Sunday, May 25, 2014

The book rustlers of Timbuktu: how Mali's ancient manuscripts were saved from Islamist fanatiics

When Mali's historic city was taken by rebels, thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts came under threat. We report on a dangerous operation to smuggle the archive to safety

At 5am on a Sunday morning, Mohamed Diagayeté was disturbed by an urgent banging on the door of his house in Timbuktu, on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. It was a friend from the army: a heavily armed group of rebels had arrived at the city boundary, he told him; he'd done everything he could and must leave the city immediately. The soldier ran off to ditch his uniform and returned a few minutes later in civvies, intent on taking refuge in Diagayeté's house. Shortly afterwards, the first gunshots rang out over the city. "We could hear them firing. Bok! Bok! Bok," Diagayeté, an archivist, remembers. Before noon, a convoy of rebel pick-ups swept into the undefended town.

So began the 10-month occupation of Timbuktu, first by Tuareg separatist rebels, then by their fellow-travellers Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), a jihadist affiliate of al-Qaida. It was a time of devastation in northern Mali: first the rebels pillaged the town, then the jihadis imposed a brutal form of sharia law on the population. Women were beaten for walking in the company of men. Music, a vibrant part of Malian culture that has been exported all over the world, was banned. Suspected thieves had their hands or feet chopped off after summary trials.

The largely moderate Muslims of Timbuktu were terrified. "When [the rebels] entered the city, people said if you were an artist they would cut out your tongue, because they hate music and want to ban it," Bintu Dara, a singer, tells me in the Malian capital, Bamako. "One of my cousins was beaten in front of me, given 100 lashes from the jihadis," she says. "My drum player was caught and put in jail. One of my relatives' sons was the first guy to have his hand cut off." Dara fled soon after, along with an estimated two-thirds of Timbuktu's citizens.

Timbuktu is a Unesco-listed world heritage site and the spiritual capital of sub-Saharan Africa; agonisingly, many of the cultural artefacts that gave the city its identity were destroyed or damaged. The shrines of Sufi saints were hacked to pieces and some priceless medieval manuscripts were burnt or stolen from the state archive. After the jihadists fled in the face of advancing French and Malian troops in January last year, the mayor of Timbuktu, Hallé Ousmane Cissé, revealed that the city's precious archive had been torched. What Cissé didn't know, however, was that, while several thousand manuscripts had been destroyed or looted, hundreds of thousands more had been smuggled to safety by an unlikely band of bibliophiles.

Abdel Kader Haïdara is a tall, 50-year-old librarian who wears a moustache and a pillbox kufi prayer cap. Over sweet mint tea in his office at the end of a red-earth road in the south-west of Bamako, Haïdara tells me the story of how he masterminded the smuggling of the manuscripts to safety from under the noses of the jihadists. "Before the hour of their arrival, we didn't think the rebels would come to Timbuktu," he says. "People were a bit scared but they didn't feel there was any great danger. They didn't make any kind of preparations.

"The first week of the occupation, there was a lot of shooting. The fighting was intense and everyone stayed in their houses." When he felt it was safe, he took a walk around the town and was shocked by what he saw. "I saw something that made me very, very afraid," he says. "I saw total insecurity. There were people of all ages looting the buildings, taking tables, chairs, air-conditioning units, anything they could find. What they didn't take they were smashing up. "It was a great catastrophe. I knew that, if people continued like that, one day they would enter our library and smash up everything."


Timbuktu today is a sleepy collection of mud-brick houses that sits low in the ever-tightening embrace of the Sahara. Old men lead donkeys along sand-choked streets where children play barefoot and goats sift through the rubbish strung out along the roadside, eating everything they can find. But from the early 14th to late 16th centuries Timbuktu was famous for its wealth. It grew rich by virtue of its location at the northernmost bend of the river Niger, between the gold mines to the south and the salt mines in the Sahara. It has been estimated that in the 14th century two-thirds of the world's gold came from west Africa, a large proportion of it passing through Timbuktu, where it was transferred from the river to trans-Saharan caravans, from canoe to camel.
But Timbuktu was to become most famous as a centre of scholarship. In 1325, the fabulously wealthy emperor of Mali, Musa I, travelled to Mecca carrying a tonne of gold as spending money. "[He] set off in great pomp with a large party, including 60,000 soldiers and 500 slaves, who ran in front of him as he rode," one of the Timbuktu chronicles relates of Musa's hajj. "Each of his slaves bore in his hand a wand fashioned from 500 mithqal [about 2kg] of gold." On his return to Mali, Musa ordered the building of a grand mosque at Timbuktu.
Another great mosque was added in the Sankore quarter of the city a few years later, and the surrounding area became a centre for Islamic teaching. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that by 1450 Timbuktu had a population of 100,000, a quarter of whom were students. Even if these figures are wildly exaggerated, Timbuktu was a thriving centre of learning, and manuscripts were highly prized: the traveller Leo Africanus, who visited in 1510, found books sold for more money than any other merchandise in the city's market.
Books reached Timbuktu by caravan from Fez and Cairo, Tripoli and Córdoba, and what the scholars couldn't afford, they would copy. Other documents were written in Timbuktu. The vast libraries that resulted included every subject: astronomy and medicine, law, theology, grammar and proverbs. There were biographical dictionaries, diaries, letters between rulers and subjects; legal opinions on slavery, coinage, marriage and divorce; the lives of Muslims, Jews and Christians; there were histories and poetry.
In 1591, the army of the sultan of Marrakech conquered the city. The libraries were looted and the most accomplished scholars killed or carried back to Morocco; the manuscript collections were hidden in holes in the sand, lost or destroyed on their way to Morocco. Tens of thousands more, however, were secreted behind the mud-brick walls of Timbuktu's family homes, to be handed down through the generations.
Abdel Haïdara now controls the largest privately held library of documents in the city, one he traces to a 16th-century ancestor; he also runs an organisation, Savama-DCI, that represents other private manuscript collections. Successive generations of Haïdaras have added to the family archive over the centuries, as his father did – by his own hand or with purchases made on his travels.
As the rebels approached, Haïdara knew the libraries would be vulnerable to looters: they were relatively large, prestigious buildings. So he began contacting families and told them to work out how to move their manuscripts into their homes. He bought steel lockers and, in the quiet of the afternoons when the jihadis were resting, the librarians and their assistants took the boxes to the libraries and began carefully transferring the manuscripts. "We brought them back to the family homes little by little," he says.
Mohamed Alkadi S Maïga describes how he worked: "People went to sleep after 2 o'clock in the afternoon. So between 2 and 4 o'clock, I went to the institute and we took the manuscripts out and put them into the bags. At night we looked for a push-push – a hand cart – and brought the bags to the house of our colleague." Over the next fortnight they made so many visits to the colleague's house that he feared they would be caught. "We realised we might be discovered by the Islamists because there was a lot of going back and forth, and then I got afraid and said we had to stop this," he says. He contacted the director of the state-owned Ahmed Baba Institute, who gave him a new house to transfer the manuscripts to, and the work continued. Maïga later moved an estimated 30,000 manuscripts for the institute.
His main concern was that the militants might think he was stealing. "I worried that if the jihadists caught me then maybe they would cut my hands off," he says... read more:
See also

Sambhaji Brigade vandalised the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune in 2004

Bangladeshi teacher arrested for placing 'Lajja' in school library

Sri Lanka, thirty one years after: Burning of the Jaffna Public Library, May 1981


First NDA government's (1998) brazen attempt to 'revise' Gandhi's Collected Works. Read the history of the controversy; and Tridip Suhrud’s (director of Sabarmati Ashram) detailed analysis (EPW November 2004). The fraudulently 'revised' edition of the CWMG was withdrawn in 2005