The young woman appeared among the jacaranda trees of the garden café wearing tight jeans and a pink T-shirt. She smiled nervously, and I understood how the Green Beret had fallen for her. Aisha (not her real name) was 23 years old, petite, with a slender figure. She worked as a waitress. Her jet black skin was unblemished except for delicate ritual scars near her temples, which drew attention to her large, catlike eyes.
We met across from the Flame of Peace, a monument built from some 3,000 guns burned and encased in concrete. It commemorates the 1996 accord that ended the rebellion waged by Tuareg and Arabs against the government, the last time outright war visited Timbuktu.
Aisha pulled five tightly folded pieces of paper from her purse and laid them on the table next to a photograph of a Caucasian man with a toothy smile. He appeared to be in his 30s and was wearing a royal blue Arab-style robe and an indigo turban. “That is David,” she said, lightly brushing a bit of sand from the photo.
They had met in December 2006, when the U.S. had sent a Special Forces team to train Malian soldiers to fight AQIM. David had seen her walking down the street and remarked to his local interpreter how beautiful she was. The interpreter arranged an introduction, and soon the rugged American soldier and the Malian beauty were meeting for picnics on the sand dunes ringing the city and driving to the Niger River to watch the hippos gather in the shallows. Tears welled in Aisha’s eyes as she recounted these dates. She paused to wipe her face. “He only spoke a little French,” she said, laughing at the memory of their awkward communication.
Aisha’s parents also came from starkly different cultures. Her mother’s ancestors were Songhai, among the intellectuals who helped create Timbuktu’s scholarly tradition. Her father, a Fulani, descended from the fierce jihadis who seized power in the early 1800s and imposed sharia in Timbuktu. In Aisha’s mind, her relationship with David continued a long tradition of mingling cultures. Many people pass through Timbuktu, she said. “Who is to say who Allah brings together?”
Two weeks after the couple met, David asked her to come to the United States. He wanted her to bring her two-year-old son from a previous relationship and start a life together. When her family heard the news, her uncle told David that since Aisha was Muslim, he would have to convert if he wanted to marry her. To his surprise, David agreed.
Three nights before Christmas, David left the Special Forces compound after curfew and met one of Aisha’s brothers, who drove him through the dark, twisting streets to the home of an imam. Through an interpreter the imam instructed the American to kneel facing Mecca and recite the shahadah three times: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” He gave the soldier a Koran and instructed him to pray five times a day and to seek Allah’s path for his life.
When David returned to the compound, his superiors were waiting for him. They confined him to quarters for violating security rules. Over the next week, he was not allowed to mix with the other Green Berets nor permitted to see Aisha, but he was able to smuggle out three letters. One begins: “My dearest [Aisha], Peace be upon you. I love you. I am a Muslim. I am very happy that I have been shown the road to Allah, and I wouldn’t have done it without meeting you. I think Allah brought me here to you …” He continues: “I am not to leave the American house. But this does not matter. The Americans cannot keep me from Allah, nor stop my love for you. Allahu Akbar. I will return to the States on Friday.”
Aisha never saw him again. He sent two emails from the United States. In the last message she received from him, he told her that the Army was sending him to Iraq and that he was afraid of what might happen. She continued to email him, but after a month or so her notes began bouncing back.
As she spoke, Aisha noticed tears had fallen onto the letters. She smoothed them into the paper and then carefully folded up the documents. She said she would continue to wait for David to send for her. “He lives in North Carolina,” she said, and the way she pronounced North Carolina in French made me think she imagined it to be a distant and exotic land.
I tried to lighten her mood, teasing that she had better be careful or Abdel Kader Haidara would hear of her letters. After all, they are Timbuktu manuscripts, and he will want them for his library. She wiped her eyes once more. “If I can have David, he can have the letters.”
Uncertain EndingsA month after I left Timbuktu, Mali officials, under pressure from the French government, freed four AQIM suspects in exchange for the Frenchman. The Italian couple was released, as were the Spanish aid workers after their government reportedly paid a large ransom. Since then AQIM has kidnapped six other French citizens. One was executed. At press time five remained in captivity somewhere in the desert. The marabout and his family disappeared from their home. Rumor spread that he had been recruited by the One-Eye to be his personal marabout.
I emailed David, who was serving in Iraq and is no longer in the Special Forces. He wrote back a few days later. “That time was extremely difficult for me, and it still haunts me.” He added, “I haven’t forgotten the people I met there, quite the contrary, I think of them often.”
I called Aisha and told her that he was still alive. That was months ago. I haven’t heard any more from David, but Aisha still calls, asking if there is any news. Sometimes her voice is drowned out by the rumble of the salt trucks; sometimes I hear children playing or the call to prayer. At times Aisha cries on the phone, but I have no answers for the girl from Timbuktu.
Source: National Geographic Magazine Online