After a spate of kidnappings the past few years drove western tourists to
abandon Mali as a travel destination, one Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya
(IDC) student traveled there this month on a personal media and music
pilgrimage, with Israeli press credentials in tow.
Daniel Campos went to
Mali, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, for the Festival au Desert,
which ran January 12-14. The festival is a world-renowned gathering for fans of
traditional African music from the Saharan region and across the continent. In
2010, the festival was moved from the remote town of Essakane to an area of the
desert outside Timbuktu.
The move followed a string of kidnappings of
Western tourists by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which prompted the
government and organizers to have the concert held in an area where security
could be more easily ensured.
For years, Mali has played host to tens of
thousands of Western visitors in the winter months, who came to take in the
sights of Timbuktu, follow in the footsteps of the ancient Mali Empire and trek
along the vast Saharan landscapes of dunes and starry night skies.
the first of several kidnappings of Westerners began in 2008, the tourist
industry has crawled to a halt in Mali, where it was always something of a
lifeline for the desperately poor land-locked country in West Africa. After
gunmen killed a German citizen in Timbuktu in November and kidnapped five other
Europeans, the country became a no-go area for Western tourists, leaving Campos
and the other 5 intrepid Israelis he met on his trip among only around a 100
Westerners who braved the journey to the festival earlier this
When asked why he made the journey to Mali by way of Ethiopia this
month, the 26- year-old communications student said simply, “The
The IDC student runs a radio show called “No Borders Music,”
broadcast on Saturdays on Herzliya’s 106.2 FM. The show broadcasts across the
northern Dan region and focuses on tribal and traditional forms of music from
around the globe.
Campos convinced the IDC to help him receive press
credentials to cover the festival for his radio show, and he managed to make his
way to Mali with press credentials secured through an Israeli university radio
show, which also allowed him to take some highly valuable recording equipment
with him on the journey.
His press credentials included a badge he wore
around his neck that said, “Press – Israel” and an IDC microphone with Hebrew
lettering on it. With his official documents in tow, he said he was given access
to all areas of the festival, and was able to meet face-to-face with many of the
West African musicians who he said have been his heroes for years. These
included Habib Koite and Grammy Award nominee Bassekou-Kouyate, both of whom he
met and interviewed. In one of those recordings, Bassekou-Kouyate can be heard
welcoming Israelis to visit Mali, and describing how music “is a medicine that
heals all people.”
Campos, who made aliya from Costa Rica in 2007,
related how, while he was holding his microphone, people “were coming up to me
asking what language is that. I’d say, “Hebrew, Israel,’ and they just didn’t
seem to know or care less.”
Campos has very strong feelings about what he
calls “BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] assholes” who call for foreign
musicians to boycott Israel.
On some level, it appears his trip was not
only a way to gain some experience doing fieldjournalism work and enjoying great
music, but also a way to launch his own personal antiboycott
“Artists who are not coming to play in Israel because they have
some impression of Israelis that they’re all fascists or closeminded, I think if
you got there, people see who you are. They’re just not very familiar with
He also said he feels it’s important that Israelis not group all
Muslims together, saying that he witnessed what he said was a very different
feeling toward Israel and Jews than in the Arab Muslim world.
the festival, he toured the countryside, taking pictures of the dirt roads
jammed with scooters, witch doctors practicing their trade in earthen pits,
construction sites funded by Gaddafi that were left abandoned when the NATO
campaign began, and the occasional Bin Laden bumper sticker.
anything else, he said he saw a destitute and beautiful country, full of people
who did not just see him as a walking ATM machine.
Campos did express
some sentiments that his “hasbara-ofone” motive seemed to remind others of
like-minded Israelis who took the path of outreach to their nation’s enemies and
paid a price. Still, Campos said he was well aware of the dangers posed by
kidnappings and armed groups in Mali, and said he kept his wits about him and
outside of the festival, he was typically cautious about saying where he was
He also pointed out that the Mali government and military took very
serious steps to secure the festival, and that the dunes surrounding the stages
and campsites were thick with heavily- armed soldiers on the watch for al-Qaida
gunmen. At the end of the day, the only dicey moments on his trip were a flat
tire while traveling through the Saharan Desert and a bout of food poisoning
brought on by some dodgy fried fish.
With the festival coming less than
two months after the German tourist’s murder, organizers did their best, as
Campos said, to show their appreciation for the few hardened travelers who made
their way to the festival.
One of these moments of appreciation was on
the final night of the concert, when an MC on stage called for all foreign
tourists to come on stage so they could be thanked for the crowd. As Campos
filmed, tourists walked across the stage one by one as the MC read their name
and called out the name of their home country. Finally, a young Israeli girl
named Lola, who Campos met in Ethiopia on the way to the festival, made her way
up to the stage. In a scene that Campos said was broadcast live on Mali
television, the MC called out “Lola, from Israel,” and the crowd
The show went on, there were no boos, no shots fired and,
watching the video, it appears that no one seemed to care. Minutes earlier,
Campos had taken Lola’s picture as she stood in the crowd next to a man in
military uniform who they were told was the chief of staff of the Mali Armed
Looking back on the trip, Campos said that even with the pricey
($1,500) journey by way of Ethiopia, Mali is a place that Israel’s famously
intrepid travelers should visit. He added that with Mali’s major benefactor
Gaddafi out of the picture, he believes that the anti-Israel sentiment that
exists in Mali will decline further.
“It’s for everyone, Mali, not just
people who are musicians.”