In Salafis wake, charred Malian heritage in Timbuktu
Shortly before being driven from Mali's ancient city of Timbuktu, the salafi jihadis who'd occupied the city lit a bonfire with some of its ancient manuscripts.
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In recent decades, the Malian government and family-owned libraries have worked to restore Timbuktu’s manuscripts and present them to the world. The state-run Baba Ahmed Institute, as well as some private libraries, have facilities to restore, catalog, and scan manuscripts.Skip to next paragraph
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“Every manuscript is important, even if it’s just a scrap of paper – even if it’s only two or three words,” says Hamou Mohamed Dédeou, a manuscript specialist in Timbuktu who has worked with the Baba Ahmed Institute and advised foreign scholars.
It was in this spirit that Mr. Dédeou wrote “The Role of Symbols and Tables in Applying the Studies of the Ancients,” an explanatory work aimed at helping students appreciate the richness of some texts.
In one example, a seemingly nonsensical couplet by Ahmed Baba is revealed as a mnemonic device. Letters represent numbers, which in turn count the steps to take along one’s own shadow in various months to calculate certain prayer times.
The couplet ends with the phrase “And with the rest, don’t be stubborn.” Dédeou likes to understand it thus: “Don’t be stubborn concerning what you don’t know.”
While no threat arose against Timbuktu’s manuscripts in the early days of the Islamist occupation, curators weren’t taking chances. There was a general sense of lawlessness. Cissé had most of the Baba Ahmed Institute’s roughly 30,000 texts spirited out of town and sent up the Niger River in pirogues; Abdelkader Haidara, a private curator, arranged for manuscripts to be hidden in houses.
Then came turmoil this month, as an Islamist push south provoked a counter-offensive by French and Malian forces. In town after town, militants cleared out as their enemies advanced.
Last Thursday morning, people living near the Baba Ahmed Institute awoke to see smoke rising from within. In an adjacent neighborhood, Lithnin Dicko, one of the institute’s two watchmen – then jobless thanks to the Islamist occupancy – was about to eat breakfast when a man appeared at his house.
“Come quick! The manuscripts are burning!” the man said. Mr. Dicko dashed over to the Institute, through the door, down an alleyway and around a corner, to find a small courtyard full of flame. “There was nothing I could do but watch the manuscripts burn,” he says.
This morning, a tumble of plastic manuscript cases with serial numbers on the spines lay in the courtyard beside a pile of ashes. Staff were busy changing the locks. An alarm that Dicko says was somehow triggered by Islamists couldn't be switched off, and was still wailing.
The loss isn’t total, says Cissé. Manuscripts have been destroyed and the computers holding their scanned images stolen, but there are back-up scans at the institute’s facility in Bamako, the capital. Yet something of Timbuktu’s soul has been wounded.
“Human beings want to be in contact with what is original,” says Dédeou. “One wants to touch. That is what we will miss.”