I fell for the name “Timbuktu” long ago, before my own terrors and before Sept. 11 ushered in America’s collective agoraphobia. Now I’m finally in the dusty city that prompted no less an Afrophile than Bob Geldof to wonder, “Is this it?”

Timbuktu is a sad place, dispirited and angry. The most visible signs of its faded glory are the ugly sheets of corrugated metal that adorn most doorways. The doors here were legend, massive wooden portals with ornate silver workings. Tourists have bought them off the hinges. In 10 years, there won’t be a door in Timbuktu.

The harmattan wind keeps a constant layer of silt in the air, a light-diffusing mist that softens the squalor. Camels—who for some reason always remind me of Mick Jagger—blink contentedly in the shade of sparse trees. A mud-brick wall is tagged with graffiti. “Masta Wu Tang.”

I am here. This is it.

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