Mali's religious scholars cunningly save ancient Islamic manuscripts from Salafist fighters in Timbuktu


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The Independent Online

The home of Dramane Maulvi Haidara is down a dusty alleyway of pot-holes with an open drain alongside. There, behind a heavy wooden door studded with metal in a dark, windowless room, lay a rich treasure trove that has been guarded with utmost care from a determined enemy.

There was widespread shock and international condemnation in the last act of vindictiveness by the Islamists as they retreated from Timbuktu – burning priceless manuscripts taken from the Ahmed Baba library, a renowned repository of Mali’s historic literature, as they left.

But other such losses have been avoided by hiding heritage in private homes such as that of the Haidaras. Around 30 families in the city, most of them of religious scholars known as marabous, hold archives of immense value handed down through generations. As the danger of cultural vandalism from the Salafist fighters grew, a network of volunteers was set up to surreptitiously remove artefacts from public institutions for safekeeping. Some were smuggled out to the capital, Bamako, some were put in with the private collections and stayed behind closed doors in Timbuktu.

Despite the Islamists offering money to get information about  the private collections, the manuscripts remained largely undetected.  Mohammed Sekou, a neighbour of Mr Haidara, said: “One of them told me that I would get a reward if I told them of places the books were hidden. He then warned that I would be whipped if I knew the locations and did not tell them. The man wasn’t even from Timbuktu, he was from the mountains in the north. Did he think I’d betray what our community has guarded for hundreds of years so cheaply?”

“Can you imagine how terrible it would have been if they burnt this?” asked Mr Haidara, holding up a book of Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Mohamed) – pages of exquisite calligraphy between fraying covers of Moroccan leather produced in the 14th century. Also of immense historical value was a Koran from a mosque in the city from the 1600s, when Timbuktu was at the height of its literary and theocratic renaissance. The city became especially known for its book trade, with scribes turning out works on a wide array of subjects while the Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic college, became a centre for religious discourse, its fame spreading throughout the Arab world.

“This is a book of Islam, but that wouldn’t have stopped them – as you know they burned holy books, they considered everything that did not meet their view of our religion as things to be destroyed,” Mr Haidara, a teacher of Islam and Arabic, said. Some of the collection had been taken to Bamako by one of Mr Haidara’s brothers. But it was deemed too risky to move the other documents, because they may have been caught doing so and they risked damaging fragile books during the journey over rough terrain.

Other manuscripts emerged from two green trunks in which they had been hidden away – on astronomy and algebra, poetry and horticulture. “The salafists do not like these subjects because they say they are not in the Koran,” Mr Haidara, 48, said. “But this is our history. Some of the books here are from the public library, the rest are from our family. My grandfather was Sidi Zaian, a well-known marabou. He was also a collector; he handed it all over to my father and now this is my responsibility as a marabou.”

During his visit to Mali at the weekend, which included a tumultuous welcome in Timbuktu, the French President François Hollande was shown the charred remains of the manuscripts at the library. Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco, who was on the same trip, said that reinforced Mr Hollande’s view that he had done the right thing in sending in troops. “The Islamists were trying to destroy the heritage and identity of Mali,” Ms Bokova said. “The damage that has been done to this needs urgent attention just as much as the reconstruction of infrastructure.”

The guardians of the heritage say they know the collections should be kept under better conditions. “This is not the way to keep these beautiful books,” Ali Hussein Cisse, 37, said, pointing to the manuscripts at his home. “My son Abdulhai Ali is 10-years old, he too is going to be a marabou; I sent him away to Niono when the salafists were here because they were trying to get children to inform on their parents. The salafists  have no respect for age, they have no respect for tradition, no respect for learning. They are a curse on our world.”

French to pull out next month

President François Hollande has told a cabinet meeting that France would begin to pull its 3,600 troops out of Mali next month.

Earlier, the defence ministry in Paris said  “several hundred” Islamist fighters had been killed since France intervened a month ago. The Defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, admitted there had been French casualties, other than a helicopter pilot killed on the first day. He said that “two or three” French soldiers had been wounded but none seriously. 

He also confirmed reports of skirmishes between French troops and Islamist guerrillas.