The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu
Abdel Kader Haidara was a small boy when he first learned about the hidden treasures of Timbuktu. In the Haidaras’ large house in Sankoré, the city’s oldest neighborhood, he often heard his father mention them under his breath, as if reluctantly revealing a family secret. Dozens of young boarders from across the Sahel region of Africa, the vast, arid belt that extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, came to study mathematics, science, astrology, jurisprudence, Arabic, and the Koran at the traditional school that his father ran in the vestibule of their home. Consisting of three three-hour sessions beginning before dawn and continuing, at intervals, until the early hours of the evening, the Haidara School was a throwback to the informal universities that had flourished in Timbuktu during its heyday as a center of learning in the sixteenth century. There were thousands of manuscripts at the house in Timbuktu, locked away in tin chests in a storage room behind a heavy
oak door. Haidara had a sense of their importance, but he knew very little about them.
Sometimes his father would rummage through the storage room and emerge with a volume from his family’s collection—a treatise about Islamic jurisprudence from the early twelfth century; a thirteenth-century Koran written on vellum made from the hide of an antelope; another holy book from the twelfth century, no larger than the palm of a hand, inscribed on fish skin, its intricate Maghrebi script illuminated with droplets of gold leaf. One of his father’s most prized works was the original travel diary of Major Alexander Gordon Laing, a Scotsman who had been the first European explorer to reach Timbuktu via Tripoli and the Sahara, and who was betrayed, robbed, and murdered by his Arab nomadic escorts shortly after departing from the city in 1826. A few years after Laing’s murder, a scribe had written a primer of Arabic grammar over the explorer’s papers—an early example of recycling. Haidara would peer over his father’s shoulder as he gathered students around him, regarding the crumbling works with curiosity. Over time he learned about the manuscripts’ history, and how to protect them. Haidara spoke Songhoy, the language of Mali’s Sorhai tribe, the dominant sedentary ethnic group along the northern bend of the Niger River, and in school he studied French, the language of Mali’s former colonial masters. But he also taught himself to read Arabic fluently as a boy, and his interest in the manuscripts grew.
In those days—the late 1960s and early 1970s—Timbuktu was linked to the outside world only by riverboats that plied the Niger River when the water level was high enough, and once weekly flights on the state-owned airline to Bamako, the capital of Mali, 440 air miles away. Haidara, the sixth child among twelve brothers and sisters, had little awareness of his town’s isolation. He, his siblings, and their friends fished and swam in a five-mile-long canal that led from the western edge of Timbuktu to the Niger. The third
longest river in Africa, it is a boomerang-shaped stream that originates in the highlands of Guinea and meanders for one thousand miles through Mali, forming lakes and floodplains, before curving east just below Timbuktu, then flowing through Niger and Nigeria and spilling into the Gulf of Guinea. The canal was the most vibrant corner of the city, a gathering point for children, market women, and traders in dugout canoes, or pirogues, piled high with fruits and vegetables from the irrigated farms that flourished beside the Niger. It was also a place redolent with bloody history: Tuareg warriors hiding on the reed-covered bank on Christmas Day 1893 had ambushed and massacred two French military officers and eighteen African sailors as they paddled a canoe up from the Niger.
Haidara and his friends explored every corner of the Sankoré neighborhood, a labyrinth of sandy alleys lined with the shrines of Sufi saints, and the fourteenth-century Sankoré Mosque—a lopsided mud pyramid with permanent scaffolding made from bundles of palm sticks embedded in the clay. They played soccer in the sandy field in front of the mosque and climbed the lush mango trees that proliferated in Timbuktu in those days, before the southward advance of desertification caused many of them to wither and die, and the canal to dry out and fill with sand. There were few cars, no tourists, no disturbances from the outside world; it was, Haidara would recall decades later, a largely carefree and contented existence.
Abdel Kader’s father, Mohammed “Mamma” Haidara, was a pious, learned, and adventurous man who deeply influenced his son. Born in the late 1890s in Bamba, a village hugging the left bank of the Niger River, 115 miles east of Timbuktu, Mamma Haidara had come of age when Mali, then known as French West Sudan—a mélange of ethnic groups stretching from the forests and savannah of the far south, near Guinea and Senegal, to the arid wastes of the far north, toward the Algerian border—had still not fallen under total French control. Fiercely independent Tuareg nomads in the Sahara
were carrying on armed resistance, galloping on camels out of the dunes, ambushing the colonial army with spears and swords. It was not until 1916 that they would be completely subdued. After learning to read and write in French colonial schools, Mamma Haidara had commenced a life of travel and study. He had little money, but he was able to hitch rides on camel caravans, and, because he was literate, he could support himself along the way holding informal classes in the Koran and other subjects.
At seventeen he journeyed to the ancient imperial capital of Gao, two hundred miles along the river east of Timbuktu, and to the desert oasis of Araouan, a walled town famed for its scholars and a stop on the ancient salt caravan route through the Sahara. Driven by a thirst for knowledge and for an understanding of the world, he traveled to Sokoto, the seat of a powerful nineteenth-century Islamic kingdom in what is now Nigeria; to Alexandria and Cairo; and to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital situated at the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, and its twin city, Omdurman, across the river, where the army of Major General Horatio Herbert Kitchener defeated a force led by an Islamic revivalist and anticolonialist called the Mahdi in 1895 and established British rule over Sudan.
After a decade of wandering Mamma Haidara returned an educated man, and was named by the scholars of Bamba the town’s qadi, the Islamic judicial authority responsible for mediating property disputes and presiding over marriages and divorces. He brought back illuminated Korans and other manuscripts from Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria, and Chad, adding to a family library in Bamba that his ancestors had begun amassing in the sixteenth century. Eventually Mamma Haidara settled in Timbuktu, opened a school, made money trading grain and livestock, purchased land, and wrote his own manuscripts about reading the stars, and the genealogy of the clans of the city. Scholars from across the region often stayed with the family, and local people visited to receive
from the Islamic savant a fatwa—a ruling on a point of Islamic law.
In 1964, four years after Mali won its independence from France, a delegation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris convened in Timbuktu. UNESCO historians had read books written by Ibn Batuta, perhaps the greatest traveler of the medieval world, who visited the land that is now Mali in the first half of the fourteenth century; and Hassan Mohammed Al Wazzan Al Zayati, who wrote under the pen name Leo Africanus while held under house arrest by the pope in Rome during the sixteenth century. The travelers described a vibrant culture of manuscript writing and book collecting centered in Timbuktu. European historians and philosophers had contended that black Africans were illiterates with no history, but Timbuktu’s manuscripts proved the opposite—that a sophisticated, freethinking society had thrived south of the Sahara at a time when much of Europe was still mired in the Middle Ages. That culture had been driven underground during the Moroccan conquest of Timbuktu in 1591, then had flourished in the eighteenth century, only to vanish again during seventy years of French colonization. Owners had hidden manuscripts in holes in the ground, in secret closets, and in storage rooms. UNESCO experts resolved to create a center to recover the region’s lost heritage, restore to Timbuktu a semblance of its former glory, and prove to the world that Sub-Saharan Africa had once produced works of genius. UNESCO gathered notables to encourage collectors to bring the manuscripts out from their hiding places.
Nine years later, Mamma Haidara, then in his seventies, started working for the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, created by UNESCO in Timbuktu and funded by the ruling families of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Mamma Haidara lent fifteen volumes to the Ahmed Baba Institute’s first public exhibition, then traveled house to house in Timbuktu, knocking on
doors, trying to persuade other collectors to donate their hidden manuscripts. He was part of a great campaign of education, Abdel Kader Haidara recalled, that was greeted, for the most part, with suspicion and incomprehension. The work intrigued Abdel Kader, but he couldn’t imagine following in his father’s footsteps. There didn’t seem to be much of a future in it.
Mamma Haidara died after a long illness in 1981 in his mid-eighties, when Abdel Kader was seventeen. The notables of the town, along with officials responsible for distributing inheritances, called a meeting of the Haidara family. Abdel Kader, his mother, many of his siblings, and representatives of several brothers and sisters who couldn’t attend jammed the vestibule of the family house in Timbuktu’s Sankoré neighborhood to listen to a reading of the will. The elder Haidara had left behind land in Bamba, much livestock, a sizable fortune from a grain-trading business, as well as his vast manuscript collection—five thousand works in Timbuktu and perhaps eight times that number in the ancestral home in Bamba. The estate executor divided up the patriarch’s businesses, animals, property, and money among the siblings. Then, following a long-standing tradition within the Sorhai tribe, he announced that Mamma Haidara had designated a single heir as the custodian of the family’s library. The executor looked around the room. The siblings leaned forward.
“Abdel Kader,” the executor announced, “you are the one.”
Haidara received the news in astonished silence. Although he was the most studious of the twelve siblings, read and wrote Arabic fluently, and had long shown a fascination for the manuscripts, he could not have imagined that his father would entrust their care to somebody so young. The executor enumerated his responsibilities.
“You have no right to give the manuscripts away, and no right to sell them,” he said. “You have the duty to preserve and protect them.” Haidara was unsure what his new role would portend, and
was concerned whether he was up to the job. He knew only that the burden was great.
In 1984, Haidara’s mother died after a five-month illness, a loss that deeply affected him. She had been a warm, loving counterpart to Mamma Haidara, who could be a stern disciplinarian. At six years old, Abdel Kader had earned a reputation for fighting with other neighborhood boys, and his father, to rein him in, had dispatched him to study at a Koranic school deep in the Sahara, an austere encampment 150 miles north of Timbuktu. Haidara would describe with affection years later how his mother had labored over the cooking fire in the family courtyard, preparing perfumed rice, couscous, and other treats, then had packed the food into a basket to help ease the journey and provide sustenance throughout the month-long Koranic course. When his mother’s food had run out, young Haidara had stopped eating, and the sheikh in charge had shipped him back in exasperation to his parents in Timbuktu.
Immediately after the funeral of Haidara’s mother, the director of the Ahmed Baba Institute came to the Haidara home to pay his respects.
“I need you to come and see me,” he told Haidara, cryptically. A month later Haidara hadn’t shown up. Still coping with his grief, he had totally forgotten about the request. The director dispatched his driver to Haidara’s home. “Please come with me,” the driver said.
The director, Mahmoud Zouber, greeted Haidara at the Ahmed Baba Institute, a quadrangle of limestone buildings with Moorish archways enclosing a sand courtyard planted with date palms and desert acacias. Then in his thirties, Zouber was already regarded as one of the most accomplished scholars in northern Africa. He had started his career as a teacher at a French-Arabic high school in Timbuktu, studied on a Malian government fellowship at Al Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s most prestigious center of Islamic scholarship, and earned his PhD in West African history
at the Sorbonne in Paris. Zouber had written his doctoral thesis on the life of Ahmed Baba, a famous intellectual of Timbuktu’s Golden Age, who had been captured by the Moroccan invaders in 1591 and taken as a slave to Marrakesh. Chosen director of the Ahmed Baba Institute in 1973, while still in his twenties, Zouber had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from Kuwait and Iraq to construct the institute’s headquarters. Then he had built up the archive from nothing—starting with the fifteen manuscripts borrowed from Mamma Haidara’s collection.
A small, courtly man from Mali’s Peul tribe, traditionally farmers and herders who lived along the bend in the Niger River between Timbuktu and Gao, he took Haidara gently by the arm and escorted him through the courtyard and into his office. “Look,” said Zouber. “We worked a lot with your father. He did a great job collecting and educating the population about the manuscripts. And I hope that you will come to work with us as well.”
“Thanks, but I really don’t want to,” Haidara replied. He was contemplating a career in business, perhaps following his father into livestock and grain trading. He wanted to make money, he would explain years later. What he did not want to do, he was quite sure, was spend his days toiling in or for a library.
The director chased Haidara down a second time a few months later. Again he dispatched his driver to Haidara’s home, and summoned him back to the institute.
“You have to come,” he said. “I’m going to train you to do this. You’ve got a great responsibility.”
Haidara again mumbled his gratitude for the offer, but politely declined.
“You are the custodian of a great intellectual tradition,” Zouber persisted.
The institute was facing difficulties, the director confided. For the past ten years, a team of eight prospectors had embarked on one hundred separate missions in search of manuscripts. In a decade of
driving through the bush in a convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles, they had accumulated just 2,500 works—an average of less than one a day. After decades of thievery by the French colonial army, the owners had become fiercely protective of their manuscripts and deeply distrustful of government institutions. The appearance of Ahmed Baba prospectors raised alarms that they had come to steal their precious family heirlooms.
“Every time they drive into the villages, people are terrified. They hide everything,” Zouber told Haidara, looking him in the eye. “I think that if you come and work for us you’re going to help us bring out the manuscripts. It’s going to be a challenge, but you can do it.”