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From the Series: Mali, March 2012

The Oxford English Dictionary “word of the year” for 2012 was “omnishambles;” and it could have been coined with Mali, 2012 (and continuing), in mind for it has seen a period of multiple violent disruptions, deep political confusion in Bamako, and continued hardship for the majority of the population. From virtually every perspective it has been a mess: from the massacre in Aguelhok at the start of 2012 through a coup d’etat, the changes in government, a military without a vision and sense of service, small bands of rebels able to take more and more territory, destruction of historic monuments, moving around of manuscript collections, and then an urgent call from the administration in Bamako on the ex-colonial power to save the country from further shambles.

Most of my friends and colleagues in the region are usually based in Timbuktu, about 800km away from the capital. Some may not originally come from Timbuktu but have found themselves there because of language and research skills that allow them to work in the libraries that have emerged in that town. When the Ansar Dine took over the town they left with their families to Bamako and then to their original villages or hometowns. There was an exodus from the town by bus and boat. But other colleagues stayed on. There were a few who managed to go in and out and brought out parts of their manuscript collections and hard-drives to the relative safety of the capital.

We, researchers at the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, stayed in touch with those who had relocated to Bamako. Communication lines with Timbuktu soon broke down. But we were able to put together stories from people in Bamako who got news fairly regularly from within Timbuktu. We managed to bring to Cape Town one colleague who spent a few weeks with us; during this break from the stress of Bamako he gave a seminar and continued his work on digitized manuscripts he had been working on and brought with him. Digital technology has enabled such mobility of materials; on the other hand, in this age of hyper-fast information flows when we cannot imagine being cut off from anywhere else for longer than a few hours at most, and not even the “most distant” Timbuktu, not being able to make contact with people there for months gave us a sobering perspective on our limits when mobile phones and the Internet are not viable means of communication.

The Ansar Dine’s early campaign of tomb destruction clearly highlighted their specific theo-ideological tendency. We did sense over the past few years that there was a growing presence of adherents of the “Wahabi” or “Salafi” tradition in the town. But they kept to themselves. A few of them may have joined the Ansar Dine when they arrived in town. Marching to knock down the tombs of the holymen of Timbuktu was probably what they had wanted to do for a long time. But when they started they made themselves immensely unpopular. They had to go on showing that they were serious about destroying these structures because people must have continued with their ways, visiting the saints and visiting the cemeteries, possibly as ways of resisting the imposition of the new strictures by men with guns but no religious, spiritual or moral authority among them.

In the early stages there was no immediate threat to the libraries. Yet the owners locked up, hid their materials and left town with some of their most valuable manuscripts. They asked us us to stop communicating with the international media about the manuscripts and remove articles dealing with this issue from our website. Our fear initially was not about book destruction. We were worried about neglect and mishandling. The Ansar Dine was trying to establish a little state in Timbuktu so their concerns were defending the town against counter-attack and capture by the government. Of course, despite a coup d’etat to protect the territorial integrity of the Malian state, the Malian army never engaged militarily with the rebels. So Timbuktu was left alone and the rebels went about attempting to establish their dream shariah city-state. Libraries and manuscripts were never going to be a priority even though many items among the collections are anathema to the views of the Ansar Dine; there are texts of Sufi poetry, liturgies, and prose by leading Sufi masters from the region. In this context, attacking a tomb with hoes is a much more public and spectacular act than tearing-up or burning a text in a library. We hoped that they were illiterate and uninterested in books, as they seem to have been. Yet too much neglect may have led to the other extreme, which is abuse and destruction. Indeed, we have been told that materials did disappear and were probably destroyed in the new building of the state archive, the Ahmad Baba Institute. But we are waiting for confirmation and details. However, no library or archive was attacked and razed to the ground as the French marched into Timbuktu and the rebels fled, as was reported by Sky and Reuters and other news sources. There was a need for a compelling story to broadcast to the world as Timbuktu was retaken without a fight; a bonfire of local, valued old, handwritten books was to be it. But it did not happen. Concerned locals had taken some precautions. Hiding materials and moving them elsewhere were possibly ways of preservation from earlier episodes of conflict and troubles in and around Timbuktu. They appreciate a solid, air-conditioned building to house their texts but they always had alternatives, which included the mobility of manuscripts; it has made us think that through the history of the wider region there is a long history of the “mobile archive.”

Shamil Jeppie is a director at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (Huma), University of Cape Town.