On Friday morning, January 25, 2013, fifteen jihadis entered the restoration and conservation rooms on the ground floor of the Ahmed Baba Institute in Sankoré, the government library that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had taken over the previous April. For nearly a year, thousands of manuscripts left behind by the Ahmed Baba staff had been sitting in the open, stacked on shelves and lying on restoration tables, while the jihadis prayed, trained, ate, and slept around them.
Now, on the verge of being expelled from Timbuktu, the Al Qaeda fighters would extract their retribution. The men swept 4,202 manuscripts off lab tables and shelves, and carried them into the tiled courtyard. In an act of nihilistic vindictiveness that they had been threatening for months, the jihadis made a pyre of the ancient texts, including fourteenth- and fifteenth-century works of physics, chemistry, and mathematics, their fragile pages covered with algebraic formulas, charts of the heavens, and molecular diagrams. They doused the manuscripts in gasoline, watching in satisfaction as the liquid saturated them, and tossed in a lit match. The brittle pages and their dry leather covers ignited in a flash. The flames rose higher, licking at a concrete column around which the volumes had been arranged. In minutes, the work of some of Timbuktu’s greatest savants and scientists, preserved for centuries, hidden from the nineteenth-century jihadis and the French conquerors, survivors of floods and the pernicious effects of dust, bacteria, water, and insects, were consumed by the inferno. …
And yet out of this wanton act of destruction the curators of the Ahmed Baba Institute had managed to extract a small victory. [Seven months later] Bouya escorted me down a wide flight of stairs to the basement, leading the way by flashlight, since power had still not been restored to the city months after the occupation. He turned the key in the lock and cast his beam over black, moisture-resistant cardboard boxes neatly arranged on dozens of metal shelves, as tidy and ordered as the stacks of a university library in the United States. During their ten months of living at the Ahmed Baba Institute, the fighters had never bothered to venture downstairs to this dark and climate-controlled storage room hidden behind a locked door. Inside were stacks containing 10,603 restored manuscripts, folios, and leather-encased volumes, among the finest works in the collection. “All of them—untouched,” Bouya Haidara said.
In Bamako, Abdel Kader Haidara [no relation] saw the burning of the manuscripts as a confirmation of the jihadis’ intentions—and a vindication of his remarkable undertaking. Starting with no money besides the meager sum in his savings account, Haidara had recruited a loyal circle of volunteers, badgered and shamed the international community into funding the scheme by presenting it as an epic showdown between civilization and the forces of barbarism, raised $1 million—a tremendous sum for Timbuktu—and hired hundreds of amateur smugglers in Timbuktu and beyond.
In a low-tech operation that seemed quaintly anomalous in the second decade of the twenty-first century, he and his team had transported to safety, by river and by road, past hostile jihadi guards and suspicious Malian soldiers, past bandits, attack helicopters, and other potentially lethal obstacles, almost all of Timbuktu’s 377,000 manuscripts. Not one had been lost en route.
Transcribed by me from pages 209–211 of my hardcover copy of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, © 2016, Simon & Schuster.
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