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Monday, December 3, 2007

A tale of two libraries

[Note to Reader: New plan. Rather than submit to the tyranny of blogging dogma/ protocol by posting this travel diary in cascading chronological order, I have decided to leap ahead to our current experience in Timbuktu. Connecting to the internet here is dodgy at best, but it can be done, and I will use what little bandwidth I can muster to post about one aspect of our experience here in Timbuktu, while we are here in Timbuktu. Upon our return home, over the next month, I will continue to transcribe the paper travel journal entries for the intervening dates into post-dated blog entries, illustrated with relevant (or not) photos and video. This means that this post will remain at or near the top of the blog, while new posts appear and are updated without notice further downstream. Deal with it.]

The focus of our few days in Timbuktu are the ancient manuscripts and libraries of Timbuktu and the Herculean effort to preserve them. A primary impetus for our planning this trip now, was my brother Harlan's involvement in one such project to digitally preserve some of the manuscripts. I will not attempt here to summarize the history of these manuscripts and/or Timbuktu as a center for scholarship in the 16th century. This information is readily available in books and on the web. Suffice it to say that in it's heyday there were more books and manuscripts in Timbuktu than in all of Western Europe combined. By an order of magnitude.


Many of these manuscripts have traversed time in the hands of families of Islamic scholars and teachers who have held, hidden and protected them across the centuries. Sunday, before our tour travel companions departed for Bamako and home, we toured one such family library as a group - the Mamma Haidera library* (pictured on the left). Tuesday, after the group left, our Trans-Africa travel guide Bouj took Sigrid and I to visit the Allimam Chaffa library (pictured on the right).

The contrast in these two libraries illustrate the promise and problem in preserving this legacy of human intellectual achievement. Since 2001, the Hadeira Library* has been associated with a South African led effort to preserve their manuscripts and the collection is housed in a building expressly for that purpose. The manuscripts are cataloged and protected in glass cases, plastic sleeves, and wooden bookshelves. The Chaffa Family Library is without financial support, is unwilling to sell or permit the manuscripts to pass out of family hands, and as a consequence the manuscripts are housed in a mud brick house, uncatalogued, protected from flash flood water damage by raising it on wooden crates, id stored in old suitcases, trunks, and makeshift bookshelves. Some of the manuscripts show significant termite damage.


I am in no position to opine on the relative historical significance of these libraries. Certainly the Choffer library has no less interesting a background.


The Chaffa library was the property of the Iman of Araouane, a desert town we visited on camel a few days before. The town was once a rich community serving as a desert “port” for caravans crossing the ocean of sand to and from Timbuktu. Now it has shrunk to a population of a few hundred, that eke out a living by servicing the dwindling desert caravans, supplemented by the tourist trade.

About 100 years ago, the library was moved to it's current location in Timbuktu, pictured on the right in these photos. The man in blue is Allimam Chaffa, the son of the Iman of Araouane. He continues the family tradition of protecting and teaching from the manuscripts to students in Timbuktu.
We left him a small contribution. It was not enough. We think that Bouj brought us here in a vague hope that we can help publicize the plight of this historical treasure trove.

Tonight we dined with Harlan's associate Hamidou Ongoiba and his Toureg friend and interpreter Mohamed on the outdoor rooftop dining room of our hotel La Maison. There we planned our last day of activity in Timbuktu, including further exploration the libraries and the project Harlan and Hamidou are participating in to digitally preserve the manuscripts.

[*NOTE: Except for the photo of the entrance (taken on Tuesday), the pictures on the left are not of the Mamma Haidera Library as stated in this post. This was an incorrect assumption I made during our tour visit Saturday, which I determined to be incorrect after visiting the Mamma Haidera library with Hamidou on Tuesday. I am not sure what library we actually visited Saturday, but will update here when I figure it out.]

3 comments:

robyn said...

fasinating! must have been very fun to see 1st hand the project harlan is working on. btw harlan when do you go back? and happy chanukah everyone.

LE DOGON said...

Précision: L'homme en bleu est Allimam Chaffa, le fils de l'Iman de Araouane. Il continue la tradition familiale de la protection et de l'enseignement aux étudiants des manuscrits de Tombouctou.

mw said...

Hamidou,
Thanks for the comment and correction. I have fixed the spelling of Allimam Chaffa in the post.