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A story of a Sahara Romeo and Juliet

An Islamic militant sweeps a Malian woman off her feet during the occupation. But in Timbuktu, as in Verona, fate has other ideas.

February 18, 2013|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • A Malian woman walks this month in Timbuktu, which had been in the grip of militias for more than nine months.
A Malian woman walks this month in Timbuktu, which had been in the grip of… (Fred Dufour / AFP/Getty…)

TIMBUKTU, Mali — It didn't matter that Timbuktu had been occupied by Islamist militias notorious for meting out 100 lashes to young women who flirted with, or even talked to, men.

When Mamou Maiga encountered a dazzling young man while out for a walk, her world turned upside down.

"He had beautiful eyes and a gentle smile," recalls Maiga, 21, smiling shyly as she remembered that day in mid-September. "He asked me if he could drop me at my house. I saw no problems."

His name was Adama. He drove a good car. And he had one big advantage over other young men trying to meet girls while risking punishment from the religious zealots:

He was one of them.

For more than nine months, Timbuktu was in the grip of militias that imposed a severe form of sharia, or Islamic law, in a city known for its tolerance, banning women from wearing pretty clothes, perfume, makeup. Also out was music, smoking, dancing, singing, listening to the radio, watching TV, selling alcohol or drinking it.

But some of the rules didn't seem to apply to the occupiers. They spied the prettiest girls in the markets, approached their parents and pressured them into approving of the marriage, residents say.

In Maiga's case, no force was needed, once Adama's eyes met hers.

"It was love at first sight," the young beauty says.

It didn't matter that her family opposed the match, or what the neighbors said.

"We didn't even want to let that boy come into the house," blurts out one of Maiga's sisters, who didn't give her name.

In Maiga's neighborhood, people sit out on benches in the evening, their eyes surveying the narrow, trash-strewn streets, watching one another and judging. Gossip, like sand, insinuates itself into every crevice. Maiga's whirlwind marriage to an Islamic extremist has made her a "Ryan's Daughter"-type figure, similar to the Irish woman in the 1970 movie who fell in love with a British soldier.

Now he's gone.

"He left at the beginning of the French airstrikes," Maiga laments, referring to France's military action last month to drive the militias out of northern Mali towns. "I felt so sad."

A brother interrupts. "If he called, why would you even pick up the phone?"

Her face flares defensively. "Of course I'd answer the phone. Why not?"

Adama never even told her his second name.

"I didn't mind," she says.

Cool, silky sand forms the floor in the lower room of her family's mud-brick house. The whitewashed walls are scratched and battered and the only furniture a couple of chairs, a bench and a table holding a small television. A small girl sitting on the sand coughs constantly. A woman wrapped in a gaudy flowing gown lies curled up on the sand, her head resting against the wall, like a brightly colored cocoon.

Maiga sits on a low bench, her green eyes filled with longing. She wears her hair pulled back smoothly from her forehead, and the smell of perfume wafts by when she moves. She speaks of her love shyly and haltingly, but when she describes his face — like a movie star, half Senegalese and half Mauritanian — she can't help smiling.

The week after he dropped her at home from the market in his car, Adama came back, unslung his gun and asked her parents if he could marry her.

"As soon as he asked, straight away, I told my family I accepted. I felt something very special in him," Maiga said. Two days later, Adama brought the family $570 — 14 times as much as the $40 that Maiga says is usually paid for brides, "because he said I'm very special." Three days later, the pair were married, without a ceremony.

She moved out of the family's house with Adama into government housing seized by the militants. She felt so safe and happy, she acknowledges, that she was almost blind to the terror emanating from the often brutal and mercurial fighters.

"I had no problems with him. I felt comfortable with him. I felt so safe."

"Why don't you tell the truth?" her sister interrupts harshly as Maiga tells her story. "Why don't you say what really happened?"

Maiga flushes with indignation. "I never saw him do anything bad," she says angrily.

Adama rarely spoke about the militia, its goals or his views about militancy, she says. Rather, she recalls, he was disturbed by the excesses of the fighters, who amputated an accused thief's hand, beat and terrorized the population and destroyed ancient cultural treasures, including mausoleums and manuscripts.

"They did do a lot of bad things, but that was the leaders. Adama said to me that the things they did weren't good, but that he couldn't say that to the big boss. I said if he doesn't like the things they do, why doesn't he leave the group? He said, 'I can't leave the group.' "

From the moment they married, her husband made the rules. She had to dress simply and pray five times a day. She was to completely cover up, never showing off her beautiful eyes or allowing anyone a glimpse of even an inch of her luminous skin.

He forbade her to do her hair, or make herself beautiful.

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