I realized neither Isaac nor his family had foreseen a drastic change in Mali's Islamic power structure. Events in the north echoed what unfolded in this region in the early 19th century with the short-lived rise of jihadi Islam.
After a few minutes of silence Isaac said, "We may have to move the family."
"Maybe Mopti or Bamako. We don't know. My sister wants my parents to live with her." Isaac's sister lived in Mopti, the regional capital.
"That might be a good idea," I said. "Until things calm down."
From the looks of things in Bandiagara, however, that calm might be a long time coming. Soldiers stood guard behind sandbags all about town. Government agencies and aid organizations had removed identifying plaques, hoping to escape notice of rebel looters, and many offices were shuttered. The people of Bandiagara, like most of Mali, are Muslims of a tolerant persuasion. Mali is a Sunni Muslim country, known for its Sufi traditions guided by the Quran while recognizing mystical worship that gives individuals room to define their spiritual pathway by personal experience and revelation, including through music and poetry. In Timbuktu and other northern Malian towns, many Sufi saints are enshrined in mausoleums. In this atmosphere, since the fall of the Toucouleur Empire, the Dogon have thrived. Today they number about half a million.
But the Islamists who now control northern Mali are Salafists, who live by a strict reading of the Quran and the life of the Prophet Mohammed. They discourage icons and music because such things distract worshippers from devotion to God. In April, the jihadists began destroying the Sufi mosques and mausoleums of Timbuktu and the city of Gao. It's unclear what has happened to the 700,000 ancient manuscripts -- papers that detail the story of Islam in West and North Africa -- in the old libraries of Timbuktu. Even worse, however, is the jihadi program of public amputations for thieves and executions, by stoning, of unmarried couples who bear children out of wedlock. Public flogging awaits anyone caught consuming alcohol.
Bandiagara has a few bars normally marked by neat placards advertising Heineken, Castel Beer, and Coca-Cola, but the signs were now gone. The hotels had closed. Tourism on the Bandiagara plateau had taken off in recent years. But now schools, too, had shut down. Shops were open, but without signs or any hint of the sale of alcohol or sweet drinks. I wondered whether the people of Bandiagara knew something the rest of us didn't, as if they carried history with them instinctively.
Just a few miles from here, in 1864, in the village of Hamdallaye, Umar Tall died during a broad uprising of Tuaregs, Arabs, Fulanis, and Bambara against his Toucouleur forces. He fell not in battle, but in the explosion of a gunpowder cache. According to one historian, when Umar Tall's soldiers conquered new territory, he ordered them to bring before him idols he would smash to pieces with an iron mace. After his death, Tidiani Tall, his nephew, moved the Toucouleur capital to higher ground here in Bandiagara, where it remained as capital until the French conquered what they would call the colony of French Sudan, today known as Mali.
Tall is to Mali a little like what Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy, is to the United States: a vaguely familiar name to many, a total unknown to most, but a frightening reminder of a past that has left unsettled business for a few others.
Take my friend, Isaac. He grew up in a Dogon village below the plateau and went to high school in Bandiagara. He knows all about Umar Tall and the jihadi threat. He speaks three languages, French, Bambara, and his native Dogon, as well as a little Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg. Together we spoke French and he promised to take me into the cliff villages to talk to people about what had happened to Mali and about the jihadi threat.
"The Dogon country cannot be invaded," he said. "We are a good defense against the rebels. You'll see. I'll show you."
Isaac was telling me this as we drove through town, drawing looks from soldiers and townspeople. No one in Bandiagara had seen anyone like me since January, when the rebellion in the north broke out and foreigners evacuated. Sitting beside Isaac, I wore simple clothing to be less conspicuous, including a short-sleeve shirt and a ball cap. We stopped at the offices of an American evangelical aid group Isaac had once worked for, where he picked up the keys to the guesthouse where we would sleep. The offices were in a villa surrounded by high concrete walls and shaded by eucalyptus trees that grew inside the compound. As we entered, Isaac's old colleagues greeted him warmly but in haste. They were busy boxing up files and office supplies, the framework of rural health and literacy programs Isaac had helped build. Some files would be trucked to Bamako and the rest burned. Outside in the dirt street a large pile of paper burned silently, flames whipped by a hot wind. A man kept returning from inside the villa with a cardboard box full of paper to dump on the fire, trying to erase evidence of the agency's presence. "We can't take any chances," he said to me.
When we left the compound, Isaac was near tears. "I spent many happy days in villages working side by side with these people."