Desert adventures of bold bibliophiles
In the spring of 2012, as jihadist fighters swept across the Sahara wielding Kalashnikovs and waving black banners, three librarians arranged to meet above a rat-infested fish-and-chicken shop in Bamako, the capital of Mali. The “straight-talking and occasionally abrasive” Abdoulkadri Idrissa Maiga, “effete, aristocratic, charming” Ismael Diadie Haidara and Abdel Kader Haidara, a large, impishly intelligent man wearing billowing robes, were the directors of the most famous manuscript collections in Timbuktu, itself one of the most famous library cities in the world. Faced with the imminent destruction of their precious archives, the three had decided to risk all and act.
As Tuareg rebels and, later, Islamist forces swamped the city, reports reached the world that the great African centre of learning looked as if it had been “bombed” with paper. The Ahmed Baba Institute library had become a jihadist barracks and invaders attacked the city’s tombs and cultural artefacts with pickaxes, crowbars and hammers.
It was only when Timbuktu was liberated 10 months later that the heroic exploits of the three librarians, and a handful of trusted colleagues, were revealed.
Charlie English, a former foreign news editor at The Guardian, was so obsessed with the accounts coming out of Mali that he left the newspaper to find out more. The result is The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: part reportage, part history, part romance and wholly gripping. The covert evacuation of the city’s fragile treasures is a remarkable adventure story of disguise, deceit, secret routes, anonymous tipoffs, bad blood, coded messages and extraordinary bravery.
The hundreds of thousands of parchments scattered across the libraries, institutions and family collections in the city are regarded as Africa’s equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and proof of the continent’s vibrant written history. They include works from the great Songhay empire, and the Ishriniyyat, an allegorical poem of 20 rhyming verses written by Abd al-Rahman al-Fazazi in the 13th century.
Life inside Timbuktu can still feel similarly ancient. The city that grew thanks to its position at the juncture of the world’s largest hot desert and West Africa’s longest river didn’t get a petrol pump until the 1970s. The festivals are still counted by the cycles of the moon and the days are measured out in calls to worship. The dunes are crisscrossed with well-trodden paths, rumours fly fast and caravans of stories are traded along with goods.
All of which made the clandestine operation undertaken by the librarians so miraculous. Abdel Kaider Haidara (he of the impish intelligence who would become the most famous of the triumvirate) pleaded for silence about the city’s manuscripts for fear that jihadists would “attack what they had forgotten to attack”. Collecting as many trunks as they could find, he and his fellow conspirators began packing up manuscripts. Haidara, meanwhile, set up a charity, Savama, that encouraged philanthropic foundations, universities and governments to donate money to the libraries’ cause.
Under the cover of darkness, the padlocked trunks would be taken by push-push (handcart) along Timbuktu’s back lanes to avoid the jihadist patrols, before being shipped south on one of the many vehicles that still traversed the desert route from Timbuktu to Bamako. When the roads became too dangerous, the trunks were loaded on to boats or were hidden under hay, potatoes or grain in a Toyota pick-up. English was able to visit with Haidara some of the safe houses in Bamako where the smuggled goods were stored, and in every location would see stacks and stacks of trunks, each containing dozens of documents.
English has taken the bookish tradition to heart in The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu, which is as a much a history of the European attempt to conquer and comprehend the city as it is a tale of recent insurgency. He tackles the shifting sands of scholarship and myths, and charts the journeys of men such as Major Alexander Gordon Laing, the first European to set eyes on the manuscripts, who entered Timbuktu in 1826.
English has had to tread a similarly perilous route in finding the real story of the evacuation of the manuscripts. The relationships between the librarians, he reports, soured quickly. Ismael retreated to Andalusia, and there are questions over how much money was donated, how it was spent and just how many manuscripts were saved. There are pending legal cases and the shadow of the insurgency lingers.
The manuscripts are also, apparently, still to make it back to Timbuktu and remain in Bamako, with its dangerously humid climate. English’s account of the rescue makes for a riveting read. But the story is not over yet. is a journalist and critic.