Tuesday, January 3, 2017
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by Joshua Hammer
Some people may have heard the name Timbuktu, if only because it's a funny-sounding foreign place that gets used in tv shows from time to time. The history of Timbuktu is actually far more interesting. Timbuktu grew as a meeting place and crossroads for the trans-Saharan caravan trades. Salt, gold, silver, ivory, slaves, spices, and other products were shipped across Africa by camel and passed through the growing mercantile center of Timbuktu. As the city grew and became prosperous, lavish amounts of money were spent on education and intellectual development, especially after the arrival of Islam. The University of Sankore (a wonder in the game Civilization IV) was founded by Emperor Musa I of Mali and numerous manuscripts were produced there, but it was one of only many educational institutions in Timbuktu. Over time it became a status of wealth and social standing in Timbuktu to own and collect manuscripts creating a permanent intellectual culture. For centuries Timbuktu has cherished its reputation as a center of Islamic scholarship on subjects such as astronomy, mathematics, medicine, chemistry, religion, music, poetry, and law.
This isn't to say that things have always worked out well for Timbuktu. Invasions by groups such as the Moroccans and French forced Malians to hide their precious manuscripts from destruction or theft. Families would brick up their libraries, bury their manuscripts in desert caves, or otherwise hide their precious intellectual heritage from wanton despoilment by outsiders. With the arrival of the French the European assumption that all African civilizations were illiterate and ''barbarous'' pushed the manuscripts further into hiding. It was only with the end of colonization in the twentieth century that Mali began taking back their intellectual patrimony.
Abdel Haidara was the son of a prominent businessman who collected thousands of manuscripts over his lifetime. When his father died, Haidara was charged with the supervision and maintenance of the family collection, with explicit instruction to keep the collection unified. Haidara was not initially interested in curating the family's manuscripts, but he was recruited by the Ahmed Baba Institute, the government-run manuscript collection, preservation, and restoration center to go out and find manuscripts for the government collection. Haidara ran into great initial resistance from the local population to turning over their prized possessions to a government organization, especially after the blatant thefts by French colonizers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Eventually Haidara learned how to persuade Malians to part with their manuscripts and collected thousands for the Ahmed Baba Institute, before taking charge of his family's own collection Haidara was influential in kicking off a renaissance in manuscript collection and preservation in Timbuktu which led to some forty-five manuscript libraries being established in the city.
Unfortunately the chaos and political instability caused by regime change in neighboring Libya spilled over into Mali and led to the invasion of extremist Wahhabis to Timbuktu, affiliated with al Qaeda. The cosmopolitan intellectual culture of Timbuktu was anathema to al Qaeda's reactionary ideology and many in the city knew it was only a matter of time before they came after the city's manuscripts. Secretly Haidara activated an entire network of supports to collect and secure hundreds of thousands of the city's manuscripts and then ship them further south to safer locations. When al Qaeda was forced to leave the city by government forces, they regrettably burned some four thousand manuscripts, but the remainder of the city's three hundred seventy thousand manuscripts had been saved.
I do like the story of people working desperately to save their cultural heritage in the face of adversity and it's reassuring to know that people were able to save this very important part of African and Muslim history. Unfortunately the book doesn't spend all its time focusing on that. I kind of wished for more history about intellectual culture in Timbuktu as well as about the rescue operations of manuscripts in recent years. There's a good portion covered in the book, but it feels rather light for a book-length subject. Hammer spends a lot of time talking about the political and military situation in Mali, which is definitely necessary context, but it feels somewhat excessive. There's also considerable focus placed on al Qaeda's brutal enactment of Sharia law in Timbuktu and the executions, mutilations, and whippings that took place. While these are horrific crimes against humanity and highly distressing, I felt at times it was being thrown in more as voyeuristic torture porn rather than necessary context for the story of the evacuation of the manuscripts.
Ultimately I do like hearing about African cultures that usually aren't talked about in Western history classes, or if they are only very briefly. Unfortunately I do wish the book spent more time talking about that culture and its intellectual tradition than the depravities of al Qaeda, a subject I think most audiences will be familiar with by now.