Timbuktu & Back

Fig 1. Timbuktu & Back [source unknown]

I remember singing a nursey rhyme about Timbuktu when I was in primary school. I can’t remember what it was now – was it ‘from Kalamazoo to Timbuktu’? – but I remember the images clearly. A fabled desert city at the end of the world where Arabs and Africans would meet to trade salt and gold, and in the cool of enormous mud structures blue robed scholars would scribble marginalia in great gold embossed manuscripts.

It was this same image which once attracted hordes of tourists to Mali. Bus-loads of tourists travelled from Europe and the US, rendering Timbuktu’s neverneverland mythology meaningless. Tour guides, artisans and hoteliers profited, secure in the knowledge that the Timbuktu ‘brand’ would continue to draw people from across the world.

These good times were shattered in 2012. Islamist militants poured out of the Sahara and into the towns and cities of northern Mali, pushing government forces out, destroying ancient shrines and manuscripts, and establishing strict laws forbidding, among other things, the local music which is said to have given birth to the blues.

Fig 2. A tuareg in traditional local clothes [source unknown]

Although the militants have been booted out of the city, virtually no tourists have visited Timbuktu since the crisis. Despite managing to secure a flight on a UN plane, our whole trip was shrouded in uncertainty. In Bamako, Mali’s capital, nearly everyone we spoke to advised against the trip. Armed groups, we were told, remain on the outskirts of Timbuktu, and in lieu of a new regional government being appointed the situation was tense and unpredictable.

Our fears about the security situation left us soon after we landed in Timbuktu. Although our plan was to stay in the security of the hotel, the magic and romance of the place was difficult to resist. In a feeble – and misguided – attempt to not draw attention to ourselves, my head was wrapped in a huge white turban, and Flore disappeared under a flowery table cloth. We visited the town’s famous mud mosque, and the site of Timbuktu’s university – a place of learning which once attracted thousands of scholars from across the Islamic world. In sand-filled streets a busy thoroughfare of donkey-drawn carts, motorbikes and cars bustled past each-other, and men in indigo robes and pointed hats (not dissimilar to those worn by rice farmers in south east Asia) went about their daily business.

Fig 3. Blending in... [source unknown]

In the cool of the hotel we had back to back meetings with local artisans. Each had the same story to tell. Before the crisis artisans were amongst the best paid workers in Timbuktu, with some individual artisans making as much as $15,000 a year. Now artisans are lucky to sell even one product a month. The economic situation has had grave consequences, with large numbers of artisans joining armed islamist groups and people trafficking gangs in order to earn an income.

Rarely have we come across a situation where the need to connect artisans with international markets is so pressing. Timbuktu went from a global tourist destination to a city stranded at the edge of the Sahara in little more than a few months.

In the car on our way to catch the next UN flight back to Bamako, Alious the owner of our hotel, asked where we were going next. When we said Paris, he replied ‘Uh, be careful, it’s very dangerous there isn’t it?’.

What to read next?

See more of our writing here

A letter in the time of COVID-19
  • ISHKAR
  • 06.03.20

This is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma. We are all in this together, and we can only stop it together.

Paradise Lost & Found: Babur Gardens
  • Lucy Fisher
  • 03.05.19

A guest blog by Lucy Fisher I would like to hazard a guess that the first image which comes to mind when asked to think of Afghanistan is probably not a garden in full bloom, carefully tended to by a team of dedicated local gardeners.  Despite the horrific turmoil...

A Conversation With Ibi Ibrahim
  • Interview
  • 02.02.19

A guest blog by Louis Prosser After almost four years of incalculable destruction and suffering in Yemen, you might think that the last sparks of beauty and creativity had been crushed. You would be wrong.Ibi Ibrahim is a 31-year-old artist working mainly in photography and film. He is Yemeni,...

The ultimate sacrifice
  • ISHKAR
  • 02.01.19

[replace_with_featured_image] Fig 1. Babur gardens [source unknown] Fig 2. One of the hospital's where Dr Jerry used to work[source unknown] W...

Timbuktu: A wild story of Myth, Renaissance, Rescue & Ruin
  • ISHKAR
  • 16.10.18

‘I don’t care if you’re in Timbuktu,’ we might say. ‘You’ll be here tomorrow or else!’ Or perhaps, ‘He’s flirted with every girl from here to Timbuktu!’ It means something like God Knows Where, or A Million Miles Away.

War Rugs
  • Louis Prosser
  • 08.10.18

'Bebinin, bebinin,' insisted Parsa. I was in the royal city of Esfahan, which the Persians call 'nesf-e jahan' ('half of the world'). In a cramped bazar beneath soaring domes and arches, I was in a world of carpets. 'Look, look: apache, apache!’ The word rang a bell (an American tribe?) but it took me a few seconds to see. It was a truly beautiful piece.

The Pin Project Viewed from the Ground: A Guest Blog
  • Sofya Saheb
  • 10.07.18

The Pin Project is an initiative ISHKAR launched on Kickstarter last year. We raised over £63,000 to provide jewellery training and work for displaced people living in Burkina Faso, Turkey, Jordan and Afghanistan. 

Soqotra: The Evolution of an Alien Island
  • ISHKAR
  • 28.05.18

Give a child a packet of crayons and tell them to draw a fantasy island, and they might well conjure up the Yemeni island of Soqotra.

LET'S WORK IT OUT!
  • ISHKAR
  • 12.12.17

As humans, we crave order. For many, productive work provides this structure. The world around us might be chaotic. But with work we can, at least at times, control what we do in a way we are rarely able in other parts of life.

Tradition as Radical
  • ISHKAR
  • 25.07.17

At the beginning of this year, Flore and I found ourselves at the world trade fair for homewares, Maison et Objet in Paris. After a morning of walking through the colossal trade halls we were quite frankly bored of looking at objects. We were just about to escape and get a coffee when we came across Sebastian Cox’s stand.

Handmade - so what?
  • ISHKAR
  • 20.07.17

Once a hipster trend, the desire for handmade goods has become thoroughly mainstream. It can be seen from the meteoric rise of Etsy, right through to proliferation of the word ‘artisan’ on products ranging from shoes to bread. Handmade products tend to be more expensive, and by no means assure better ‘quality’, so what’s all the fuss about?

Risk: Sliced, Diced and Sprinkled On Top
  • ISHKAR
  • 13.07.17

As wedding season approaches, we have been getting an increasing number of exasperated customers asking when our most popular glasses will be back in stock again. Well, here's the honest answer – we have NO idea

Traces of Aleppo
  • ISHKAR
  • 08.05.17

[replace_with_featured_image] Fig 1. Traces of Aleppo [source unknown] Zaina Sabbagh bought her first wooden printing block when she was 14. Sh...

Can 'crafts' really drive serious economic growth?
  • ISHKAR
  • 28.09.16

Yet we would be wrong to think of crafts as a small sector at the fringes of the global economy. Far from it, crafts are in fact the second largest employer in the developing world, and have a proven track record of leading a number of developing world countries towards developed world status.

Want to help Afghanistan? The case for buying over donating
  • ISHKAR
  • 12.09.16

The World Bank has ranked Afghanistan, as the 177th easiest country in which to do business with in the world. Unfortunately that was out of 188 economies. Here’s a quick barrage of some more dismal figures… In 2014 Afghanistan’s economy lost a third of its value, and annual economic growth slowed from 14% down to 1.5% where it hovers around today. 

The Journalism of Things
  • ISHKAR
  • 04.08.16

Every now and then a short video or article pops up on our newsfeed which tells a captivating story about Afghanistan or Syria that has nothing to do with war. For a couple of minutes we are reminded that countries like Afghanistan and Syria are home to talented, energetic people whose lives are not solely defined by the circumstances of the country in which they live. It’s a nice reminder, but we return to our day, forgetting about what we watched or read shortly after.

Afghanistan by Choice
  • ISHKAR
  • 13.07.16

Theresa May’s recent triumph as Tory party leader reminded us of a controversial decision she took earlier this year. Despite 2015 being the most dangerous year to date in terms for civilian casualties, she successfully lifted the UK government’s blanket ban on deportations back to war-torn countries.

Goodbye Peacock House, Hello ISHKAR!
  • ISHKAR
  • 12.07.16

When we set up Peacock House last Christmas, we only intended to sell a handful of cufflinks in order to fund a nice post-Kabul holiday. The response we received was phenomenal, and we sold ten times the number of cufflinks we initially expected to sell! What started out as a week of work for the young group of jewellers we were working with in Kabul, turned into five weeks of full-time employment.

An Artisan Against the Odds
  • ISHKAR
  • 05.07.16

The closing of the Greek/Macedonian border in March left 15,000 refugees stranded in Idomeni. This area became the largest informal refugee camp in Europe since World War II.

FROM TRASH TO TABLE: SYRIAN REFUGEE'S SOLUTION TO LEBANON'S RUBBISH CRISIS
  • ISHKAR
  • 25.06.16

Stepping out of Beirut airport you are immediately hit by the smell of rotting rubbish. It is a heady reminder of the rubbish crisis which hit Beirut a few months ago. With landfill sites overspilling, rubbish lined the streets of Beirut, piling up in forests and river beds surrounding the capital.

Lessons from Lebanon
  • ISHKAR
  • 23.06.16

Whilst European leaders complain that Europe is reaching a critical point where it can no longer absorb any more refugees, and concerns over immigration have driven the UK towards an ignominious EU exit - with a population of just 4 million, Lebanon is home to more refugees than the whole of Europe combined.

WHY MAKING MAKES US FEEL GOOD
  • ISHKAR
  • 02.04.16

I have recently taken up carpentry classes. I have no talent for making things with my hands, and the few things I’ve been able to make are very poorly put together. But for three hours a week I saw, I sharpen, I sand and I hammer. And it makes me feel good.

AFGHANISTAN - QUE LIRE, QUE REGARDER?
  • ISHKAR
  • 02.03.16

Outre le blog de Peacock House, de nombreux ouvrages/documentaires de qualité soulignent différentes facettes de l'Afghanistan. Ce pays a fait couler beaucoup d'encre au sujet de ses guerres, dont il a été le theatre depuis 1979, mais a su aussi seduire ses visiteurs par la richesse de ses montagnes et de ses habitants. L'Afghanistan se découvre aussi sous un autre jour..

The Glassmakers of Herat
  • ISHKAR
  • 15.02.16

In Winter, a thick cloud hangs over Kabul as people light wood and coal burning stoves to warm their homes. As a result the last few weeks Kabul’s weather has been described by Yahoo weather as ‘smoke’. We left the polluted capital, for the western city of Herat for a restorative break and to visit Hajji Sultan, the head of one of Herat’s last remaining glassmaking families.

The Birth of Blue
  • ISHKAR
  • 02.02.16

Until relatively recently in human history ‘blue’ as we know it did not exist. There is no word for ‘blue’ in Ancient Greek, Hebrew, Chinese or Japanese. As hard to imagine as it is, ‘blue’ was simply not a colour the ancients were familiar with.

The Danger of the Single Story
  • ISHKAR
  • 02.01.16

Last night a car rigged with explosives targeted Le Jardin restaurant in Kabul. The explosion killed two people, and wounded 15 others.

Be the first to know about our latest collections, pop ups & collaborations
£{{amount}}

Cart

Product added to your Cart

X
English