The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson Goes to “Mali”

Where to begin with the foolishness that is Jon Lee Anderson’s recent article on Mali in the New Yorker? Maybe with my own disclosure. Before it was published, one of the magazine’s fact-checkers called me about the piece, essentially asking if one could leap from ibn Battuta’s vision of the Mali empire in the 14th-century to the Republic of Mali’s crisis today. Errr… She was dubious. Me too, and I think we were both a little frustrated. It can’t be easy to be a fact-checker for a Famous Author. The result is the muddled interpretation that “slavery has dominated [Mali’s] history, with the lighter-skinned Arab-descended peoples of the north often in positions of control over the darker-skinned Africans of the south.” Nifty to have a fact-checker, but you’re still responsible for your own bullshit.

I don’t know Jon Lee Anderson. He writes well. He did a book on Afghanistan that I appreciated. I couldn’t take it quite as seriously, though, after a Brooklyn-based correspondent who had spent a lot of time there told me that Anderson’s skin-tight jeans made him the butt of many a joke. Apparently during interviews, guys with Kalashnikovs would grab his ass. I don’t have a fact-checker to scope that out for me. Maybe it’s not true.

I do know a bit about Mali, but I hardly recognize Anderson’s version of it. There is a strange tail-wagging quality to his article—as in the tail wagging the dog, and the inconsequential muscling out the meaningful. The best parts of Anderson’s Afghanistan work drew straight-forwardedly on conversations with Afghans rendered in his dry, precise prose. In this piece, even people who talk sense and who know what they are talking about are drowned out by the sensational and by Anderson’s own pre-conceived but poorly supported ideas. So here are a few facts.

Mali is not another French neo-colony that “has never quite managed to maintain its existence as a sovereign state.” It’s been proudly independent for fifty years, which is partly why calling on the French to intervene was a very bitter pill to swallow (although I stand by my argument that it was strong but necessary medicine). The country is not riven by “a racial divide, which effectively split[s] the country in two.” Nor has it known “centuries of subjugation,” only—as Anderson points out—roughly eighty years of colonial rule. They did not produce a submissive population. It is true that there is a set of old colonial statues on Kuluba, the “great hill” that overlooks Bamako and on which the presidential palace sits. Anderson reads a lot into this little park, which Alpha Oumar Konaré, historian and former president (1992-2002), set up and made into a space for reflection, as the statue of a boy and girl reading (image above), smack in the center of the park, indicate. Is it a colonial theme park? Not exactly. Amongst the colonial debris towers a list of “martyred cities and towns,” all victims of the French conquest between 1878 and 1920. The list faces out towards the road, and serves as a point of entry into the portico. The statues Konaré set up in the city center—for the murdered student leader Abdoul Karim Camara known as ‘Cabral’ (d. 1980), for the assassinated president Modibo Keita (r. 1960-68, d. 1977), for Peace and for African Unity—better represent spatially his particular blend of democratic, nationalist, and pan-Africanist politics. “Do statues of King Léopold still stand in Kinshasa?,” Anderson asks rhetorically. Yes, but it’s been stashed out of sight, and that of Henry Morton Stanley would seem to be reclining. Across the river, Brazzaville recently built a creepy mausoleum for Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, humanitarian explorer or rapist, depending on whom you ask. Of course, none of that makes good copy, and it clutters Anderson’s argument.

Here’s some more clutter. France did lose a helicopter pilot early in the campaign. He was shot, but not shot down. He apparently bled to death from a wound in his thigh. That might be a distinction without a difference. Other things do matter. While it’s true that Chad “announced that two AQIM chiefs,” namely Moktar Belmoktar and Abou Zeid “had been killed,” it’s not true that they were killed. Abou Zeid died, probably in a French airstrike in support of Chadian troops on the ground. Moktar Belmoktar did not. Maybe the fact-checker called the Press Office in N’Djamena. Another phone call or two might have helped.

Here’s another fact, even more relevant: Mali does have more than a few “leaders of note,” although it is true that the political scene is quite divided. There were twenty-eight candidates for the presidential elections to be held later this month, until one of the most qualified of them—Tiébilé Dramé, who had recently been the lead negotiator in rebels in Ouagadougou—pulled out this week. Anderson talked to Dramé, who is fluent in English. I hope he was counted among the “leaders of note.” There are a host of others, from the eminent Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to the less-known Moussa Mara, not forgetting the intellectuals, the elders, and those active in, yes, civil society (Aminata Dramane Traore? Fatoumata Sira Diakité?).

But why bother to track them down, when you’ve arranged an interview with a guy who does vulgar dances in Timbuktu using—shall we say—special equipment? Hats off to Anderson, I suppose, for giving us a vision of Timbuktu that goes beyond mosques and manuscripts, but was it worth embedding with a column of French marines to get a few column inches on a guy with a godemiché (excuse my French)? The man is not a griot, but a woloso, or hosso—someone “born into the house” as a slave, someone who can use his own supposed shamelessness to extort his “honorable” noble “betters.” Anderson actually does a pretty good job of describing this phenomenon, without explaining it. The thing is, griots are not slaves. In fact, in the days of slavery, griots—like blacksmiths and other casted artisans—could not be enslaved. At least that’s what they said, and when you’re the keeper of the tradition, everything’s about you. And maybe that, in a long circuitous way, is the moral of Anderson’s story.

In the end, Anderson manages to explain nothing. It’s a puzzling piece, because Anderson is known as a matter-of-fact, phlegmatic reporter, while the New Yorker is known for its cartoons, not its caricatures. Still, it could have been worse. Heaven knows that the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff is filing from Mali now. The message, for anyone who can bear to read Kristoff, will be “Malians Are Miserable And You Can Help.” Thank God for the New York Review of Books.

Further Reading