Monday, January 28, 2013
as far away as we can get
What's the most remote, obscure, and faraway place you can think of? When I was a kid, it was Timbuktu. We pronounced it "Tim Buck Too," and had no idea that such a place actually existed.
But it does, and yesterday French troops, supported by the armed forces of Mali, such as they are, re-took the old walled city from Islamist rebels who are mostly ethnic Tuaregs. The Guardian (UK) has the story.
Likewise, my dad, the newsman, used to use a newsman's term, "Afghanistanism." When I asked him what it meant he explained it was a fascination or obsession with developments in remote, obscure, and relatively unimportant places.
"In the news business," he told me, "if a guy breaks his leg here in town, that's news, but someone getting killed in Afghanistan isn't. What happens in Tim Buck Too has no effect on us."
That's just one of the things that changes when a nation becomes a world empire. Everybody's business becomes our concern, and we get drawn into complicated local disputes over what appear to us as fine points of arcane religious practices and extremely complicated regional politics and customs, all of which we understand imperfectly it at all.
Timbuktu in pictures appears to be a beautiful and exotic desert outpost. It was founded by the Tuareg in the 1100's as an oasis on the camel caravan route across the Sahara, and became an important center of Muslim scholarship as well as quite wealthy, because of the richness of the trade passing through.
Europeans couldn't get there because it lay in the middle of a waterless desert, and their fascination with this fabled and rich city, fueled by its remote inaccessibility, became an "El Dorado" sort of obsession. Finally, in 1830, the first European voyagers reached the ancient town.
I have no opinion concerning recent events in North Africa, or the religiously-infused politics of Afghanistan. It seems like whenever I try to learn more about what goes on in such places, I only get more confused. All I know about the Tuareg is they're an ethnic, recently nomadic minority in their own land, and they make great jewelry.
You would think our recent adventures in Iraq would have taught us not to mess with people and things we don't understand. But I guess when you're an empire, lack of understanding can't be allowed to interfere with the need to rule and control everybody everywhere, all the time.