International Affairs — 30 January 2013
Timbuktu Manuscript Destruction: An Academic’s view

The following is a statement by researcher Mohammad Mathee regarding the alleged destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali.

“I work as a researcher on the Timbuktu manuscripts once part of the UCT-Tombouctou Manuscripts Project though based at the University of Johannesburg now. I do not think it is as straightforward as BBC and other media are reporting it of Islamic extremists burning the Ahmad Baba Centre. From the news coming in from Mali, the report in the Guardian, BBC etc. is exaggerated. The new building has not been torched (in fact, it seems the Ansar al-Din guys and ilk took care quite nicely of the building).

According to a senior researcher at the Ahmed Baba Centre, 10 000 ms were placed in the volt of the new building (the archival library built by the South African government and civil society). However, according to Dr. Mahmoud Zoubeir, first director of the Ahmed Baba Centre and advisor to former and ousted President Ahmadou Tomane Toure the 10 000 mss were long removed to safety.

It is possible that the empty boxes are of manuscripts destroyed during the process of restoration. Restoration is a continuous process at the Ahmed Baba Centre – and other private libraries such as the SAVAMA consortium – as mss come in from all over the region (Azawad); this I saw when doing research at Ahmed Baba. However, a colleague doing her research in Timbuktu as well told me that these are a few mss.

It is also possible that the empty boxes are of mss stolen; mss are stolen all the time in Timbuktu and sold (usually to some Westerner for a variety of motives).

While it is possible that the Ansar al-Din destroyed things in their hasty retreat, it must not be ruled out that the French created the story to, 1. Give greater legitimacy to their illegal invasion, and 2. That in the case of them destroying mss in Timbuktu (as happened in Iraq), the blame will then fall on the stupid Ansar al-Din. The media (BBC and ilk) as embedded pen mercenaries were all too happy to report on torched buildings and mss.

What is important for academics is not simply to be shocked and flabbergasted, but to pay attention to Timbuktu (now and always). This great African city with its intellectual heritage has a lot to offer. If there are reportedly 100 000 mss of which 31 000 are at the Ahmed Baba Centre then academics must think what a tragedy it is for knowledge that perhaps only 1 000 have been read and worked on (here I exclude those Malians and Timbuktians, not professional academics). Here we too must pay tribute to John Hunwick (who is probably devastated), other academics and especially the UCT-Tombouctou Mss Project that has been working without on the mss for the last 9 years.

Most importantly, we pay tribute to the brave people of Timbuktu.

Perhaps it is fitting to share the words of the scholar Ahmad Baba al-Sudani (1556-1627) after whom the library is named; Ahmad Baba was writing from exile (forcefully taken there by the invading Moroccan Sadian State in 1593) and then prison

0 traveller to Gao, turn off to my city.
Murmur my name there and greet all my dear ones,
With scented salams from an exile who longs
For his homeland and neighbours, companions and friends.

The French invasion (notwithstanding that the takeover by the Ansar al-Din and the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad’s (MNLA) was wrong and heinous) is not unlike that of the 1591 invasion of Songhay and the destruction of its State. If anything, it is worse in an age of “equality” between nations; but also, because in the last one and a half decades we have seen the carnage that unilateral invasions cause.”

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