Timbuktu: rescuing books that ‘bear the human soul’

Timbuktu: rescuing books that ‘bear the human soul’

A Quran from the 12th century in Timbuktu

A 12th century Quran: one of the manuscripts that comprise Timbuktu’s heritage

There is the bravery of those who save other humans from certain death (this week, for example, Nicholas Winton, the man who rescued 669 children – mostly Jewish – from almost certain death in the Nazi concentration camps, celebrated his 105th birthday).  And then there is the bravery of those who, at great personal risk to themselves, save irreplaceable books or other cultural treasures from being destroyed by armed forces driven by ideologies which have no interest in freedom of expression.

Such is the story, told in today’s Guardian, of the brave Malians who smuggled hundreds of thousands of ancient books and manuscripts out of Timbuktu after the city had fallen to Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), the jihadist affiliate of al-Qaida in the civil war two years ago.

Guardian international editor Charlie English describes the terror that came to Timbuktu in late 2012:

It was a time of devastation in northern Mali: first the rebels pillaged the town, then the jihadis imposed a brutal form of sharia law on the population. Women were beaten for walking in the company of men. Music, a vibrant part of Malian culture that has been exported all over the world, was banned. Suspected thieves had their hands or feet chopped off after summary trials.

The largely moderate Muslims of Timbuktu were terrified. “When [the rebels] entered the city, people said if you were an artist they would cut out your tongue, because they hate music and want to ban it,” Bintu Dara, a singer, tells me in the Malian capital, Bamako. “One of my cousins was beaten in front of me, given 100 lashes from the jihadis,” she says. “My drum player was caught and put in jail. One of my relatives’ sons was the first guy to have his hand cut off.” Dara fled soon after, along with an estimated two-thirds of Timbuktu’s citizens.

Timbuktu is a Unesco-listed world heritage site, the cultural and spiritual capital of sub-Saharan Africa.  Many cultural artefacts  were destroyed or damaged during the first week of the occupation –  the shrines of Sufi saints were hacked to pieces, priceless medieval manuscripts were burnt.  It was then that Abdel Haïdara and a group of brave and dedicated assistants decided to act.

Haïdara manages the largest private library in the city, a library he can trace back to a 16th-century ancestor.  He also runs an organisation, Savama-DCI, that represents other private manuscript collections. Charlie English recounts the dramatic and inspiring story of how Haïdara and his assistants succeeded in saving almost 400,000 manuscripts, moved in thousands of lockers, each of which was the size of a small trunk.

Abdel Kader Haïdara with ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu packed into metal trunks

Abdel Kader Haïdara with ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu packed into metal trunks

Timbuktu now may be a sleepy place threatened not just by war but also by the encroaching sands of the Sahara – but as Charlie English recounts, from the early 14th to late 16th centuries Timbuktu was famous for its wealth and as a centre for Islamic teaching:

The Encyclopedia Britannica states that by 1450 Timbuktu had a population of 100,000, a quarter of whom were students. Even if these figures are wildly exaggerated, Timbuktu was a thriving centre of learning, and manuscripts were highly prized: the traveller Leo Africanus, who visited in 1510, found books sold for more money than any other merchandise in the city’s market.

Books reached Timbuktu by caravan from Fez and Cairo, Tripoli and Córdoba, and what the scholars couldn’t afford, they would copy. Other documents were written in Timbuktu. The vast libraries that resulted included every subject: astronomy and medicine, law, theology, grammar and proverbs. There were biographical dictionaries, diaries, letters between rulers and subjects; legal opinions on slavery, coinage, marriage and divorce; the lives of Muslims, Jews and Christians; there were histories and poetry.

In his Description of Africa, published in 1550, the traveller Leo Africanus marvelled that in the bustling markets of Timbuktu, under the towers of its majestic mosques, the richest traders were booksellers.

A damaged Timbuktu manuscript saved during the rescue operation

A damaged Timbuktu manuscript saved during the rescue operation

I recall seeing, several years ago, a BBC 4 documentary in which Aminatta Forna told the story of the lost libraries of Timbuktu and their long-hidden legacy of hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscript.  She spoke, too, of Timbuktu’s university, founded around the same time as Oxford, and of the legacy of learning preserved in the manuscripts of Timbuktu – the classical Greek heritage copied and preserved in the middle ages, the history and laws of Mali and Songhai, chronicles of the families of Timbuktu, the poetry and stories of north Africa.  Yet when European empires scrambled for Africa in the 19th century, Africans were regarded as primitive illiterates, with no history or literature.

The whole film can be seen on YouTube:

Reading the Guardian’s account of how the manuscripts of Timbuktu were saved brought to mind a trio of posts in the archive of this blog.  In The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story, I wrote of another documentary shown on BBC TV in 2012 that told the story of how over 10,000 manuscripts and rare books belonging to the Gazi Husrev Beg library were saved during the siege of Sarajevo. That magnificent film can also be seen on YouTube:

In An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street: a hymn to the book and the word, I wrote of seeing, in Manchester’s John Rylands Library, the project conceived by poet Beau Beausoleil and artist Sarah Bodman to ‘re-assemble’ the ‘inventory’ of reading material that was lost when a car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad, on 5 March 2007 – an attack in which more than 30 people died and many more wounded.

In the third post I discussed Melvyn Bragg’s week-long In Our Time special, The Written World, broadcast over one week on BBC Radio 4.  Bragg’s thesis was that writing was the greatest human invention, and the focus of the series was the technology for recording words – tablets, manuscripts and books, each of which in some way represented a turning point in the history of ideas.

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

– Emily Dickinson

See also

Blessed be the Nation: the story sung by Pete Seeger

Blessed be the Nation: the story sung by Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)

Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)

Following the death of Pete Seeger I came across reviews of an album put out in 1998 by Appleseed Recordings, an idealistic independent music label set up by Jim Musselman, a lawyer and activist who once worked with  Ralph Nader.  Musselman has devoted the label to releasing socially conscious contemporary and traditional folk and roots music by established and lesser-known musicians.  On the Appleseed website, Musselman speaks of the years when he worked with Ralph Nader:

I travelled the country for eight years, criss-crossing America in a Guthrie-esque way, seeing the nation and its citizens up close, learning the best ways to listen and to communicate. When I was organizing local communities to fight back against multinational corporations, I would start our open public meetings with a song, figuring that unifying people in singing was an important first step to unifying them in political action.

In 1997, for Appleseed’s first major project, Musselman approached numerous well-known musicians, along with writer Studs Terkel with a request to each record a song written, adapted or performed by Pete Seeger for a tribute album to highlight Seeger’s musical contributions and his tradition of mixing songs and political activism. The resulting  double CD Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger was the one I stumbled across as I followed internet references to Seeger in the days after his death.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone cover

It’s a terrific album from which you gain a holistic sense of the man and the causes he embraced. Jim Musselman also did a great job choosing songs from Seeger’s vast repertoire and matching each tune with an artist ‘based on either the philosophical fit between the artist and the message of the song and/or their unique musical style’, as he writes in the accompanying booklet. As an example of this approach, take the opening track – ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ – sung by Irish songwriter and peace activist Tommy Sands with Bosnian Vedran Smailovic (‘the Cellist of Sarejevo).  Bear in mind that this was recorded in 1997, before the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and only months after the lifting of the siege of Sarejevo.

The album includes 37 versions of Seeger-related songs specially recorded by luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Ani DiFranco and many others.  The material is wonderful, every song reinforcing the picture of Seeger as both an interpreter of musical tradition and as a crusader for social justice.  The performances are first-rate, with many highlights. Bruce Springsteen’s gentle reading of ‘We Shall Overcome’, for example, precedes the version he recorded for his album, The Seeger Sessions many years later, while Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt offer a lilting reggae-inflected account of ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’.  There are the songs that reflect Seeger’s later commitment to environmental issues and his campaign (entirely successful) to clean up his beloved, polluted Hudson river, such as ‘Sailing Down My Golden River’.

Lisa Kalvelage report

A remarkable, if less musical interlude comes with Ani DiFranco singing ‘My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage’, Pete’s adaptation of the words spoken in May 1966 by Lisa Kalvelage, one of four women who stopped a shipment of napalm to Vietnam by standing on a loading platform and refusing to move. Seeger’s words come from the statement she made in court after being arrested. Kalvelage likened her protest to lessons she learned from being raised in Nazi Germany – never to keep silent:

If you live in a democratic country where the government is you, you cannot say, ‘I followed orders,’ ” she told a reporter. “If you recognize that something is wrong, you have to speak out to set it straight.

But the words I really wanted to pass on in this post come from one of the two recitations on the album by the late Studs Terkel. It’s a reading of ‘Blessed Be The Nation’, verses Seeger left on a rock on an island where he had camped with his youngest daughter.  He elaborates in the CD booklet:

In 1964 I took my youngest daughter canoeing on a beautiful lake in Maine.  We camped on a little island and were dismayed to see the beach littered with bottles and cans.  We picked ’em all up.  I had a marker with me and wrote this graffiti on a flat stone.  I never wrote a tune, but someone else can try.

Seeger never put music to these words.  I’d like to share them here:

Cursed be the nation of any size or shape,
Whose citizens behave like naked apes,
And drop their litter where they please,
Just like we did when we swung from trees.

But blessed be the nation and blessed be the prize,
When citizens of any shape or size
Can speak their mind for any reason
Without being jailed or accused of treason.

Cursed be the nation without equal education,
Where good schools are something that we ration,
Where the wealthiest get the best that is able,
And the poor are left with crumbs from the table.

Blessed be the nation that keeps its waters clean,
Where an end to pollution is not just a dream,
Where factories don’t blow poisonous smoke,
And we can breath the air without having to choke.

Cursed be the nation where all play to win,
And too much is made of the colour of the skin,
Where we do not see each other as sister and brother,
But as being threats to each other.

Blessed be the nation with health care for all,
Where there’s a helping hand for those who fall,
Where compassion is in fashion every year,
And people, not profits, is what we hold dear.

There’s a recording of Studs Terkel reading the words on YouTube:

In another song on the album – ‘False from True’, sung by Guy Davis – Seeger ruefully observes the limits of protest in song.  But, as he remarks in the verse, he continued to sing our story for as long as he had breath within.  For that we can be thankful, for the words continue, inspiring succeeding generations:

No song I can sing will make a politician change his mind,
No song I can sing will take the gun from a hate-filled man;
But I promise you, and you, brothers and sisters of every skin,
I’ll sing your story while I’ve breath within.