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The brave sage of Timbuktu: Abdel Kader Haidara

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“They said, ‘We want everything we see here, even the trunks. We will pay you in any currency you want. Just name your price.'” Haidara insisted that he wasn’t even tempted. “They couldn’t believe it,” he says. “They asked, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Because this isn’t for me. This is the heritage of Mali, of a great nation. It’s not for sale.'”

The real breakthrough came shortly afterward, when Professor Gates stopped in Timbuktu while making a television documentary series about Africa. Haidara showed his manuscripts to the Harvard scholar, who had delved only lightly into the written history of black Africa.

“It was one of the most moving days of my life. I was tearing up on camera,” recalls Gates. “I was so emotional, holding these books in my hands. I’d thought they were a legend at best, from the time I was a boy, reading Ripley’s Believe It or Not. But they were actually real.” Gates was also impressed by Haidara, “this colorful man, not extravagant or flamboyant, but deeply learned. He was riveting to interview.”

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Gates helped secure a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, which allowed Haidara to keep searching for family books and to construct a library to house them. The same year Savama-DCI, a foundation that Haidara established to encourage others with access to family collections to follow in his footsteps, received a $600,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to construct two new libraries in Timbuktu: the Al-Wangari and the Allimam Ben Essayouti. Dozens of other libraries have sprung up in subsequent years.


Jihadist takeover

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Haidara was traveling in Burkina Faso when the Islamist and Tuareg rebels began their march toward Timbuktu in late March 2012. He arrived back home just hours after the rebels seized the city. Overnight, Timbuktu was plunged into a nightmare. The police, the army, and all government officials fled, along with thousands of ordinary citizens. Looters filled the streets, pulling cash out of banks, ripping apart stores, breaking into houses and hotels with impunity.

At first Haidara tried to act as though nothing had happened. He went about his business and kept the library open, avoiding any contact with the cold-eyed, bearded, Kalashnikov-toting jihadists who wandered the streets. “I didn’t talk to them, they never called me, they never noticed me.”

But quickly he realised that the radicals would soon take undisputed power, and when they did Haidara was sure they would target the manuscripts. These books—scattered in 45 libraries across the city, most of which Haidara had helped get built—epitomised the reasoned discourse and traditions of intellectual inquiry that the militants, with their rigid views of Islam, their intolerance, and their hatred of modernity and rationality, wanted to destroy.

A month into the jihadist takeover, Haidara and his nephew, Touré, began venturing into the markets of Timbuktu, buying up metal cantines, or trunks, and storing them at the Mamma Haidara and other libraries around the city. When they had bought every one in Timbuktu, they found more in markets farther south; when those ran out, they purchased metal oil drums and brought them to a craftsman in the river town of Mopti, and he hammered them into trunks.

Behind locked doors, Haidara, Touré, and a few other volunteers packed the manuscripts into the trunks. They worked often by flashlight because the jihadists had cut all the power. By July they managed to transport all 350,000 manuscripts from Timbuktu’s libraries to safe houses around the city, owned by the relatives of library owners.

Haidara fled Timbuktu for Bamako in May, to coordinate the fund-raising campaign and to put the brakes on Unesco delegates in Mali who wanted to publicise the jihadist threat. Haidara feared that such attention would alert Timbuktu’s occupiers to the manuscripts’ value. “I said, ‘I think that right now, just stay silent. Don’t do anything. Don’t speak about them.’ Unesco said, ‘OK, you’re right. We’ll leave it.'”

Haidara’s wife, Khadija, and their six children—including a son who was born prematurely and cannot stand or speak—joined him in Bamako two months later. (Haidara has a second wife, not an unusual practice in Mali, also named Khadija, who is a high-ranking Malian diplomat based in Paris.)

By September, the news was becoming grim: Salafists had burned a library near Tripoli and destroyed hundreds of manuscripts; at about the same time, radicals in Timbuktu had embarked on a brutal campaign to destroy the tombs of the city’s revered Sufi saints, breaking the tombs apart with pickaxes. When Haidara got the word that the militants—feeling stronger and more confident—had removed checkpoints across northern Mali, he gave the orders to his operatives to begin moving the manuscripts from Timbuktu’s safe houses to Bamako.

Between September and January, couriers made hundreds of trips back and forth between the two cities in rented 4x4s, usually carrying two or three cantines of manuscripts on each journey. The trips seldom went smoothly: On his first journey south, Mohammed Touré was stopped half a dozen times at Malian government checkpoints. Soldiers harassed him, breaking the locks off his trunks and rifling through the works. His vehicles broke down twice; his driver got lost en route.

After a week on the road, he reached Bamako, where he was rearrested and held in a squalid jail. “Abdel Kader arrived, had to pay a lot of money, and we were finally liberated, with the manuscripts,” he says. “You didn’t have any choice but to continue. You had to keep working. It got a little easier over time. I made this journey many times. I paid them off repeatedly—the soldiers, the police—and they got to know me, and it became easier.”

Weeks before the French military arrived in Mali, AQIM closed all roads leading to the south, forcing Haidara to resort to plan B: organizing dozens of boats to carry the manuscripts down the Niger. By the end of February 2013, Haidara had succeeded in evacuating nearly every manuscript from 45 libraries to safety. The only casualties: 4,200 manuscripts that were burned to ashes in a bonfire set by militants at the Ahmed Baba Institute just minutes before the militants fled the city ahead of the French invasion.

I caught up with Haidara one final time in mid-February 2014, on the top floor of a four-story apartment building in the Baco Djikironi Golf neighborhood of Bamako. Haidara had transported dozens of chests to this newly acquired safe house during the rainy season that had ended the previous month, and he was checking to see how well the manuscripts were holding up.

“We were obliged to find houses that were raised off the ground, with air-conditioning or dehumidifiers to better preserve them,” he explained, thumbing through a 500-year-old work from Timbuktu’s Sankoré Library, its yellowing pages bound by a dark-brown goatskin cover. The book was a kind of medieval Encyclopaedia Britannica, Haidara said, chronicling the lives of Islamic scholars, broken into short biographical sections with delicate flourishes, such as green, red, and gold embossed letters marking the beginning of each new section. Scribblings by many different hands filled the margins, presumably added by scholars at Sankoré who consulted this work for their own research through the ages. “It’s obvious that it’s an important work,” he told me. “It’s from the 16th century, and it’s still readable, and it’s filled with statements that shows it’s been consulted by many intellectuals. That gives it a great value.”

Haidara had expected to escort all the manuscripts back to Timbuktu by now, but continuing instability in the north had made that impossible. (During my visit to Timbuktu in February, jihadists clashed with French Special Forces just north of Timbuktu and fired rockets at the city’s airport. Shortly after my visit to Mali, French forces tracked down and killed Oumar Ould Hamaha, the AQIM fanatic who had arrested Touré on that night in Timbuktu two years earlier.)

The continuing state of limbo was taking a toll on Haidara: “I’m all the time surrounded by worry, by responsibility, sometimes I even forget my family,” he admitted. “My only ambition is to rehabilitate all these libraries in Timbuktu, so that I can bring all the manuscripts back to each family that entrusted them to me. That will give me a little bit of peace.”


By Joshua Hammer


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