Truth, the first victim of war in Timbuktu
Throughout its 800 years, Timbuktu city has witnessed invasions, pillage, famine, soaring prices, plagues, the effects of a devastating earthquake in 1755, marauding, political instability, internecine fighting over power, the destruction and theft of manuscripts, colonial rule and civil war.
An 18th-century Timbuktu chronicle titled “An account of the deaths and tragic events that transpired in Timbuktu and Jenne between 1748 and 1800” details a dark, almost anarchic reality.
Except for its references to the pilgrims on the sacred journey to Mecca, piety, status and years of service of the prayer leaders and judges, the chronicle is pessimistic, an ominous sepulchre of death and horrific events.
When the Ansar al-Din and the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad took control of Timbuktu early in 2012, followed by the recent French invasion, its inhabitants knew these tragic events were not a first for their city.
The city, however, is as thoroughly acquainted with prosperity, stability and scholarship. It became the most significant centre of knowledge for Africa in the 16th century – at one stage reportedly with 25 000 full-time students.
Over the next five centuries, the city produced thousands of manuscripts. This intellectual tradition ensured a special place in history, without which it might have remained an insignificant settlement or a commercial emporium. The people of Timbuktu know all too well that these tribulations are periodic. They always pull through.
The thousands of manuscripts have faced numerous dangers: the elements, termites, theft, war and the opportunistic selling of manuscripts over the past five centuries.
The earliest recent reports of the supposed burning of its manuscripts made us fear the words of the 18th-century German Jewish poet Heinriche Heine: “They who begin by burning books will end by burning human beings.”
In the recent invasion, cut off from the “outside” world, the only initial reports from Timbuktu were disseminated by embedded journalist with the invading French army. We were told the retreating rebels had torched the Ahmed Baba archival library and set fire to its 20 000 manuscripts.
I have been a researcher on the UCT-Timbuktu Manuscripts Project since 2004 and have frequently visited Timbuktu, getting to know its people and immersing myself in the manuscripts – their feel, smell, spirit – and poring over for days the contents of a single page, often interrupted only by the call to prayer or an empty stomach.
We began our work on the manuscripts at the private Mamma Haïdara Memorial library, a family collection, in 2004. Since 2006, I conducted my research at the Ahmad Baba Library, then still at the old building before the manuscripts were shifted to the new archival library built by the South African government and financed largely by its civil society.
There is for me no greater reward for scholarship than holding a manuscript in my hand. What this African city offers to scholarship and human progress cannot be measured.
Thus my colleagues and I were devastated when news of the torching of the library and the burning of thousands of manuscripts made headlines. It felt as if our lives were being burnt – and perhaps they were.
But the vicious “smart” wars of the past decade have alerted us to be circumspect about what we hear and see on news channels. The psychological tools of these wars are often no less devastating than the physical destruction.
What distinguishes these recent wars from earlier less sophisticated ones is their propaganda machinery and their embedded journalists, for whom the major mission is serving power in gratitude for scoops on the backs of tanks.
As news about the safety of the manuscripts reached us, it seemed increasingly that the French propaganda machine and its journalists created the story to give legitimacy to their invasion.
The task of the intellectual is to serve the truth, however unpalatable or unsexy. The researcher cannot sacrifice the trust that knowledge assumes for sensationalism and political patronage. From our reliable sources in Bamako and people based in Timbuktu, we learn that reports of the Ahmed Baba library being torched and thousands of manuscripts burned by the retreating fighters were wrong.
In fact, the Ansar al-Din fighters apparently took care of the building during their occupation of it.
Thus, and with great relief, Heine’s words are not applicable to Timbuktu: its books or its human lives.
» Mathee is a lecturer in religion studies at the University of Johannesburg