Desert ad­ven­tures of bold bib­lio­philes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - He­len Davies

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.