It is as if a library burned down

Salafist fighters burn hundreds of rare manuscripts, some unique and centuries old, before leaving Timbuktu to French paratroopers.

Timbuktu, by Susana Millman. Via Flickr Creative Commons Licensed.

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 information: Salafist fighters burned hundreds of rare manuscripts, some 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 manuscripts, sometimes carefully preserved in tin trunks or leather bags, sometimes buried in a tent’s sand floor. Timbuktu might have kept the richest collections, but several families have their libraries even there. 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 a 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 told a journalist that he couldn’t find his light-skinned friend 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 wish to express our own. We can mourn what has been lost in Timbuktu. But what stops us from saying, “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.

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