Abdelkader Haidara is a man who answers his emails quickly. But alongside his connections to the modern world, he is also at home in an entirely different epoch: the centuries when his hometown of Timbuktu was a stronghold of Islamic scholarship.
Some 100,000 ancient manuscripts testify to this epoch today. Written in Arabic, at that time the language of the elite in West Africa, they cover subjects as diverse as Islamic law, philosophy, medicine, astronomy and mathematics. Haidara owns one of the oldest manuscripts: a Qur’an dating from the 13th century, written on gazelle vellum.
Haidara inherited 9,000 manuscripts from his father, the largest private collection in Timbuktu. He put them on display for the public, starting a new trend: private owners preserving their treasures themselves rather than placing them in the care of the Malian state.
"The families are the best keepers of their own intellectual heritage," says Haidara.
But this is a matter of the maintenance and conservation of highly fragile historical documents. And Western experts couple funding projects with the expectation that what’s being called the "oldest library south of the Sahara" will soon be available for academic study in digital form.
And Timbuktu’s manuscript owners have been developing a new stubborn confidence.
To this day, Europeans associate Timbuktu with the farthest reaches of the known world. But actually, it was a centre of the southern world for centuries, being both a trading hub and home to an Islamic university. Highways crossed back then: from the north came the caravans; along the river came the gold of West Africa. The merchants drew the scholars and by the 15th century Timbuktu had 25,000 students, almost as many as the city’s modern-day population.
For some years now, the families have been opening the chests where they keep their yellowing gilded calligraphies. The manuscripts are evidence that "Africa has had a share in Islamic knowledge for almost a thousand years," says the German Islamic scholar Albrecht Hofheinz, who is in charge of digitalising the manuscripts at the University of Oslo.
Some came from Andalusia, from North Africa and the Middle East, while others were written by African authors in Timbuktu itself. African languages were also written in the Arabic alphabet for diplomatic correspondence and contracts.
Unlike most of his compatriots in Francophone Mali, Haidara, 45, was educated in Arabic. His family kept its Arabic and Islamic heritage alive with each generation handing the manuscripts down to the next from the 16th century onwards.
Haidara’s father studied in Sudan and Egypt, buying manuscripts and copying them by hand. At that time, many other families in Timbuktu began locking their libraries away, sometimes even hiding them in holes in the sand in the fear they might be confiscated by French colonialists. In the former royal city of Segou, the French had misappropriated valuable manuscripts which are still kept in the Paris National Library to this day.
As a propagandist for private initiative, however, Haidara spent almost 20 years buying manuscripts on behalf of the state-run Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu. Some 30,000 are now archived there.
He was the first to open a private library in 1993, encouraging other families to do the same. The result was a genuine boom: Timbuktu now boasts 32 of these family libraries. People are now increasingly aware of the value of their heritage, including in material terms.
But back when Haidara first looked for financial support abroad some 15 years ago, nobody wanted to believe his story of an ancient African library. The turning point came in 1997, when Henry Louis Gates, head of African American Studies at Harvard, saw the manuscripts and was immediately taken with them, finding sponsors for the library in the United States.
Haidara’s library, named after his father Mamma Haidara, has grown into a small enterprise with 12 employees. In 2008 the Juma Al Majid Center for Culture and Heritage in Dubai helped him to set up a laboratory for the repair, conservation and digitalisation of the manuscripts.
The library even hosts regular workshops, attended by Azawagh Arabs with short beards – stemming from parts of Mali, Niger and Algeria, nomadic Berber Tuaregs with turbans and reading glasses, and many others. These manuscript owners are learning about digital catalogues.
Savama, a non-profit consortium of private manuscript libraries in Timbuktu, hosts these workshops and works towards popularising the heritage, with local translation commissions and vacation courses. "Owning manuscripts that you can’t understand is shameful," says Haidara. "We’re in the process of losing our ‘Islamic culture’. The Sufi schools that taught a tolerant Islam in Timbuktu have almost all disappeared. And even Mali’s best historians don’t speak Arabic."
Haidara plans to release a CD containing translations of exemplary texts on peaceful solution of conflicts and good governance in the near future.
The telephone rings and Haidara’s eyes light up: a thousand books are on their way from Qatar, he says, as an academic reference library for studying the ancient manuscripts. And next week South Africans from the University of Cape Town are coming for a symposium.
There’s plenty to do here at the farthest reach of the world.
* Charlotte Wiedemann is a freelance writer. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Qantara.de.