gallery_smith_chris_timbuktu_4x6(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Teenager at the Grand Market. Timbuktu, Mali, 2007.

Legendary places rarely conform to expectations. The pyramids in Giza are just as massive as you’d think but, at the same time, they’re strangely underwhelming, as if decades of camera-toting visitors had robbed them of their power.

Timbuktu—shorthand for back of beyond—is just as satisfyingly remote as you might hope, a dun-colored labyrinth on the edge of the Sahara. It’s been a bad couple of years for Timbuktu, though. There’s the global financial crisis—getting to northern Mali is neither easy nor cheap. Worse, Colombian cartels now ship drugs to Europe via West Africa, and Timbuktu, at the crossroads where Mali, Algeria, and Mauritania meet, is a prime spot on the smugglers’ route. There is also the regional Al Qaeda franchise, which has set up camp in the lawless deserts north of the city. They’ve kidnapped or killed both Westerners and locals. Just after New Year’s, a bomber hit the French embassy in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

Local friends tell me that much of the violence (such as the murder of a cop in the center of Timbuktu a couple of years ago) is just criminal score-settling, nothing political about it. Washington, D.C. appears to think otherwise. Special Forces teams are training the Malian army in counterinsurgency, along with the “hearts and minds” work of inoculating children and meeting with village elders. Indeed, the U.S. presence is small, but it’s noticeable. At the airport in Bamako, I watched an unmarked, narwhal-gray transport plane taxi to a stop the next runway over. The men who emerged had a distinctively American swagger, little flags on their flight suits.