Timbuktu — city in the middle of nowhere

During our first trip to Timbuktu in 1998 we saw only one dilapidated hotel. On our second trip we found a new hotel of three-star standard that had been built by a Moroccan married to a lady from Timbuktu.

It was during this trip that we met Abderhamane, who was sitting in the lobby waiting for tourists to guide around. He immediately attracted our attention and we engaged him for the duration of our stay. Since he spent the whole time with us, we naturally came to know more about him. He told us that he had a large family and found it difficult to live off his income during the three to four months that the tourist season lasted.

We asked him questions about prices and cost of living. We found out that a piece of land suitable for building a hotel on would cost about $2,000. Our Dutch friend and travel companion immediately gave him $4,000 and told him to buy two pieces of land. By the time we left we had all decided that we wanted to help, not only Abderhamane, but through him also other families by giving them jobs.

Upon my return to Pakistan, my dear friends Qamar Alavi and Khizar Hayat of Naqvi & Siddiqui Architects designed, free-of-charge, a compact eight-room guesthouse, complete with attached bathrooms, dining area and kitchen. Abderhamane meanwhile started making a supply of clay bricks, while we started putting together whatever finances we could. Over a period of two years we collected about $30,000, which was enough to complete the construction.

Some generous friends from Dubai sent 10 air conditioners, a fridge, a deep- freezer, a cooking range, and crockery, cutlery and cooking utensils. A grateful Abderhamane named it “Hotel Hendrina Khan,” after my wife. During our last trip my wife accompanied us and Abderhamane organised a ceremony for her to inaugurate the hotel. This is the very same hotel that many foreign journalists have described as the “ten-million-dollar luxury hotel” supposedly owned by me. None of them bothered to go personally to see for themselves what the real situation was.

Over the past ten years, an industrious and frugal Abderhamane added another 24 rooms. His hotel is now one of the best known. When he required a medical operation, we invited him to Pakistan to have it done here. While here, he learnt how to prepare some Pakistani dishes and we gave him spices and chutneys to take back with him. Some of these spicy Pakistani dishes are now his trade mark. We still supply him with the required spices for cooking and for the mango pickle he now makes from local mangoes.

Despite the barren environment, we saw many finches and doves (not to forget the many geckos). We asked Abderhamane to make a shallow trough and regularly fill it with millet (bajra), wheat and broken maize, and to put out a shallow dish for the birds to drink from and bathe in. Within days more and more birds started coming and it is now one of the major attractions of his hotel. Visitors love to photograph the birds. The finches, in particular, have become quite cheeky, even flying into the dining room to feed on crumbs. If encouraged, they will even sit on the tables taking bread from within a few inches of visitors’ hands.

Abderhamane gives food to the needy after Juma prayers throughout the year, and every Iftar during Ramazan. Thirty-five to 40 people work in his hotel, earning livelihood for their families. Moreover, other enterprising individuals have now started running souvenir shops, taxis and pleasure boats.

It being a desert area, water shortage is one of the major problems people face . Upon enquiry we were told that water is reachable at a depth of about 400 metres and to dig a well costs about $10,000. Being very honest, the workers don’t charge more if they have to go deeper than 400m, but if water is found sooner, they will refund a proportionate amount. Returning to Dubai after one of our trips we spoke to some Pakistani philanthropists and collected $20,000. This money we sent to Abderhamane who undertook to have two wells dug, which we went to see on our next visit. He had chosen the sites well. Neither was near any particular village, for it to be ensured that no one laid claim to them and they remained available to the population and their cattle.

With his usual initiative, he now takes tourists there on desert trips. We later heard that a Malaysian minister who had visited Timbuktu also donated $20,000 and two more wells were dug in the area. It is a joy to see clear, cool, sweet water being drawn up from the well and a drinking trough full for the animals. Local residents take the water home in jerry cans tied to the backs of their donkeys.

Unless there is a sandstorm, the air is clean and dry in Timbuktu. Nights are beautiful with pleasant weather and inky black skies in which the stars sparkle like diamonds. We were fascinated one night to be able to see with the naked eye a Soyuz docking with the Mir space station. We sat there for hours watching this historic event.

Through the years we have sent many books (including Qurans, religious books and Islamic history books) to the Ahmad Baba Centre. Many tourists request Abderhamane for copies of the Holy Quran with English and/or French translations, and of these we have sent many copies to him too. Realising the importance of the irreplaceable documents kept there, the South African government built a new, climate-controlled building for the Ahmad Baba Centre, which was officially inaugurated by the President of South Africa. They are now in the process of cataloguing all the manuscripts and other documents.

The Cubans have, for a long time, been sending medical teams to the area. They bring their own supplies, tents and medicines and take nothing in return, nor use any local resources.

During one of his trips to Pakistan I had the honour of having a long conversation with HH Prince Karim Aga Khan. After having spoken to him about Timbuktu’s cultural heritage and the fact that UNESCO had declared the area a world heritage site, he became quite enthusiastic. He introduced me to his information officer, Mr Amin, and a Swiss gentleman who was his director of projects. I advised them that the best time to visit Timbuktu was between October and February and informed them that the mosques were badly in need of repair. To encourage tourism, which would benefit all the people, an air connection between Bamako and Timbuktu was also badly needed.

The following October I received a call from an excited Abderhamane that Prince Karim Aga Khan had stayed at his hotel, toured the city, ordered renovation of the mosques and donated a plane to fly between Bamako and Timbuktu. It is now making three return flights a week and has made an enormous difference to tourism and the availability of commodities. The airport has been modernised and now even an Airbus can land and take off from there. Modern facilities have also reached Timbuktu – international dialling, mobile phones and the Internet are now all available.

Source: The News

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About Ahmad Ladhani

Live in Karachi, Pakistan
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