly illustrates, “Tourism has completely evaporated in Mali.” Unbeknownst to me, tourism was previously a booming industry, accounting for over 5% of GDP and employing thousands. Djenne houses the famous Great Mosque and Timbuktu was a famous center of Islamic learning. However, during a recent trip north, Jereon witnessed hundreds of abandoned boats, previously used to transport tourists. Many people remark that I am the first “tourist” they have seen in months.

Heat aside, Bamako proves to be quite pleasant. Cafes and restaurants line the Niger River, providing both dramatic views and a welcome breeze. Walking around is considered completely safe at all hours.

Bamako is also home to a gem, the Parc National. I spend an entire morning wandering through the vast park. My only complaint? A woman who yells at me when I use the playground swings. Given my poor French skills, it was not clear whether she was chastising or encouraging me, but better safe than sorry, I suppose.

Wandering Parc National.

Wandering Parc National.

Moderate Mali

Mali is an undeniably Muslim country; over 90% of Malians practice Islam. With the exception of some northern Islamists who are largely non-Malian and funded by the Saudis, the Islam of Mali is radically… moderate.

Beer is ubiquitous – and cheap. Miniskirts far outnumber headscarves. Some of the outfits worn out at night would make a California mother blush. Boys and girls and men and women flirt openly in public. At night, clubs hum with dancing bodies and thumping music.

I like to think of myself as cosmopolitan, but I admit I never expected a Muslim country to be quite so liberal.

Musical Mali

Outside of historic sites and Islamists, Mali is best known for music. One observer notes, “Music is the glue that holds Mali together.” For centuries, music unified culture and carried history.

Although threatened by Islamists, Mali’s music scene continues to hum along. It is as diverse as its population, with a mix of traditional and contemporary artists.

“I don’t give a f… what they say. We don’t need [Islamists] to teach us how to be Muslims. We’re a secular, tolerant country, where everyone declares their religion according to their feeling. A Mali without music is an impossibility.”—Malian rapper Amkoullel

On Saturday night, Jereon and I venture out to experience the music firsthand. After dropping by a tango party on the bumping Rue Bla Bla, we head to Le Diplomat in search of more local flair. It seems quiet; supposedly things do not get busy until after midnight. We continue to Le Savana, a few minutes down the street.

Savana is packed, but a helpful host manages to cram a table in an impossibly small space in the crowd. The band starts off mellow, but progressively becomes louder and livelier. An older and extremely tall gentleman in a dapper tailored suit moves to the stage and begins dancing enthusiastically. Others soon join. The party is officially underway.

Jamming at Savana.

Jamming at Savana.

Hour of Freedom

The hour of freedom has arrived
The media is perpetuating this propaganda
Only our misery and our failures are projected on screens
Our successes have been quietly forgotten
And the truth is often distorted
Do you know what they say about us
We are the wretched of the earth
That we have only famine, war and desolation
That is why we do not respect us

Malian rapper Amkoullel, SOS

Despite being “The New Terrorist Training Ground”, Mali pushed back the Islamists. Malians fought to maintain their music and moderate culture in the face of threats from largely foreign extremists. Proving a desire for freedom, the country held a successful democratic election post-coup. After a period of confusion and upheaval, things are once again looking up in Mali.

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