Category Archives: Mali

Salt of the Earth – A Novel Idea

Ideas for novels come from many different sources. My novels tend to reflect current events, and so I get plenty of ideas from reading newspapers and magazines.

My novel “Festival in the Desert” – part of my Brother Half Angel series of thrillers – is about Islamist terrorists in the West African country of Mali and their attacks on a Christian mission hospital.

I am a fan of world music – pop music from countries around the globe – and the initial idea for the plot came from an article in a British world music magazine “Songlines.”

It was about Mali, pointing out that the country had some of the most interesting music anywhere in the world, thanks to great artists like Salif Keita, Amadou and Mariam, Ali Farka Toure, Toumani Diabate, Rokia Traore, Oumou Sangare, Tinariwen and many others.

But the article also pointed out that the musicians faced many threats to their livelihood, including Islamist terrorists, Tuareg (the north Mali desert people) separatists and drug runners. In other words, an irresistible combination for a novel.

Festival in the Desert - Smashwords cover Jan 2013While writing it, I discovered an interesting fact about Mali. In the far north of the country are some famous salt mines. For more than 600 years salt has been mined there, and camel trains transport giant slabs of salt on a three-week trek from the mines to the city of Timbuktu. All this activity helped make Timbuktu a great city and one of the centers of learning and culture in West Africa.

I used this information peripherally in my novel. But now I have just returned from a holiday in central Europe, and discovered that an interesting tourist attraction is the salt mine near Krakow. Until recently salt had been mined there since the 13th century.

Now more than a million tourists annually enter and view salt sculptures, giant underground caverns and four chapels. It is a magnificent sight.

But it got me thinking. Salt makes many appearances in the Bible. In the Old Testament it was added to all offerings. Lot’s wife was turned into salt. Jesus told believers they were the salt of the earth.

Salt! I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I think I have a new subject for a novel.

Why I Wanted “Timbuktu” to Win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar

Congratulations to “Ida,” the Polish winner of Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. But I was hoping that another of the five nominees, “Timbuktu,” would win.

Festival in the Desert - Smashwords cover Jan 2013I’ve not seen either movie, but I hear that “Timbuktu” is a powerful portrayal of life in that West African city – in northern Mali – after Al Qaeda-associated Islamists took control. For 10 harsh months they governed the city, and the surrounding region, with growing repression, before French-led forces kicked them out.

In the words of one writer

It dares to tackle one of the most urgent topics of our time, yet it’s also a magnificent work of art. It celebrates the force of love and the resilience of humanity even as it delves deep into the nature of evil. It’s been a while since I saw a film that pulls off a comparable feat.

Though my own reasons for wanting the film to win were a little more selfish. For my own novel “Festival in the Desert,” part of my Brother Half Angel series of thrillers, is also set in Timbuku. And it too tells a story of Islamists who are trying to undermine the authorities.

In addition, my book has a strong Christian theme, featuring a mission hospital in the city that is under attack.

But “Ida” – which also has a religious theme – was the winner, so congratulations. And I look forward to viewing “Timbuktu.”

Terror in Africa – Should We Be Surprised?

The news from the West African nation of Niger is heart-breaking. Around 70 churches have been set on fire, and more than a dozen people killed, as Islamists sought to take some kind of twisted revenge over the Charlie Hebdo outrage in France.

Never mind that the scummy magazine regularly attacks Christians as profanely as it vilifies Muslims. Never mind that the president of Niger flew to Paris to participate in the giant march organized there to protest the murder of some of the magazine’s staff.

The Islamists decided that they were upset at a new cover from the magazine, deemed to be provocative, and that they needed to protest.

But should we really be surprised that they chose to burn down churches and slaughter Christians?

Festival in the Desert - Smashwords cover Jan 2013My thriller “Festival in the Desert” was set in the West African nation of Mali, adjacent to Niger. It concerned Islamists trying to close down a hospital there that was run by Christian missionaries. I chose Mali, because it is a relatively exotic country, boasting some great music, an exciting annual festival in the desert and the famous city of Timbuktu.

In fact the hospital was based on one in Niger, in the town of Galmi, run by the SIM Christian mission organization. I even included some incidents based on stories told to me by a former missionary doctor at Galmi.

And why should a Christian hospital be under attack? Because throughout Muslim Africa a virulent form of fundamentalist Islam, often dubbed Wahhabism, has been spreading, with roots planted especially by the Saudis. For such people Christians, Jews and even moderate Muslims are the enemy.

Here is an excerpt from “Festival in the Desert:”

“It’s also all these new Saudi-sponsored mosques in town,” said Dr Steyn. “There’s more than a dozen of them. All recent. They send their imams from Saudi Arabia. Telling the women they have to wear veils and the men that they have to stop drinking alcohol and stop talking to people of other religions.”

“Yes, that’s exactly right. And according to the briefing I received, both Al Qaeda and the new mosques are recruiting young men, sending them off for training at madrassas in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. These men come back home with radically new beliefs. They’re not tolerant any more. They hate the West, hate America, hate Christians.”

The commentator Mark Steyn (no connection to the Dr Steyn in my book) has written:

The most successful example of globalization is not Starbucks or McDonald’s but Wahhabism, an obscure backwater variant of Islam practiced by a few Bedouin deadbeats that Saudi oil wealth has now exported to every corner of the earth…You can live on the other side of the planet and, when Starbucks opens up in town, you might acquire a taste for a decaf latte, but that’s it: otherwise, life goes on. By contrast, when the Saudi-funded preachers hung out their shingles on every Main Street in the west, they radicalized a significant chunk of young European Muslims: they transformed not just their beverage habits but the way they look at the societies in which they live.

Some African countries are trying to halt this radicalization. I have written of attempts by Senegal, which borders Mali, to reach out to Israel, in part as a reaction to the worrying spread of radical Islam.

We can only wish that country luck. But, given the power and money behind the Wahhabi tentacles, we should not really be surprised when Islamists in West Africa choose to burn down churches.

And we should not be surprised when it happens again.

Music in Mali – Festival in the Desert

By Martin Roth

My subscription copy of Songlines has arrived, with a cover story, “Top 25 Mali Albums.” I’ve been a fan of Malian music for more years than I can remember, and I have some of the recordings on the list.

In fact, my novel “Festival in the Desert” originated from an article in Songlines. Back in the October 2011 issue I read a cover story on the Touaregs – the desert nomads of the Sahara – with the following:

The Touareg rebellion has been knocked squarely off the front page by the murderous presence of mafia gangs posing as Islamist extremist militias allied to Al Qaeda…But elsewhere fear roams the desert. Traffickers who used to carry a quaint payload of Marlboro cigarettes, illegal diesel and cooking oil, now transport hard drugs, weapons and humans. Planeloads of cocaine fly in from South America, disgorge their corrosive cargo into huge convoys of 4x4s which disappear eastward towards Egypt and the Middle East.

I knew at once I had the material for an exciting novel. And the novel was actually right up-to-date with events. It was about Islamist extremists and their efforts to kick out Westerners and take over the society. And as it was being published Islamic extremists associated with Al Qaeda did take over a large part of the region, expelling all Westerners.

“The Increasing Reach Of Islamist Extremism In Africa”

By Martin Roth

The latest edition of The Economist has a cover story that it titles “Afrighanistan.” Inside is a four-page Briefing, “Jihad in Africa,” which begins: “Terrorism in Algeria and war in Mali demonstrate the increasing reach of Islamist extremism in Africa.”

Here is a brief excerpt from my novel “Festival in the Desert,” published last year, in which I touched on this problem. The setting is a (fictional) mission hospital in Timbuktu, Mali.

Dr Becker began with a prayer. Through habit, he spoke in French, which was the official language of the hospital, even though not a single person at the table spoke French as a first language.

Then he looked up. “Another staff member has quit,” he said in his soft, correct English. “Intimidated by Islamists. We need to talk about the security of our hospital. Things are getting worse.”

“We seem to talk about that all the time,” grumbled Bobby.

“Because it is a real problem, man” said Dr Steyn. “A growing problem. Even a pacifist like you can surely realize that.” Dr Steyn loved to argue. He sometimes regaled the other doctors with hilarious stories of life at his Dutch Reformed church back in Pretoria, where, it seemed, mid-week business meetings regularly erupted into pitched battles over matters as trivial as car parking or the altar floral display. Then, at church on Sunday, everyone would greet each other lovingly as if nothing untoward had occurred just a few nights earlier.

“I’m not a pacifist…” began Bobby, before being interrupted.

“This is the third girl to quit in three months,” said Dr Becker. “A couple of men turned up near her home. They asked her why a good Muslim girl was working for a Christian hospital. And then they said there was a chance that she could be killed by people angry that she worked for Christians. They even hinted there might be shooting here at the hospital one day.”

“They really said that?” asked Dr Ryu.

“They always say that,” said Bobby. “That’s always the threat they use to intimidate our girls.”

“Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” said Dr Steyn.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” retorted Bobby. “And the Malian authorities don’t want it to happen. They are working to…”

“The Malian authorities…” The big South African sneered with derision. “Do you think they’re going to save us? Your faith is even stronger than I realized.”

“Yes, actually…”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, we shall not argue today.” Dr Becker raised both hands in exasperation, though to Bobby it looked more like a signal of surrender.

Bobby felt sorry for the German. He knew that it was not only the day-to-day work that gave him so much stress. He was also under enormous pressures from his supervising board of governors, back in Hannover, where recently it seemed that constant conflict reigned.

Older members of the board stuck to the original mission of helping the afflicted. But the younger members appeared more concerned about saving souls, and wondered why so much money was going to a region where, it seemed, the residents were becoming more stridently Muslim and increasingly antagonistic towards Christianity.

Some were even grumbling that, with funds becoming increasingly hard to source, and with fewer doctors available, then why not simply hand the hospital over as a free gift to what appeared to be a growing number of Muslims who hated this Christian presence in their midst. Let them run it. Or, as one of the governors expressed it to Bobby during a brief visit from Germany, let them run it into the ground.

“I have received a briefing from the German embassy in Bamako,” said Dr Becker. “Everything is getting worse.”

“Surely it can’t get much worse,” said Dr Ryu. “We all know that a lot of countries are telling their citizens not to travel to this part of Mali.”

“Doesn’t this festival start tomorrow?” asked the South African. “This festival in the desert? What’s it called…?”

“It’s called the Festival in the Desert,” smiled Bobby.

“That’s meant to attract the tourists. How will it manage if no one comes?”

“They’re still coming. I’ve just treated one downstairs for contaminated cocaine.”

“Drugs is just one of the problems,” said Dr Becker. “And it is getting worse, according to the embassy briefing I’ve received. We all know that the Sahara has become the transit point for shipments from South America, heading for Europe. That’s not new. But the big problem, the main problem now, is Al Qaeda. They are increasingly active. They are targeting this whole region. The whole of West Africa. All these traditionally moderate Muslim countries. They view them as a place for expansion. They are trying to radicalize the people. That’s why we see them in the markets more and more. Talking to local people.”

“It’s also all these new Saudi-sponsored mosques in town,” said Dr Steyn. “There’s more than a dozen of them. All recent. They send their imams from Saudi Arabia. Telling the women they have to wear veils and the men that they have to stop drinking alcohol and stop talking to people of other religions.”

“Yes, that’s exactly right. And according to the briefing I received, both Al Qaeda and the new mosques are recruiting young men, sending them off for training at madrassas in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. These men come back home with radically new beliefs. They’re not tolerant any more. They hate the West, hate America, hate Christians.”

Dr Becker paused and glanced around. He looked a forlorn figure, with his white hair and lined face and wire-rimmed spectacles that sat at the end of his nose. “And then there are the Tuaregs. Thousands of them were forced to escape from Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, and now they’re back home, heavily armed and stirring up trouble. They’ve renewed their war of liberation against the government.”

 “Are they a threat to us?”

“They’re a threat to everyone. They say they want self-rule. But a lot of criminal elements are involved as well. They’re involved in kidnap. Extortion. Whatever. Westerners will always be a target. And they are all mixed up together.”

“Who are?”

“Al Qaeda. The Tuaregs. The drug dealers. Sometimes they’re enemies, fighting each other. But sometimes they’re friends, when it suits them. This whole region is becoming a lawless Wild West.” He looked at Bobby, the only American in the room, as if he were somehow responsible for all lawless Wild Wests around the world.

“So what does all this mean?” asked Dr Ryu.

“It means our hospital is a target.”

“A target? From whom?”

“Al Qaeda, most likely.”

“Your embassy said that?”

“They believe it.”

“Believe it? They know of something being planned against our hospital? I thought it was all just a lot of talk.”

“They don’t have evidence that anything is planned against our hospital. But they told me that Al Qaeda loves Christian targets. And Jewish targets too, of course, though there’s none of them here. And we know that Al Qaeda has already kidnapped foreigners in this region. That’s how they finance their operations. By extorting ransoms. It’s the reason so many governments in the West are telling their nationals not to travel here.”

Bobby objected. “But we’re serving Muslim people here. They love us. The government wants us here. Everyone knows that.”

Dr Steyn spoke up. “Come on, man. Al Qaeda is out to cause trouble. They want Christian targets. They want to kidnap people. We’re one of the most visible. What about those ten people killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan a couple of years ago. Including doctors. Or the French priests killed in Algeria by Islamists? Including a doctor. They don’t care if the local people love us or if the government supports us. We’re Christians and we’re the enemy.”

What’s Happening in Mali?

By Martin Roth

My novel Festival in the Desert is set in Timbuktu, in northern Mali. It concerns a fictional mission hospital in the region, under attack by Islamists.

It was during the writing of the novel that Islamists actually seized control of the entire northern region of Mali, including Timbuktu. Very quickly they began the process of eradicating the small Christian presence.

Certainly my fictional Christian hospital would have been an early target of the Islamists. This created a dilemma for me. Do I continue writing as if nothing has happened? Or should I bow to the new realities? But the hospital was the centerpiece of the novel. Without it there would be no story.

I decided to carry on as if nothing had happened. And now with the French invasion it is possible that the Islamists will be beaten and the region will again be ruled from the Malian capital Bamako.

Yet the Islamist invasion has unquestionably been a disaster for Christians. In the Open Doors 2013 World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians face the most severe persecution for their faith Mali placed seventh. It was previously not on the list at all.

According to a press release:

Open Doors said its contacts in the country reported that most Christians fled the north, abandoning homes and churches that later were confiscated or destroyed. “If you stayed, you were killed,” said Ronald Boyd-MacMIllan, who directs Open Doors strategy and research. “All the churches were closed. There were house-to-house searches. It was pretty clear they were looking for Christians to kill.”

Just today CBN News reported that “churches in Timbuktu, Mali were destroyed this week by the Islamist terrorist group Ansar Dine. Members of A.D. are reportedly searching for the pastor of one church hoping that he will deny the cross and join them in their armed struggle against Mali government forces and French troops.”