by Wanda Sabir

Life goes ahead of me providing what I need before I need it. Oh sacred darkness, mother of pure light within the soul of my soul, refresh yourself in me now. – Mystical Truth Declaration 2

On March 2, it will be great to hear that Albert Woodfox’s bail has been set and that he is finally free.

For those on the straight path or sirat al-mustaqim, we know whatever we need will show up when it is necessary for it to appear. This is especially true for me these past two months, which have many times seemed overwhelming with too much to take care of. Each time, what I needed did show up. I have to learn to better trust the process and be patient, so I do not feel the stress in my body temple.

See ‘Timbuktu’ for International Women’s History Month

Satima (Toulou Kiki), her husband, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino), and child, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), in “Timbuktu”
Satima (Toulou Kiki), her husband, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino), and child, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), in “Timbuktu”

It’s International Women’s History Month and in director Abderrahmane Sissako’s film “Timbuktu” (2014) we meet fierce African women who stand their ground when faced with lashings, stonings and bullets. The setting is Timbuktu, Africa’s Mecca, a sacred historic seat of knowledge and wisdom, which has been ravaged recently by warfare and plunder. Peoples’ lives, antiquities, books, Quranic texts, landmarks and buildings have been destroyed.

We meet the beautiful Satima (actress Toulou Kiki), wife and mother. She and her husband, Kidane (actor Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino), and child, Toya (actress Layla Walet Mohamed), live in the desert, away from the intense scrutiny of the jihadists who have invaded the Timbuktu region. These foreigners, who claim fidelity with Allah, have only succeeded in disturbing the peaceful inhabitants with their strange interpretation of scripture.

Yet, Satima is able to maintain a home for her family despite fear of the marauding militants, one who is fascinated by Satima’s extraordinary beauty. On one occasion the officer stops and stands over her as she washes her hair. He tells her to cover herself. She tells him to look away. “What kind of man is he to plan his visits when her husband is away?” She also tells him that only a coward harms a woman.

Satima is alone in the desert, all her friends gone, yet she nonetheless agrees to stay there and not run when Kidane asks. It’s too bad on one fateful afternoon he does not listen to her when he heads over to see Amadou, a fisherman, with whom there seems to be an ongoing feud around water rights; tragedy results.

Everyone is angry. Tolerance is quickly replaced by intolerance. There is no patience – men fight, children are hurt, familial integrity ruined. When Kidane’s cows get caught in Amadou’s net, the stresses of the invasion blow up a situation which could have been handled another way – is blood always the answer, “Timbuktu” seems to ask.

It’s International Women’s History Month and in director Abderrahmane Sissako’s film “Timbuktu” (2014) we meet fierce African women who stand their ground when faced with lashings, stonings and bullets.

Then there is the “crazy” Black woman whom no one bothers as she steps in front of trucks and uses her amulets to confuse the military occupation. She is conjuring the entire film. Her rooster rides on her shoulder, but even she is powerless against enemy guns.

At the marketplace a fisherwoman is told to wear cloth gloves to do business. She tells the officer, “No.” Who is he to tell her what Allah says? “Chop my hands off now, then, because I refuse to wear gloves. How am I supposed to make a living with gloves on?” Ill-prepared, he walks off. We later see the market woman in court.

Resistance is also seen on the soccer field where boys play “air soccer.” The game is haram or forbidden, so the boys play with a ball only they can see and then when the military jeeps roll by they stand in the field and stretch. It is a great moment in the film. Contrast this with another scene, where viewers see jihadists standing around talking about soccer scores and teams, and one sees the hypocrisy.

In multiple scenes like the one with the fisherwoman, conjurer woman, young hip hop artist who is pressed into giving public testimony about the evils of this music, “Timbuktu” points to the internal life of these characters as ones of integrity, even if this means punishment or ultimately death. This inherent integrity is constantly juxtaposed with evil, the evil intentions of the occupiers who claim truth and justice, but demonstrate its opposite.

The powerlessness citizens feel heightens ethnic divisions and little things are cause for dispute and ultimate tragedy. We see teens innocently hanging out singing in a girlfriend’s bedroom, two boys and two girls – they are just singing, yet this is reason for one of the girls to be flogged 80 lashes. Abderrahmane Sissako makes us watch this as she begins to sing for Allah – love is against the law here.

At one point, Toya says to Issan that she is happy her father is a musician because soldiers don’t live as long as artists. I wonder about the jihadists’ fear of music and laughter and other signs of happiness – the title, ironically of another one of Sissako’s films “Waiting for Happiness” (2002).

“Timbuktu” points to the internal life of these characters as ones of integrity, even if this means punishment or ultimately death. This inherent integrity is constantly juxtaposed with evil, the evil intentions of the occupiers who claim truth and justice, but demonstrate its opposite.

The director says his film recalls for him an “unspeakable crime which takes place in Aguelhok, a small city in northern Mali – more than half occupied by men who were mostly outsiders. [It is here] a 30-something couple, blessed with two children, were stoned to death. Media largely turned a blind eye, because this was Mali, not Damascus nor Tehran. [These are, in other words, Black people, not Arabs or Iranians.]

“Their crime: They weren’t married. The video of their killing, which was posted online by the perpetrators, is horrid. The woman dies struck by the first stone, and the man lets out a hollow rasp of a cry. Then silence. Soon after, they were dug up only to be buried further away.”

“Timbuktu” is Abderrahmane Sissako’s response to this wrong. He is filling the political silence with the lives of this couple, his Kidane and Satima and Toya and Issan, who is an orphan. What will be the viewer’s response?

If the gazelle is truth, then it runs across the landscape dodging the rapid fire of men whose aim is to smother all life. We are not certain who will win the battle – will the gazelle escape? Will the children also running escape? Will the cyclist whom the invaders, armed yet now on foot, escape? We do not know the outcome of this uneven race for justice.

Islam’s misuse continues until everyone is running toward different destinations.

Mali boasts of its cultural diversity; the Dogon people, who live in the mountainsides in caves are known for their sophisticated cosmology, time travel, extraterrestrial communication and universe mapping, which includes much the West does not know. This might be the root of such stoicism that permeates African landscapes, a knowledge that appearance does not guarantee permanence.

One of the wonders of the world, The Great Mosque in Djenné (1907), is also located here. The beautiful craftsmanship from mud in the 13th century is still amazing. It stands so large, then when you enter its many chambers and climb to the roof where the view of the city spreads before you, one cannot help but think – this is made from mud? What is the formula? Perhaps there is something to the creation story which states the human species is from “mud fashioned into shape”? If this edifice can stand for so many lifetimes …

In Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” the invaders or jihadists insist on a literal interpretation of Qur’an. The true jihad or “struggle,” is internal rather than external. The true jihad is with one’s own “nafs” or “soul.” The people who live in Timbuktu know this.

The Qur’an (which means “recitation or reading”) is a book written by men for men and as such is up for interpretation, as no man or woman is perfect. If Prophet Muhammad, a good man (peace and blessings upon him), is said to be the Qur’an walking, then such terrorists market an Islam which twists and tarnishes the beauty of life these Africans have claimed. For those who have traveled and visited the mosques and worshipped with our brothers and sisters there, African Muslims have not abandoned their spirituality, which predates the introduction of Islam into the region. What happens in Sissako’s “Timbuktu” also happened in historic Segu, another Malian town, as depicted in Maryse Condé’s novel by the same name.

In Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” the invaders or jihadists insist on a literal interpretation of Qur’an. The true jihad or “struggle,” is internal rather than external. The true jihad is with one’s own “nafs” or “soul.” The people who live in Timbuktu know this.

The fictional Nigerian village of Umuofia, where in this case Christian missionaries, acting as emissaries for colonial armies, ascend on the innocent population, is another example of scriptural misuse. Chinua Achebe (1958) speaks of this devastation in “Things Fall Apart.” The crusaders and the jihadists then and now have not changed. The goal is not spiritual; it is power and capital. As I watched the one hour and 37 minute film, I kept hoping for some kind of apocalypse to swallow the bad guys, leaving the earth with a primordial stomach ache.

It is surprising that any African is a Muslim or Christian given the violence of their colonial introduction. Yet, Africans in Mali and elsewhere in West Africa, such as Senegal and Gambia – also places I have visited – have embraced this faith and religion as exemplified in the lives of its indigenous saints, among them Cheikh Amadou Bamba, whose resistance to French colonizers is legendary. Islam means submission, the root s-l-m is the same for salaam or peace and Muslim.

Such submission is evident in the town where the invaders impose restrictions, express philosophical inflexibility and mete out punishment liberally. Everywhere in Timbuktu there is talk of departure and escape.

The foreigners’ reign is distinguished by rape, murder and suffering, yet Kidane asks his wife to hang in there with him. He admits to also being afraid, but what is the alternative to home, wandering in the desert without the certainty of water and food for their Toya?

As the couple look at their limited choices, in the city fisherwomen are being told to wear gloves, all music is haram, a boy is given 40 lashes for playing soccer, and the punishment for single adults found in the company of other single adults of the opposite sex is flogging or stoning to death.

Scenes where men and women are buried alive, just their heads visible, the heads targets for lawn balls – rocks. The stoning deaths make the film hard to stomach, despite its beautifully rendered cinematography. Who are these men? Where do they come from? What will it take to get rid of them? In the meantime, why is there no rescue for a people who have to stomach their sanctuary’s defilement by such men?

The soldiers march through both sacred and secular terrain in their boots, take girls from their families and give them to strangers. The local imam protests all harms, yet “the court” sees nothing wrong in its behavior.

The stoning deaths make the film hard to stomach, despite its beautifully rendered cinematography.

Again, the gazelle we see running on the landscape at the beginning of this film is still running at the end as Toya and Issan also run, as do men with rifles. We do not know for how long and if capture will be avoided for the gazelle or for the children.

‘The Convert’ at Marin Theatre Company

Another work with strong women characters, especially as portrayed by actresses Elizabeth Carter as Mai Tamba, Katherine Renee Turner as Jekesai aka Ester and Omoze Idehenre as Prudence, is Zimbabwean playwright Danai Gurira’s “The Convert” at Marin Theatre Company through March 15. “The Convert” takes us back to colonial Southern Africa at a time when the indigenous people are becoming restless.

Jabari Brisport, Elizabeth Carter, Katherine Renee Turner and JaBen Early in Danai Gurira’s “The Convert” – Photo: Kevin Berne
Jabari Brisport, Elizabeth Carter, Katherine Renee Turner and JaBen Early in Danai Gurira’s “The Convert” – Photo: Kevin Berne

Danai Gurira’s work juxtaposes the perplexing situation African Christians face like Jekesai, renamed Ester, and her savior, Master Chilford (Jabari Brisport). Both characters sacrifice more than they realize for a Christian God who is powerless to save them. Jekesai’s Aunt Mai knows this, so does Prudence who asks Ester to speak with her own voice, when the girl parrots the thoughts of others, mainly Chilford.

Ester’s cousin Tamba (JaBen Early) takes his cousin to his mother’s job at the counselor’s offices to save her from an arranged marriage. Mai Tamba pretends to follow Christ but adds indigenous medicine to the formula to protect those in the house from spirits rising elsewhere.

Chilfold believes in the Book and Christ and in the goodness of the whites, despite evidence of their disregard for his soul. He is an optimist who foolishly thinks he has to give up all that is dear to him to enter the kingdom of God, and Ester follows almost blindly behind him. He calls her his protégé. Note the “almost” here, as it is in this hesitation that Ester is saved.

She is close enough to her heritage that she can remember what she has left behind – the songs, the rituals, the people. It takes quite a bit, but finally she sees what Tamba tells her, what Prudence tries to drown in alcohol and Western pretense. “The Convert” shows how colonialism robs a people of their internal life by outlawing everything dear and then shackling their minds with a religion that encourages blind faith, a faith where its savior looks like the oppressor.

Jesekai learns this and then shares it with her mentor or master, Chilford, zealous and certainly a man of God, just the wrong one. Through her example, he learns to trust himself and realize that the vilification of his people was just a political ploy which has nothing to do with Shona or Ndebele spirituality. Jesekai’s reclaiming her ancestral native name says a lot about this moment. She also takes off the garments of the Western world as well. At this juncture, her journey’s end, she is as she was when we first meet her, just a lot wiser.

Thus dressed, she sits on the floor with Chilford and teaches him a song in Shona she composed. As they sing, we see Chilford realize at last that salvation doesn’t belong to a particular people, and the whites are not God’s chosen.

“The Convert” shows how colonialism robs a people of their internal life by outlawing everything dear and then shackling their minds with a religion that encourages blind faith, a faith where its savior looks like the oppressor.

Jesus is an ancestor, Jesekai says early on, and Chilford, who is appreciatively brainwashed, denies her insight. Taken from home at a young age, he does not remember a lot of who he was before the missionaries abducted his mind. Yet, he admits to his loss to Ester when she stands at a similar precipice and has to choose between her rituals and duties to her family and that which Chilford says are her duties to her lord.

Nostalgia seizes him temporarily when he recalls his mother’s embraces and the food she fed him. When Ester asks how he has been able to live with such denial of parts of himself, an emotional door closes in her face and she retreats. Perhaps this is a good thing, as later she listens when her father admonishes her when her Christ nor his mother, Mary, protects Jesekai’s people from slaughter.

These three women, Jesekai/Ester, Mai Tamba and Prudence, are the centrifugal force at work as gravity shifts on volatile Southern African terrain. Prudence is well-educated to the mores and will of the colonizer, yet unlike Chilford and Ester, she did not forget what she lost when taken from her family and sent to boarding school. She realizes the depth of her loss and the handicap she is to the colonizers, whom she is now smarter than. She knows she cannot go home again, and we see her looking through the window – doors closed to her because she is Black, because she is woman and because she no longer fits any number of keyholes.

In a garish hairdo always seeming to be missing a pin to hold it up, corset sufficiently tight, yet not uncomfortable, Prudence is honest and does not pretend to believe in the white man and what he says about her people. She forgives Tamba and is not blind to the faults of her fiancé, Chancellor (Jefferson A. Russell), who is a womanizer. The irony is that his multiple wives are accepted by Chilford and others, while the desire of Jesekai’s uncle (L. Peter Callender) to marry her off to a man with wives is seen as sinful. This is where the story starts, so with that said we’ll end here.

Listen to an interview with Elizabeth Carter as Mai Tamba, Katherine Renee Turner as Jekesai/Ester at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks/2015/02/06/wandas-picks-radio-show-cast-from-danai-guriras-the-convert. Visit www.marintheatre.org or call (415) 388-5208 for tickets. The MTC is located at 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA 94941. Shows are Tuesdays-Sundays. There is frontal nudity in the opening and closing scenes when Jesekai wears her traditional dress.

Other wonderful plays you don’t want to miss

“Xtigone” by Nambi E. Kelly, directed by Rhodessa Jones, plays Saturday and Sunday through March 8 at African American Shakespeare Company at the Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco. Visit www.African-AmericanShakes.org or call 800-838-3006. To listen to two interviews, visit http://tobtr.com/s/7350903 to hear the Feb. 27 show with Rhodessa Jones and http://tobtr.com/s/7344081 for the interview with Ryan Nicole Austin, who plays Tig in Xtigone.

Julie Hébert’s “Tree” directed by Jon Tracey is up through March 7 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., in San Francisco. Visit http://sfplayhouse.org/sfph/. Friday, Feb. 27, we speak to actors Carl Lumbly (Leo Price) and Cathleen Riddley (Mrs. Jessalyn Price), who are mother and son. To listen, visit http://tobtr.com/s/7350903.

Lecture

“Legacy of Color: Marie Johnson Calloway in Conversation with Belva Davis” is March 8, 2-3:30 pm., at the Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., San Francisco. General admission is $10. Visit www.moadsf.org.

Exhibit

“Black Artists on Art: Legacy Exhibit – The Women’s Segment” opens March 6, 6-10 p.m., at Oakstop, 1721 Broadway, Oakland. Visit www.oakstop.com and www.blackartistsonart.com.

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.

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