Race to save Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts

Society & Success

American journalist Joshua Hammer, in this book Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, tells the story of Abdel Kader Haidara, a scholarly and passionate Malian who since the 1980s has travelled by car, camel, canoe and by foot to acquire ancient manuscripts from Tuaregs in the desert dunes of the Sahara. 

Working for the Ahmed Baba Institute, Abdel Kader, paid the families who had secretly stashed the rare manuscripts, hundreds of thousands of family heirlooms, from as far back as 12th century, written on fish skin with gold and red ore, bound in leather, stored in trunks, in marked places in the sand. But it was not as easy as going to the market to buy a goat.

Lots of negotiations went into it, with assurances that the works belonged to the bloodline it was passed along, and would be restored and placed in public libraries that could be used to draw visitors to see these rare works and proceeds would be split among the various families. 

Haidara’s father had his own private collection of manuscripts that he bequeathed him upon his death, that were never to be sold. It is to other men like him that he turned to create the biggest collection of mostly African, Islamic works that span centuries.

Timbuktu, was a free society, a nexus of faith and intellect, African and the Arab Maghreb. Timbuktu was a place of astronomy, algebra, medicine, music and poetry, to mention but a few, a scholarship hub of the 16th Century with as many as 100,000 residents with a quarter of them students. Their manuscripts came in a variety of calligraphic texts, on various materials with different colours.

However, in the 21st Century, Timbuktu was no longer a free space of intellectual and poetic expression. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) invaded the city and tried to carve a caliphate out of Mali.

The clash of two Islamic ideologies became a reality; one embracing freedoms and more tolerant, while the other rigid and violent.

Hammer tells this tale by marrying the past to the present through the lives of Haidara the conservative, and his once close friend, Iyad Ag Ghali, “a Tuareg from Kidal” who was less so, blossoming the tale into classic journalistic ending, full of bleak realities, but with heroes in Haidara and his team of librarians who chillingly defied the terrorists to preserve one nation’s heritage. 

Thankfully, only 4,000 manuscripts of the Ahmed Baba Institute were lost to AQIM in January of 2013.

Hundreds of thousands of priceless manuscripts have been celebrated as being saved by Haidara’s initiative.

However, with the instability of the Sahel region, unemployment at record highs, and pockets of terrorists roaming the desert, the story of Mali is far from over.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu will shed light on the intellectual history of a people, and the efforts to keep it alive for future generations.