“Politic Need Cries”


Anser Dine forces destroy one of the shrines of a Sufi saint in Timbuktu, northern Mali, July 2, 2012 (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via Al Jazeera)

The destruction and desecration of the ancient mausolea of Sufi saints in Timbuktu by Ansar Dine forces occupying northern Mali was a peculiar evocation of a song, but an apt one. Many observers have rightly compared the irreversible dismantling of these UNESCO World Heritage sites to the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which now seem to foreshadow al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States. The intolerant vein attacking  this diverse community of believers has claimed another part of its rich heritage and we are all poorer for it.

But for those living in Mali this represents something far more real and ominous. The country is gripped by a political crisis and Anser Dine, like its al Qaeda and Taliban kith, have taken advantage of the authority vacuum. A military coup in March overthrew the weak if democratically elected government in Bamako, which effectively limited the state’s writ across this vast country.  Touareg rebels, having agitated for independence for decades, seized the opportunity to seize autonomy in the north.  So did Anser Dine, which quickly overran the Touareg. Refugees have been flowing south from Timbuktu since.

Amadou and Mariam

Malian duo Amadou and Mariam

The country’s plight brought to mind a song written by the Malian group Amadou and Mariam , who sing mostly  in Bambara and French, with occasional English and Spanish.  Today based in France, the blind duo have a global following, singing subtle and occasionally socially conservative songs about life in Mali. But “Politic Amagni,” (“Politics is not good”) released on Dimanche a Bamako (Sunday in Bamako) in 2005, has particular resonance for Mali today.  The song lyrics could just as easily express the apprehensions of everyday people to the realities, machinations, and chaos of political change now wracking the country:

Politics requires blood, tears
Ignorance, lies
Lives and votes
This is why, my friend, it is evidence
Politics is violence
Politics is not good
Politics is not good
Politicians, listen to us
Politicians, when doing politics
Remove from it theft and corruption
Remove from it lies and hollow words
Remove from it conflicts and crimes
Politicians, listen to us
We do not want demagogy
We do not want corruption
We do not want exactions
We want honest men
We want upright men
We want happiness for everybody
We want peace for everybody
Politicians, listen to us …

(Original lyrics are in Bambara, French and English. English translation provided by Nonesuch Records.  Hear the original song and read the complete original lyrics here.)

When I originally heard this song (I was turned on to Amadou and Mariam by a friend who served with the Peace Corps in Mali), my initial feeling was dismay.  I don’t want anyone to believe that “politic needs blood” or that “politic is violence”. But for those caught between forces beyond their control, that’s very often their daily reality.  To watch refugees fleeing the advance of M23 rebels in eastern Congo, seeking the protection of UN peacekeepers and government troops in Goma, is to know what that means. Politics means political violence in places like Sudan,, Syria, and Afghanistan.  Politic need cries, indeed.

This is another understanding of politics, a political heuristic for much of the planet where institutional, democratic political changes are unknown and people fear a politics that  upends the known world and leaves chaos in its wake.

It doesn’t appear that Amadou and Mariam, as individuals, have taken a dramatic political position on the dismantlement of their country, encouraging instead support of the World Food Program for refugees fleeing fighting in the north.  (Neither, apparently, has Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who did much to publicize the extraordinary Islamic literary and religious heritage resident in Timbuktu.) I’m sympathetic to the complexity of their situation.  But part of politics is taking a stand, particularly if you are influential, to change the situation.

An example of this is the courageous stand recently taken by women in Afghanistan, who publicly protested the execution by the Taliban of a 22-year-old woman accused (erroneously, as if that should make any difference) of adultery.  Instead of the usual Western denunciations we are used to, this was a public, political demonstration of local women against a horrible and unaccountable crime.  And it is part of the coalescing of political power against their former rulers and bodes well for the future of their country.

“Politicians, listen to us…”


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