YOU'VE probably heard the name of this town. But when? Why? It's just a dusty little town far from everywhere else. Yet it's one of the best-known and least-visited towns in the world.
To many non-Africans, Timbuktu is a word for far away, end-of-the-earth, mystery, desert. It's all of that.
Like many people, I grew up knowing the name of this place without knowing where in the world it was.
Or that one day my wife, Betty, and I would walk its sandy streets, swatting flies, greeting adults while trying to elude the more pesky of the kids demanding cadeaux (gifts of money).
As you walk, history pops out at you. Plaques mark the residences of early European explorers. Mud mosques somehow survive after hundreds of years, their framework-support poles poking out of their minarets like toothpicks in hors d'oeuvres. But mostly, Timbuktu is people.
We meet Aissata Sangare, a secretary, who dreams of traveling to see the world; George and Baraka, two of the many young, self-appointed Malian guides who wait and wait at the two nearly empty hotels for tourists who seldom come; a policeman who welcomes us, then speaks angrily about Tuareg rebels in this region.
There are few signs of modernity in Timbuktu, though wealthier families enjoy home videos and electricity from the town generator. And there is an airport. But with just a bit of effort, you can imagine yourself far back in a time without cars and electricity - a time of Sahara-crossing camel caravans, of swords, and turbans - all of which are still here.
Some things are changing. Our three-day visit coincided with an election day: Timbuktu's - and Mali's - first free election after a long history of kings and a more recent history of dictators. Casting their paper ballots (white for oui or yes, pink for non) are women in long, robe-like dresses and head scarves, men in full-length robes and, often, turbans that can be pulled up to cover all but the eyes, protection against wind-blown sand.
Turnout was low. Many people hadn't received their voter-identification cards in time. And there was stiff competition from a radio broadcast of an international soccer game. The votes, some of them counted by kerosene lamp in mosques, were nearly unanimous in favor of a new constitution allowing more than one political party.
Salem Ould el Hadj, an Islamic scholar at the Ahmed Baba Center here, says, "We've had several administrations [in Mali] that left no freedom to people. This is the first time in our history that the people, freely expressing their will, have drawn up a constitution. And with no force. Everyone is voting. So it's a historic day: important for multiparty [elections] and democracy."
In a corner room of the Ahmed Baba Center, a modest collection of small, one-story buildings on a sandy side street, researcher Ali Ould Sidi opens a glass case displaying books in Arabic dating back 500 and 600 years. He says the dry climate helps preserve them. The pages look almost new.
Timbuktu, he explains, was begun around AD 1080 by Tuareg, the nomads of the desert known in the French-speaking world as les hommes bleu, or blue men, for their indigo-colored turbans.
By around 1600, according to Ali Ould Sidi, Timbuktu was a thriving trade and academic center, with some 100,000 people, including a large enrollment at the University of Sankore. Some students came from as far away as Spain. Camel caravans arrived from the Sahara, bringing salt and other items for trade.
Today, Timbuktu has only about 23,000 people, he says. The caravans still come, but only a few. Until the rebellion by the Tuaregs flared up a couple of years ago, truck traffic was the most common mode of transportation. Since then, rebel attacks on travelers have limited access primarily to boats on the Niger River and planes.
Timbuktu, long isolated from most of the outside world by distance, found itself isolated by politics. But a recent treaty between the government and the autonomy-seeking Tuaregs in Mali brings hope of a lasting settlement.
The rebellion has not only disrupted travel and tourism, it has affected daily life here as well.
"People are afraid," says Suliman Traore, an English teacher, who invited us for meals at his home. "Before the rebellion ... there were really good relationships between [local Tuaregs and non-Tuaregs]."
BUT when a well-known Tuareg resident was killed in December, in reprisal for a Tuareg rebel attack on Timbuktu, many Tuaregs fled the town. Non-Tuaregs feared traveling outside the city, especially at night. A curfew was imposed.
Ms. Sangare found herself feeling more isolated here than ever. "I really dream of going overseas. The United States would be nice, or France. I really dream of traveling. But I don't have the money. I want to discover the world," she says.
Her father, a retired civil servant who farms, explains that despite years of drought, people manage to get enough to eat because of foreign-financed irrigation systems near Timbuktu that were built more than a dozen years ago.
"People are able to produce, so agriculture is doing well now," he says, as sheep bleat loudly in his courtyard.
His house, like most here, is built of mud brick, abutting its neighbors. Furnishings in most homes are sparse. They are even more sparse in the stick and reed-mat-covered homes of the few Tuaregs who have not fled and continue living on the sand dunes outside of town.
Many Tuaregs displaced by the rebellion and facing drought are suffering in the desert today. Those still nearby are apprehensive, even the children.
"I'm afraid, I'm afraid," says little Fidi, a young Tuareg girl, as we walk toward a non-Tuareg settlement amid nearby dunes.
That afternoon, I walked out of town in another direction, just to feel the solitude of the desert. From atop a dune, Timbuktu was a faint dark ridge on the horizon. The sun filtered through the smudgy-gray, dust-filled air. For me, Timbuktu would soon fade from sight. But never again would it be just a name: It would now be people.