France invades Uqbar / Kush

As I more or less figured last April, today in the Washington Post we read:

French ground forces intervened Friday to help the sagging Malian army as it battles advancing Islamist fighters, opening a new and unexpectedly direct front in the confrontation between the West and al-Qaeda-allied guerrillas. 

... “We have chased the army out of the town of Konna,” Sanda Abou Mohamed, a spokesman for the Ansar Dine militia, told the Associated Press by telephone from the Islamist-held city of Timbuktu. But others reported late Friday that Mali’s forces had retaken the city.

Konna lies about 45 miles north of Mopti, the northernmost headquarters for Malian government military operations. French officials expressed fear that the Islamist forces, if they continue their advance, could capture Mopti and from there push forward to Bamako, the capital, more than 300 miles to the southwest.

Reading about strategically located Mali is little like reading the intentionally eye-glazing encyclopedia description of the land of Uqbar in Jorge Luis Borges' "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius:"

We read the article with some care. The passage recalled by Bioy was perhaps the only surprising one. The rest of it seemed very plausible, quite in keeping with the general tone of the work and (as is natural) a bit boring. Reading it over again, we discovered beneath its rigorous prose a fundamental vagueness. Of the fourteen names which figured in the geographical part, we only recognized three - Khorasan, Armenia, Erzerum - interpolated in the text in an ambiguous way. Of the historical names, only one: the impostor magician Smerdis, invoked more as a metaphor. The note seemed to fix the boundaries of Uqbar, but its nebulous reference points were rivers and craters and mountain ranges of that same region. We read, for example, that the lowlands of Tsai Khaldun and the Axa Delta marked the southern frontier and that on the islands of the delta wild horses procreate. All this, on the first part of page 918. In the historical section (page 920) we learned that as a result of the religious persecutions of the thirteenth century, the orthodox believers sought refuge on these islands, where to this day their obelisks remain and where it is not uncommon to unearth their stone mirrors. 


You can read here John Updike's bravura description of the fictional country of Kush in his 1978 novel The Coup. He modeled it on a number of Sahelian countries much like Mali. Kush is probably most like Niger, which is sort of the New Hampshire to Mali's Vermont.