February 5, 2013
UPDATE: Timbuktu’s manuscripts may have been safely entombed after all
by Dustin Kurtz
As we wrote here on January 29th, there has been much concern in recent days about the status of many thousands of priceless manuscripts in the Malian city of Timbuktu. The city had been held for much of last year by a joint coalition of Tuareg nationalists and islamist extremists that have been battling with Mali’s government forces for control of the nation. According to reports, after Ansar al-Dine (Defenders of the Faith), with help from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had ejected secular Tuareg rebel factions from the city, they proceeded to impose strict Sharia law, including smashing the city’s famous Sufi shrines.
Little was known about what was taking place in Timbuktu, even after French and Malian government forces retook the city last week. Timbuktu’s mayor in exile Hallé Ousmani Cissé spoke to reporters, saying that he’d heard from an individual who had fled the city days earlier that the newly finished Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, where many priceless manuscripts are housed, had been the victim of arson by the retreating Salafist troops. The story caused outrage online: book-burning remains, thankfully, an incredible taboo.
Now, stories have begun to emerge that nearly all the manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba institute and the city’s many private collections may be safe. First Lila Adam Zanganeh wrote about the crisis for the New Yorker, noting reassurances that the many private collections were in fact safe, though the state of those manuscripts that had been housed in the Centre was still uncertain. Then, Monday, both Harper’s and the Global Post have followed up with the incredible news that in fact almost all of the manuscripts were secreted away even before the city had fallen to rebel groups.
In Harper’s Tristan McConnell spoke to Abdel Kader Haidara, leader of a coalition of families who own private manuscript archives. Haidara told him that before fleeing the city himself, he saw to the texts.
Haidara explained how he and a handful of volunteers had set about hiding Timbuktu’s manuscripts. Every night for a month, he and fifteen colleagues met to pack texts into small metal boxes, the size of a treasure chest, that they bought at the local market. They started with Haidara’s collection, then moved on to others. When Timbuktu ran out of boxes, Haidara ordered more from Mopti, two days away by boat on the Niger River. All told, he said, well over 1,000 boxes of manuscripts were squirreled away — buried beneath mud floors, hidden in cupboards and secret rooms in private houses, or sent upstream on the Niger in wooden boats.
All reports emphasize that the reason any manuscripts are extant in Timbuktu at all is that the city’s older families have had much practice at securing them from raiders of all kinds, most recently during centuries of French colonial rule. The manuscripts trace not only the heritage of a culture, but of individual families. They are heirlooms and their protection is, particularly for men like Haidera, a way of life.
All in all, this is heartening news. Any work being done on scanning and preserving the manuscripts has been delayed, yes. (Some of that work has been funded by the Library of Congress, and I urge you to look at some of the incredible samples available here, particularly if you harbor curiosity about issues that arise often in David Graeber’s Debt.) But even if all of the scattered manuscripts are not gathered together for the time being — and with continued turmoil in the region almost assured, they might yet be safest wherever they’ve been cached — it’s a thrill to see such a palimpsest of personal bravery written atop the region’s long sand-scoured literary history.
Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.