Timbuktu: It’s like a library has burned

News came yesterday, violent, rotten news. It’s been a steady rhythm from Mali, a country that has already suffered too much. But there’s something brutal in the news that Salafist fighters burned hundreds of rare manuscripts, some of them unique and centuries old, before leaving Timbuktu to French paratroopers.

Years ago, one of Mali’s great intellectuals, Amadou Hampaté Bâ, famously told us that in Africa “when an old man dies, a library has burned.” Hampaté Bâ celebrated a traditional Africa, one marked by its orality. A generation of scholars has rebelled against that idea, considering it a misrepresentation, even a libel. The manuscripts of Timbuktu were their best argument that Africa had more than stories to tell; it had a textual tradition to share. Today’s news tells us that that too is lost.

But let’s not move too fast. The manuscript tradition of the southern Sahara was never captured by Timbuktu alone. Timbuktu is a synecdoche; it is only a part that represents the whole. People across the Sahara hold their own manuscripts, sometimes carefully preserved in tin trunks or leather bags, sometimes buried in a tent’s sand floor. Timbuktu might have held the richest collections, but even there, several families have their own libraries. The scion of one of them had the foresight to transport his collection to Bamako months ago. Perhaps others followed suit.

Another reason for hope: news reports show us film of empty shelves. We don’t know that the Salafists—or someone—hadn’t removed those priceless papers, or at least some of them, hoping to sell them in the future …  or maybe read them? Would they read there that “there is no compulsion in religion”? Perhaps, but they would only need the Qur’an for that.

Other stories haunt me as I think about this one. An image, one I can’t find now but can’t forget, of very young fighters, too young to grow the Salafists’ beards, dead in the sand. The rapes and forced marriages, carried out by the Salafists, before them by the Tuareg separatists of the MNLA. The low-caste women raped by soldiers, “sources say.” The young man telling a journalist that he couldn’t find his friend, a light-skinned man in Sevaré at the wrong time. Soldiers took him away. Was he burned alive, or thrown down a well? It doesn’t matter. That story is only the latest; it won’t be the last.

Can we reverse Hampaté Bâ? He wanted to express a tragedy he’d lived, the loss of knowledge under colonial rule. We want to express our own. We can mourn what has been lost in Timbuktu. But what stops us from saying that “When a library burns, it’s like a girl was violated?” Or, “When a library burns, it’s like a young man has died?” They lie there, too, in the sand.

Postscript: Months ago, some of Africa’s leading intellectuals drew attention to the peril the manuscripts faced, and I wrote about it here, on Africa is a Country.

And I still reject the fairytale.


8 thoughts on “Timbuktu: It’s like a library has burned

  1. Nobody says that news are balanced and that media honours every person that died equally, it cant. What about the hundreds of woman that are raped on a daily basis in South Africa, douzens of people that die in Eastern Europe every week becaus of cold and the many people that are abduted by Columbian rebels on a weekly basis. unfortunately media works according to its own logic. it selects a very small and superficial part of what it constructs as reality. media space is limited.

    Human rights abuses must be reported, there is no queston about that! but if the cultural heritage of people, the pride of a town, is destroyed in such a manner as in Timbouctou this needs coverage too. Killing cultural contents of a group may lead to what some people call ‘ethnocid’. For such a historically significant town as timbouctou

    Instead of judging on our own how important these scripts were, we should ask those who owned them:
    “Essop Pahad, who was chairman of the Timbuktu manuscripts project for the South African government, said: “I’m absolutely devastated, as everybody else should be. I can’t imagine how anybody, whatever their political or ideological leanings, could destroy some of the most precious heritage of our continent. They could not be in their right minds.
    “The manuscripts gave you such a fantastic feeling of the history of this continent. They made you proud to be African. Especially in a context where you’re told that Africa has no history because of colonialism and all that. Some are in private hands but the fact is these have been destroyed and it’s an absolute tragedy.”

  2. If anything on this planet should be wiped out it is religion, ALL religions. No other entity has caused more suffering and loss on this planet than religion. It is a state of mind for the weak and the foolish. First the ancient Buddah statues in Afganistan and now the ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, what next, the ancient temple wall in Jerusalem?
    How many more people must suffer or die and how many more ancient historical entities must be destroyed before all the idiots realise that their religion is a mind-set and not a reality. Before anyone gets the wrong impression let me refer you to the first line of my comment and by all I mean western, eastern and everything in between!

  3. Snippets of video, recorded on-site with their cell phones, of Malian soldiers arresting and dealing with so-called “rebels,” are already circulating in Bamako. And people are exchanging, watching and discussing them as if what those videos show is perfectly justifiable and the way soldiers ought to act towards other Malians of a lighter skin color. Thanks for this posting Greg. I am haunted by such images too, and what they bode for the future.

  4. Well in my own opinion,the problem we are having here in africa erupted frm the so called religions believe,which i call the brainwashing aspect,religion doesnt exist,why shld we evacuate our fellow habitat in d name of sumtin we didnt c?frm the unset africa is a beautiful place,religion was imported but we hav our heritage,y shld we giv up dis precious beauty nd gift for mere religionism

  5. “Last month, as French ground forces moved into Mali at the request of Mali’s interim President, horrified whispers spread across the internet: Timbuktu’s manuscripts were in peril. On January 28, the French army moved to recapture Timbuktu amidst rumors that a retreating militia, perhaps the Salafist group Ansar Deine, had torched the Ahmad Baba Library. Later reports revealed that Ansar Deine had protected the Ahmad Baba Library, that the majority of manuscripts had been kept safe by African curators and local citizens, and that rumors of fire were stoked by a Sky News reporter embedded with the French army and confirmed by Hallè Ousmane, Timbuktu’s mayor, exiled 800 km away in Bamako. As images of scorched manuscripts on the tiled floors of the Ahmad Baba library began circulating, medievalists voiced a visceral outrage: to us, more than anyone, the destruction of books is an unfathomable act of barbarism. When fighting in Aleppo set the medieval souks aflame, threatened the Crac des Chevaliers, and endangered Palmyra and Old Damascus, and imperiled the manuscripts of Timbuktu, my friends and colleagues turned to Facebook and blogs to lament that they could never understand how anyone could so callously destroy their own cultural heritage. As if destroying manuscripts marked humans as dangerously different, or subhuman. As if our own armies had not destroyed vast collections of unique manuscript in Hamburg, Dresden, Baghdad, Mosul, Sarajevo, and elsewhere. As if we had forgotten how poor planning, corruption, war, and disaffected citizens had doomed many of “our” libraries.”
    — Prof. Rabia Gregory, University of Missouri-Columbia, via http://modernmedieval.blogspot.com/2013/02/our-own-orientalism-why-medievalists.htm

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