Longing for Timbuktu

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to go to Timbuktu.

On those oppressive summer days during school vacations, when everything at home left me unimpressed, I would venture into the outside world. We used to live in a small town in those days, with open spaces and lush foliage. I’d go outside and roam around a world that was a source of many mysteries. Sometimes I’d sit on the curb for hours, watching the odd car pass by on the single road that went through town, guessing travelers’ final destinations.

But soon, the excitement would start to wear off, and I’d head back. Upon my return, my mother would be furious. To a 7-year old, the sight of his livid mother is terrifying enough, and to add to my misery, she’d threaten me by saying, “If you go out without telling me ever again, I’ll send you to Timbuktu.” I’d be left reeling from the devastating blow of potential separation; but soon enough, as only mothers can, she’d take me in her arms and make me understand the dangers that lay waiting in the world outside. I’d promise her never to venture out again. I never really meant to keep those promises.

I’d spend the rest of the night thinking about this strange sounding place – this Tim-buk-tu. Half thrilled and half terrified, I’d imagine strolling through it, amongst outlandish presences, tall demons, and eccentric languages, until sleep would take over. The next day would bring with it the familiar cycle of departure, wandering, and return.

For a long time in my life, Timbuktu signified a place of comeuppance and intrigue. And then, one day, it all ended: Timbuktu was no more.


Image credit: Wikipedia.org

Image credit: Wikipedia.org


I was devastated.

Before confusion gets the better of you, let me offer a clarification: Timbuktu as a territorial reality still exists, but Timbuktu the alien land had ceased.

We long to search for the exotic. The strange cuisine, the odd customs, and foreign languages hold sway over us. This is perhaps because the quotidian bounds of home dissolve all sense of time and space. In a world ruled by time-ripping daggers, you can be everywhere – there’s less and less reason to be anywhere.

And so, we travel. I read somewhere once:

“We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.”

The itch for adventure in this ersatz world remains strong, and we lunge towards foreign places and cultures in an effort to experience novelty in a time where ‘new’ simultaneously signifies everything and nothing.

The seemingly incompatible desires to stay put and move away are central to the human experience. But they have taken on a new meaning in this post, post-modern world.

Uprooted from our territorial abodes, we’re now strangers everywhere, fated to be the perennial outsiders who never fit in. Home has become what you can remember: “the search for a place in which happiness may be found, is always a metaphor for the search to recover a memory of happiness.”

Image credit: NationalGeographic.com

Image credit: NationalGeographic.com

Consequently, homelessness, at its core, also becomes an exercise in reminiscence. But even in this exercise, some lucky ones can choose to travel; others are not so fortunate. You see, not all wanderers are the same.

It is one thing to fantasize about traveling far away from home, and quite another to live the life of an émigré. As is the case with human recall, we can’t erect home in its entirety only from memory. The only home we can have is a fragmented, imaginary facsimile; this is all the exile, the immigrant, the refugee can cling to.

This is a brutal idea.  And yet, landing on other shores can move you in impossible ways. There’s a reason the more erudite souls of our times have mostly been exiles: Joyce, Said, Faiz, pick a name –and you are bound to see brilliance trickling through the wounds of exile.

Displaced from our natural addresses, we are wanton paramours, searching for a lost feeling. Confined by the bounds of our own progress, home is a memory that is as much a creation from the outside-in as from the inside-out.

If that’s the case, there might still be hope for me. Round the next corner of my memory, maybe I’ll find a path that will take me back to Timbuktu.



Syed Rashid Munir is a LUMS alumnus and an Erasmus Mundus Scholar, with an interest in exploring memory as history through travel narratives. For more poetry, fiction and reportage on the theme of home and homelessness check out the latest issue of Papercuts “Home is not a place.”