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The brave sage of Timbuktu: Abdel Kader Haidara

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It was part of a last-ditch attempt to protect the country’s most significant collection of historic manuscripts from falling into the hands of militants allied to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Six months earlier, terrorist groups had seized northern Mali and launched a systematic effort to destroy anything they viewed as haram—forbidden—according to their harsh interpretation of Islamic practices.

The extremists’ inroads, militarily and culturally, held a sad irony: Haidara as a scholar and community leader had made it his life’s work to document, as never before, Mali’s achievements as an ancient center of progressive thought, including Islamic teachings that were anathema to the fanaticism that AQIM was now attempting to spread through the West African country.

And Haidara’s manuscripts were precious for what they said more broadly about Africa’s history. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr, who visited Timbuktu and Haidara in 1996, explains that Hegel, Kant, and other Enlightenment philosophers contended that Africa had no tradition of writing, and therefore no history and no memory.

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“And unless you have those, you are not a civilisation, which was a pernicious argument that provided justification for the slave trade,” Gates said in a recent interview. “The absence of writing, of books, was seen as a reflection of the subhuman position of the Africans. So the presence of these books had high, high stakes, going back to the 18th century. Kant and Hegel and Hume did not know anything about this.”

Over nine traumatic months, Haidara and his team rescued 350,000 manuscripts from 45 different libraries in and around Timbuktu and hid them in Bamako, more than 400 miles from the AQIM-controlled north. There were many close calls, including one involving Haidara’s nephew, Mohammed Touré, a 25-year-old curator at the library. One night when he was leaving work with a trunk full of manuscripts destined for hiding, Touré came face-to-face with Oumar Ould Hamaha, one of AQIM’s most inflexible zealots.

Hamaha shone a flashlight in Touré’s face and demanded that he open the chest. “He said, ‘You’re stealing them,'” Touré recalled one recent afternoon in the Malian capital of Bamako. “I said, ‘No, this is my library.'”

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Islamic police arrested the curator and dragged him to the commissariat of the Islamic police. He was charged with theft, a serious crime under sharia. “I risked losing my hand, my foot,” Touré said. “They had already started chopping off hands in public places.”

Thinking fast, Touré, who is well grounded in Islamic studies, cited hadiths and Qu’ranic verses stating that incontrovertible proof of a misdeed was required before punishment was meted out. “They said, ‘The proof is there; you were robbing this library.’ I said, ‘It belonged to me, and I was moving it to a more secure location.'” He bought himself time, but his fate was unclear.

His uncle swung into action. Having fled Timbuktu to live in self-imposed exile in Bamako, Haidara manned the phones, calling imams, neighborhood leaders, and other librarians, who came forward with documents and affidavits attesting to Touré’s role as curator. After 24 hours in custody, the Islamic police let him go.


“Traumatised by the jihadists”


But the face-offs with the jihadists kept coming. AQIM operatives stopped, searched, and arrested Haidara’s couriers. Bandits captured a boat full of books on the Niger River and held it for ransom. Malian government soldiers often broke open trunks full of manuscripts in a search for weapons, roughly pawing through the fragile volumes.

In the last phase of the rescue, during the French military intervention of January 2013 that drove AQIM from northern Mali, a French helicopter nearly fired missiles at a boat bringing manuscripts downriver—the pilots suspected that Haidara’s assistants were smuggling guns. “We were completely traumatised by the jihadists. All we could do was work,” Haidara said, of that difficult time. “I could never have imagined such a thing happening just a few months before. Everything collapsed overnight. The state had stopped existing. So we just had to keep working, doing what we could do. I had lots of friends, lots of partners, people who gave me a lot of advice, so that I never felt completely abandoned.”

A grand culture rediscovered

For Haidara, 50, the scion of a distinguished family of scholars and collectors from Timbuktu and other towns along the Niger in northern Mali, the rescue marked the culmination of a long career as a champion of the country’s cultural patrimony.

“Abdel Kader feels as close to the manuscripts as he does to his children,” says Stephanie Diakité, an American attorney who became entranced by the works 20 years ago during a visit to Mali and decided to make their preservation her life’s calling.

She worked side by side with Haidara in Bamako to raise US$1 million from benefactors in Europe, the US, and the Middle East to finance the rescue effort. Adds Diakité: “He feels as much responsibility for them as he does for his own family.”

I first met Abdel Kader Haidara eight years ago, when I flew to Timbuktu to write about the country’s rediscovery of its literary heritage. The city’s production of manuscripts reached its apogee in the 15th and 16th centuries, when Timbuktu was a commercial hub on the Niger and a centre of academic studies with more than 150 universities. Passed down through the generations by Timbuktu’s leading families, the volumes were often locked away, forgotten, and permitted to disintegrate. Unesco began drawing attention to the works in the 1960s, funding a national library, the Ahmed Baba Institute, and scouring the region for lost works, but it wasn’t until Haidara became involved in their conservation effort that the city’s literary renaissance began in earnest.

Haidara and I met up at his Mamma Haidara Library, a handsome limestone villa in the heart of the old town, with the best samples from his collection displayed in vacuum-sealed glass cases in air-conditioned and well-lit rooms. By 2006, when I visited Haidara—an imposing and ebullient figure who was clad that day in a beige skullcap and draped in a peacock-blue traditional gown known as a bubu—scholars and historians from across Europe and the Middle East were flocking to the Mamma Haidara to study a collection that offered perhaps the most revealing glimpses of what Timbuktu had been at the height of its glory.

Haidara took me around the collection. The manuscripts were bound in goatskin and handwritten in delicate calligraphy, with flourishes of gold and pen-and-ink drawings of mosques and desert landscapes. They included accounts of the battles fought by medieval Malian kings and their armies; treatises on traditional medicine, Islamic jurisprudence, and mathematics; volumes of romantic poetry; and Koranic studies, all testifying to the complex, intellectually challenging society that had flourished in Timbuktu for hundreds of years, until the Moroccan army invaded in the late 16th century, sacked the city, and carried its scholars off to slavery in Fez.

One of the most valuable manuscripts in Haidara’s collection was a later work comprising just a few pages: an 1853 epistle by Sheikh al-Bakkay al-Kounti, a spiritual leader in Timbuktu, to the ruling sultan of Masina, asking him to spare the life of German explorer Heinrich Barth. The sultan had ordered Barth’s execution because non-Muslims were barred from entering the city, but al-Bakkay argued that Islamic law forbade the killing. “He is a human being, and he has not made war against us,” al-Bakkay wrote. Barth remained under the protection of al-Bakkay and made it back to Germany unharmed. “The manuscripts show that Islam is a religion of tolerance,” Haidara told me that day, arguing that his collection would go a long way toward breaking negative perceptions in the West.


‘Custodian of a great intellectual tradition’


Abdel Kader Haidara’s father, Mohammed Haidara, nicknamed Mamma, was born in the town of Bamba on the Niger in 1897, in the early years of French rule. A self-taught scholar, he amassed a large quantity of rare handwritten books.

“Since the 16th century our ancestors had been acquiring manuscripts,” Haidara told me. “They had built up a library in Bamba, and my father added to it. He traveled all over Africa, bringing back manuscripts from Chad, Sudan, and Egypt.” He also helped augment the manuscript collection of the Ahmed Baba Institute, created by Unesco in 1967 with the objective of preserving the region’s rich written history.

In 1981, Mohammed Haidara died at the age of 84. The director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, Muhammed Zubair, asked Abdel Kader, who was then 17, to replace his father as head collector. Haidara told him he wasn’t interested. “I wanted to go into business and make money, not work in a library,” he says. The director kept pursuing him. “He said, ‘This is your work, this is your destiny. You’ve got a great responsibility. You are the custodian of a great intellectual tradition.'”

After months of prodding, Haidara dropped his plans for a business career and began intensive training, learning everything from conservation techniques to how to assess the monetary value of individual works. Soon he was hooked.

“When I was at the Ahmed Baba Institute, I had an office that was filled with manuscripts. When I was home, manuscripts surrounded me. My friends told me, ‘You’ve gone crazy. You can’t talk about anything but these manuscripts.’ They had this smell, the manuscripts, and they said, ‘You’re smelling of manuscripts, Abdel Kader.’ I said, ‘Leave me alone, just leave me to it.'”

Haidara began knocking on the doors of families in Timbuktu, trying to persuade them to bring their manuscripts out of hiding. Resistance was intense. Many families were so skittish, after a century of French pillaging, that they refused even to discuss the issue. “Little by little, I sensitised people to the conservation work the library was doing,” he says.

Then he traveled by motorised dugout canoe along the Niger and by camel caravan across the Sahara, visiting chiefs and family librarians in remote villages. “People would say, ‘The manuscripts are for us, and they don’t leave our presence. What do you want to do with them?’ And I would explain, ‘I want to take them to Timbuktu. There’s a centre there; they will conserve them, display them, and put them in good condition. They will be there for everybody, the whole world to share and see.'”

When the art of persuasion failed, Haidara tried playing on guilty consciences, pointing out the appalling neglect that many of the books had suffered: water damage, termite infestations. In the end, he resorted to cash. He carried around a suitcase full of money, which he dispensed lavishly—building mosques and schools; buying cows, camels, and goats for collectors and village chiefs. After a decade of near-ceaseless travel, Haidara managed to grow the Ahmed Baba’s manuscript collection to more than 20,000 works.


By Joshua Hammer


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