Timbuktu – Struggle for culture

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 It was Mali’s secret battle. While the weak Bamako army proved unable to resist the rebels’ advance without foreign help, civilians in the northern city of Timbuktu, occupied by Islamists, managed to inflict a major defeat on the enemy, not from a military point of view, but in the struggle for culture.
The battlefield was the Ahmed Baba Centre, which hosted some hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts that have been preserved during the centuries. These books – some of which date back to the 11th and 12th centuries – dealt with issues such as law, governance, religion, with insights of daily life. The Granada-born diplomat and traveller, Joannes Leo Africanus, wrote in 1550 that manuscripts were the most precious goods sold at that time in the markets of Timbuktu.
Undoubtedly, these volumes are still precious, but it is not only a matter of economic value: they are a cultural treasure, whose existence remained mostly unknown to the public until last year. At that time jihadists set many of them ablaze, officially because they did not meet the strict interpretation of the Islamic law envisaged by fundamentalists. Or maybe – as some local sources suggested – to hide the fact that some precious volumes were stolen and smuggled by the militiamen. Along with the destruction of Sufi Muslim shrines in the region, the loss of these books sparked outrage in the West. However, they were not all lost, only a relatively small number.
timb2This was possible because the citizens of Timbuktu reignited, so to say, the humanist Ahmed Baba’s battle of around four centuries ago. A philosopher who believed in equality and in the right to freedom for all peoples, Ahmed Baba held out against the Arab invaders from Morocco, and was imprisoned. Some of today’s citizens of Timbuktu faced this risk too, when they decided to misinform the invaders about the books that the city still enshrined. The books in the new Ahmed Baba Centre building (which replaced the old one in 2009, that had been built in the 1970s), in fact, were only a part of the huge number that had been gathered in Timbuktu since the city had been built – in the 11th century – at the crossroads of the caravan route, in an area inhabited by many peoples (Arab, Tuareg, Songhai, Peul) with different cultures.
A significant number of the remaining manuscripts was still in the old Ahmed Baba Centre, while others were in the safe hands of some local families. These volumes were saved from the fire: some of the keepers of the Ahmed Baba Centre simply lied to the militiamen, telling them that all the books were in the new building. This could not though avoid the loss of a part of the city’s cultural treasure.
A shelter had to be found, or at least an ‘emergency exit’. Civilians provided both: the ones who personally owned books hid them in vaults especially dug for the purpose and the workers of the timb4Ahmed Baba Centre found other suitable hidings (boxes full of ledgers proved very useful). Lorries officially carrying medicines, old motorbikes, canoes sailing on the Niger River, and even (for minor transfers) donkeys supposedly carrying sacks of rice, were then used to take the precious volumes to Bamako, some 700 km south.
Most of Timbuktu’s books are now in Mali’s capital city, but how many were lost? According to experts, the northern city hosted about 100,000 manuscripts (out of 300,000 in the whole region). Julien Anfruns, head of the International Council of Museums, in February said that scholars had “many questions and few answers” but he was confident: according to his local sources, no more than 10 percent of the tomes was lost. In addition, journalist Jean Michel Dijan, a well-known expert on the issue, said that 80 manuscripts out of 100 had been carried out in just 3 months.
This does not mean that real losses were negligible; they just proved to be less damaging than it appeared at first glance. Nevertheless, this share of the West African literary heritage remains in danger, even after the jihadists were driven out of the city. Jean Michel Dijan himself warned that further thefts could not be excluded; this risk becomes more real due to the vast criminal networks of the region, involved in all kinds of illicit trafficking. Finally, time and negligence, particularly in a war-ravaged country, are enemies that are as strong as men are; doing nothing is almost the same as allowing the fundamentalists to set the books ablaze. For, as the late Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor once said, “When a library in Timbuktu burns or is lost, the memory of a thousand old men vanishes.” (D.M.)


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