I’ve been fascinated to read
- Charlie English, The book smugglers of Timbuktu (2017)
(reviewed e.g. by William Dalrymple).
Charlie English uses the dramatic device of alternating chapters on the early history of European expeditions from 1788 with the remarkable efforts since 2012 undertaken by the town’s librarians to rescue the manuscripts from destruction by the jihadi onslaught.
He cites Bruce Chatwin’s famous comment that there are two Timbuktus: “one the real place, a tired caravan town where the Niger bends into the Sahara”, another “altogether more fabulous, a legendary city in a never-never land, the Timbuktu of the mind”. As the book adroitly blends the two, accounts of the rescue became a further chapter in the town’s history of myth-making.
The main theme of early European explorations is Death or Glory. After a succession of intrepid adventurers had met grisly fates in trying to reach Timbuktu, Alexander Gordon Laing became the first to succeed in 1826—undeterred by sustaining [yup, that’s the word] horrific injuries en route. * After all the hype, those who did manage to reach the town were inevitably disappointed. As René Chaillié reported in 1828:
The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth. Nothing was to be seen in all direction but immense plains of quicksand of a yellowish white colour. The sky was a pale red as far as the horizon; all nature wore a dreary aspect, and the most profound silence prevailed; not even the warbling of a bird was to be heard.
The buildings were unimpressive, mostly consisting of a single storey. The town had no walls, and wasn’t nearly as big or busy as he had been led to believe. The atmosphere was soporific.
By the 1880s Timbuktu had become a prize in European imperialist goals of military domination. In “King Leopold’s paperweight”, English spells out the racism at the heart of the age of colonial exploitation—an entrenched, widespread mindset that anthropologists like Franz Boas were still having to challenge in the mid-20th century. As the town went into further decline, Félix Dubois kept the image of its precious manuscripts alive.
By the early 20th century, the myth of a wealthy Timbuktu with golden roofs had long been jettisoned, but it had been replaced by the idea of the city as an enlightned university town where orchestras entertained emperors and astronomers plotted the tracks of comets even as Europeans struggled out of the Dark Ages. There was more substance to this myth than the old one, but it was still a gross exaggeration, a story written to fit the new requirement for exoticism. Timbuktu, it seemed, reflected to each of the travellers who reached it something of what they wanted to find. The romantic Laing had discovered his vainglorious end. Caillié, the humble adventurer, had found a humble town. Barth, the scientist, had unearthed a wealth of new information. Dubois, the journalist, had landed his world exclusive, uncovering the region’s secret past.
* * *
In 2012, as rival factions of jihadists took control of Timbuktu, trashing offices, levelling Sufi shrines, and implementing sharia law, the town’s librarians began smuggling manuscripts out to Bamako with the help of local families—a story that English tells in compelling detail. International bodies responded exceptionally promptly with major funding. Meanwhile the librarians themselves were concerned to keep the delicate operation out of the public eye, for fear of attracting attention from the jihadists.
Diakité evoked the salvage operation:
Housewives offered food and shelter to our couriers along the route.Merchants transported couriers and footlockers of books without charge, when they saw our people pushing them in pushcarts or carrying them on their backs to get them to the safety of the river. […] Whole villages created diversions at checkpoints, so our couriers could get them through with their books. In all cases, in the north but also in the south, the community came forward in the name of safeguarding the manuscripts. […] They called them our heritage, our manuscripts.
Among the librarians the main characters are Abdel Kader Haidara, who had long been working on collecting the manuscripts, and now made a “Terrible Twosome” with the well-connected American conservator Stephanie Diakité; Ismael Diadié Haidara, proprietor of the Fondo Kati library; and Abdoulkadri Idrissa Maiga, director of the Ahmed Baba Institute.
The town was liberated by French troops in 2013, but the situation in north Mali has remained unstable.
Indeed, scholars such as John Hunwick had been paying attention to the manuscripts by 1967, and conservation projects were already under way from 1977, supported by international bodies such as UNESCO, the Ford Foundation, and the Prince Claus Fund. As the enormity of the documents spread around the town and nearby became apparent, it overturned assumptions that Africa had no written history. By 1999, when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates made a PBS film on the collection (“as a black American, I know what it’s like to have your history stolen from you”), the Timbuktu treasures were widely celebrated.
In a most astute chapter on “the myth factory”, English unpacks the diverse accounts of the manuscripts’ hectic evacuation. Dissenting voices were heard, such as Bruce Hall, professor at Duke University, who found the claimed numbers of manuscripts, and their value, much inflated. Conflicting stories of the crisis inevitably emerged. As Haidara told the author enigmatically,
There is not only one account of the evacuation. Each person will have his own take on it. Bruce [Hall] will have one account, Ismael another, Maiga yet another, while I have my own version. All these accounts will be different, but they will all be true. If everyone agreed what the story was, then it would certainly not be true.
English opens the Epilogue with a comment that may apply widely:
This book is as much historiography as history. That is to say, it is an account of the interpretations of Timbuktu’s past at least as much as it is the story of what actually happened there. The reasons for this, I hope, will have become clear: Timbuktu’s story is in perpetual motion, swinging back and forth between competing poles of myth and reality. Spectacular arguments are made and then dismissed before another claim is built up, in an apparently continuous cycle of proposition and correction.
He goes on:
With such resonant, universal themes of good versus evil, books versus guns, fanatics versus moderates, this modern-day folktale proved irresistible. It was all the more powerful for being built around a kernel of truth, just as the more glorious accounts of the city’s past were.
* * *
After Gates’s 1999 film, by 2009 several documentaries had already appeared, including The lost libraries of Timbuktu from the BBC:
Note also English’s 2014 article on the status of women in Timbuktu.
His book was just pipped to the post by Charlie Hammer, The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu (2016) (hmm—cf. “10 Kickass Female Composers”, and my own forthcoming bestseller The bad-ass household Daoists of Shanxi).
The music of Mali—where the oral traditions of the jeli (griot) bards make another major repository of history—has become a mainstay of the World Music scene, dominating publications such as Songlines. See Lucy Durán’s introduction in The Rough Guide to world music; and as part of the splendid Growing into Music project, she made this fine film around southern Mali on the eve of the jihadi invasion in the north:
* As Laing reported,
To begin from the top, I have five sabre cuts on the crown of the head & three on the left temple, all fractures from which much bone has come away, one on my left cheek which fractured the jaw bone & has divided the ear, forming a very unsightly wound, one over the right temple, and a dreadful gash on the back of the neck, which slightly scratched the windpipe.
English goes on:
He has a musket ball in the hip, which has made its way through his body, grazing his backbone. He also has five saber wounds to his right arm and hand, which is “cut three fourths across”, and the wrist bones are hacked through. He has three cuts on his left arm, which is broken, one slight wound on the right leg, and two, including “one dreadful gash”, on the left, to say nothing of the blow to the fingers of the hand he is using to write.
But things got worse. After a “dreadful malady” kills off the other members of his mission, he writes magnificently:
“My situation is far from agreeable.”