January 29, 2013

Priceless West African manuscripts destroyed in Timbuktu; Also a human being or two


Tuareg nationalists from Northern Mali. You can tell them apart from their Islamist allies by the headwraps, and because they are not surrounded by flaming irreplaceable manuscripts.

Whatever you may think about the politics of the French (and British and U.S.) military intervention in Mali, the latest news out of recently re-taken northern capital Timbuktu is a tragedy. Two libraries housing manuscripts — most dating from the 14th through 16th centuries — were burned by retreating Islamist militia forces. It is such a loss, in fact, that reaction is drowning out other tragedies.

As French and Malian forces moved into the city Monday and Tuesday, reports were still spotty. One detail that was carried by both the Times and the Guardian came by way of Timbuktu’s mayor Hallé Ousmani Cissé, exiled for the past ten months in Bamako to the South. He reports that he’s has news from a civilian fleeing the city days earlier that in addition to destroying the city’s many Sufi shrines, militants first slept in, and then put fire to, an older library and the Ahmad Babu Institute, built in 2009 to undertake the scanning and restoration of the region’s unique archive of manuscripts.

From the Guardian:

The vast majority of the texts were written in Arabic. A few were in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara. There was even one in Hebrew. They covered a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women’s rights. The oldest dated from 1204.

The Guardian piece on the burning of the libraries has been widely disseminated online — far more than other articles in their extensive coverage of the conflict — and has a long and vituperative comment thread. The caliber of commentary in response to the article is … predictable. It is a peculiarity of online discourse that incidents of book burning tend to inspire near-illiterate levels of vitriol. And that’s not all bad. There really are few more immediately risible crimes. Essop Pahad, chairman of the South African Manuscripts project, sums up the reaction most eloquently:

“The manuscripts gave you such a fantastic feeling of the history of this continent. They made you proud to be African. Especially in a context where you’re told that Africa has no history because of colonialism and all that. Some are in private hands but the fact is these have been destroyed and it’s an absolute tragedy.”

He added: “It’s one of our greatest cultural treasure houses. It’s also one of the great treasure houses of Islamic history. The writings are so forward-looking on marriage, on trade, on all sorts of things. If the libraries are destroyed then a very important part of African and world history are gone. I’m so terribly upset at hearing what’s happened. I can’t think of anything more terrible.”

Perhaps I can help. If I could point Mr. Pahad back to an earlier sentence in the same Guardian article in which he is quoted, about the retreat of the militia:

“There was one guy who was celebrating in the street and they killed him.”



Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.