WASHINGTON -- The wonderful patriotic film of 1942, "Yankee Doodle Dandy," was shown on TV over the Fourth of July holiday, with all that movie's potential of making you want to march up and down for your country. The original Yankee Doodle Dandy was, of course, George M. Cohan, the great Broadway producer, composer, performer, dancer and singer, played in unlikely manner by tough guy James Cagney.
At one point, Cohan and his wife have decided to quit Broadway and travel around the world. "You'll have to go to Timbuktu," his partner says. "We're already booked," the irrepressible Cohan answers.
That innocent little exchange between famous American travelers uniquely shows the special position of the ancient city of Timbuktu in those years. Timbuktu was about as far as you could go on the travel route. It personified distant romantic travel.
Now, nobody's going to blame any travelers for not including Timbuktu in their itineraries; to the contrary, after the events of the last two weeks, hundreds, if not thousands of tourists and natives will be fleeing the "City of 333 Saints." They will be leaving an old mud town -- once called the "Oxford of Africa" -- with many of its 600-year-old earthen tombs, shrines and mosques/universities already destroyed by what I refer to as the "New Mongols" of today's world.
It was here that history had left the remains of the largely unknown African empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai; here that layer upon layer of Islamic tradition were deposited in the ever-shifting sands of the Sahara; here that, no matter how rundown Timbuktu became, it was loved by its people.
BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding, who knows the city well from previous visits, said: "I have never been to a place more in touch, more enthralled, with its own history than Timbuktu. It may be a dusty backwater these days, but it was once ... a thriving 15th-century university town. People still keep boxes of ancient manuscripts in their storerooms and garages."
Timbuktu is a small city in upper Mali, a largely empty African desert country surrounded by Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Mauritania, and with a French colonial background. Its treasures may be destroyed even as this is printed. Since the weekend, the representatives of al-Qaida in Mali have been using pick-axes, shovels and hammers to destroy Timbuktu's fabled Islamic treasures.
These al-Qaida call themselves Ansar Dine, like the similar group in Nigeria whose name means "Down with Western education." Interestingly enough, after Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown in Libya, Tuareg tribesmen, those tall Malians who wear their white turbans closely wound around so only their eyes show and who had served Gadhafi as soldiers and administrators, started back home. (Their area is about two-thirds of north-central Mali.)
What no one knew until the last week was that, although the Tuaregs' interest was in getting some of their lands back from Mali's until-now admirably democratic government, al-Qaida fighters linked onto the Tuareg caravans and traveled into Timbuktu with them. They brought guns and money from neighboring countries, especially Algeria, where 10 years ago they waged a campaign that killed nearly 200,000 Algerians. This time, they attacked Timbuktu because it was Sufi Islam, a peaceable school of Islam, and they are radical Salafists intent upon the same murder and destruction as al-Qaida in Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere. Now we have an African variant.
The question of what to do to protect historical treasures like these is one whose answer changes face every day. It was al-Qaida who destroyed Shiite shrines in Iraq; it is al-Qaida's intention to rid the world of any Islamic or other national treasures that do not precisely reflect their radical views of Islam. Surely there will be more to come.
There are indications that French troops may go into Timbuktu to try to save what may be left; the United States also has anti-al-Qaida troops in this part of Africa, but so far there is no indication they will take action. UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural arm, has made Timbuktu a World Heritage site (which might make things worse); and the International Criminal Court said this week that the attacks on the tombs amounted to a "war crime."
The answers are not easy; but the world must organize to protect the treasures of each nation, or else the treasures of all may become new targets.
Me? I'm heartbroken. Now I'll probably never see Timbuktu.