Review by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)
Aimée and Zoe, African American twin teenagers, accompany their father to Timbuktu, where he pursues historical research on the ancient Mali Empire. At first, the girls find traveling in the endless desert arduous, and the city of Timbuktu boring, with its sand-colored buildings and weird spires and spikes. But through the magie of a genie, Ifrit, they are catapulted back into 14th century Timbuktu, then a mecca of civilization. The girls embark upon adventures replete with tall, dark, handsome princes, caravans, Tuareg warriors, harems, a Griot, a sorcerer and a Sufi mystic. In the magnificent Mansa Kankan Musa’s Golden Empire, the girls learn many things about ancient Africa. Aimée, who tends to be bookish and fascinated by words, is told that she inherits the gift of the Griot from her Keita ancestors.
Aimée had always tended to view her sister, Zoe, as a Robin to her Batman, but Zoe finds her own strength in the desert and in the society of Timbuktu, especially when it comes to dancing and riding horses, and the girls gain a new mutual respect in their relationship. They often refer back to their future life as American students struggling with racism, self-esteem and an authoritative mother. In Mali, however, they are viewed as beautiful and precocious by a population who looks like them. Aimée knows how the future of West Africa will be affected by Europeans, and laments the fall of the great empire. But as Ifrit tells her, “All societies carry the seeds of their own destruction within them. Especially yours.”
The girls’ Arabian Nights adventures reach a dramatic arc when their father is accused of raping a beautiful colleague, Layla, and a fatwa is declared upon him. The terrified girls frantically try to convince court authorities to release their father. Fearful that they may be enslaved or killed themselves, they hatch schemes to escape alone across the desert, which are thwarted. If only Ifrit would appear and whisk them all back into the 21st century! But there are more lessons for them to learn. They are captured and brought back to Timbuktu, where they find Layla, who has recanted her love for their father, and finally the father is released. The lovers discover the healing transcendence of Sufism, and choose to follow that path instead of pursuing mortal love.
As a student of Sufism for many years, I was delighted by Wingard’s inclusion of the Sufi mystic, Sheikh Uthman in her panoply of fascinating figures. He wandered the 14th century world in the tradition of a dervish, or kalendar, bringing his wise words to many conversations, e.g.,”There are as many paths to God as there are breaths of man.”
Wingard’s tale brought back many memories of my time in Senegal, where I was fascinated by the griots, marabouts, djinns, and animists who seamlessly syncretize their traditional rituals with Islam, and where I read many books about empires like Mali, Songhai, Segu, Ghana, and the legendary King Sundiata. I share Wingard’s viewpoint, as would most Peace Corps writers, about her experience in Nigeria:
… as a peace Corps volunteer living in a traditional West African Muslim town, I became aware that many aspects of daily life had not changed significantly in hundreds of years. Scenes and experiences from my own life-changing time travel adventure in Africa found their way into my story.
The author’s voice modulates between that of the extremely knowledgeable father, and Aimée, who questions everything, but most often she sounds like a Griot, who tells new variations of old stories.
Suffering and exertion is the lot of the Griot. Are you collecting good stories? The best will stir the blood, even the congealed blood of the long dead.
Present day Mali, long viewed as a model of democracy, recently underwent a military coup that toppled the elected government of Amadou Tomani Touré over the rebellion of Tuareg rebels in the north, who have now been infiltrated by Al Quaeda operatives. We may well wonder how the future of Mali will evolve. There is still a huge store of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu that hold the history of ancient empires since before the 11th century. They are protected and recopied by descendants of illustrious ancestors. If Mali carries the seeds of its own destruction, we can only hope that they will not sprout.
The Turn-around Bird is perfectly edited, polished by many hands, like the talisman itself, which is fashioned from rough clay and burnished into a bronze objet d’art. Its symbolism - a hornbird whose head and long beak are turned around towards its tail - has many meanings, but the most obvious one seems to be “Know what to pick up from your past.”
Wingard challenges the reader’s reaction to Magic, the suspension of credulity between the Real and the Imaginary. “Griots tell stories that may or may not be literally true, but in that way they preserve absolute truth.” Young adults may find it easier to weave Fact into Fantasy, but readers of any age who believe in Magic will love this book.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. She wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, (amazon.com) and is working on a memoir of Haiti.