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Interest in ancient books could restore Timbuktu

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 5, 2010; A07

TIMBUKTU, MALI -- From a dented metal trunk, Abdoul Wahim Abdarahim Tahar pulled out something sure to make a preservationist's heart race -- or break: a leather-bound book written by hand in the 14th century, containing key verses of the prophet Muhammad, and crumbling at the edge of each yellowed page.

"Every time I touch it, it falls apart," he said, paging through the book. "Little by little."

But Tahar saw promise in the brittle volume -- for himself, his family and this legendary but now tumbledown town. He is not the only one. A sort of ancient-book fever has gripped Timbuktu in recent years, and residents hope to lure the world to a place known as the end of the Earth by establishing libraries for visitors to see their centuries-old collections of manuscripts.

In a West African town where nomads and traders eke out livings, a revival of world attention to hundreds of thousands of privately held manuscripts -- which survived fire, rain, sand and termites -- represents an economic opportunity. But researchers and residents say the restoration of the books, most written in Arabic on fragile paper or lambskin, is also vital to showcasing Timbuktu's -- and, by extension, sub-Saharan Africa's -- more glorious past as a vibrant hub of scholarship.

"Many think black people don't have history -- that it's all oral," said Bouya Haidara, 52, chief librarian at the Ahmed Baba Institute, a public library that is preparing to move into a new building sponsored by the South African government. "It's important the world knows black Africans have a written history."

The effort has been slow going. Travel warnings about Islamist insurgents in the area have deterred tourists. And most of the books remain in private hands and will probably stay that way: Many owners refuse to part with their books on the instructions of ancestors, but they struggle to raise funds to restore or display them.

2,700 manuscripts

Tahar's family, for example, has about 2,700 manuscripts passed down from his grandfather, a calligrapher. For now, they are stuffed inside trunks alongside pots and pans in his sandy house, and in one bookcase at what he calls his library -- a couple of nearly empty rooms not far away, where he spends time cataloguing the works.

It also houses a dusty computer on which Tahar pulled up a spreadsheet outlining the library's needs, including a toilet and an exhibit room. Tahar said a Moroccan patron who saw him and his collection on a television program donated about $8,000, but help has otherwise been fleeting.

Other private libraries have been more fortunate as donors, including Libya and the Ford and Andrew W. Mellon foundations, have given millions of dollars to save the books. At the Mamma Haidara Library, which received financial help, women vacuum manuscripts in a restoration lab and a trio of men build acid-free storage boxes. "The manuscript is considered like a little baby," said director Mohamed M. Moure.

The library's 22,000 volumes have been in the family since the 16th century, Moure said. Still, he goes from village to village in search of new additions to a collection of ancient texts on medicine, history, astronomy, culture and religion.

"What I like most is the correspondence," Moure said, referring to antique letters. "They speak of walking to Bamako, or to Mecca . . . mysterious things."

A half-dozen centuries ago, people were also walking -- flocking, even -- to Timbuktu. Its spot in the desert between North and sub-Saharan Africa and on the edge of the Niger River made it a crucial trade junction. A university of 25,000 students bustled with scholarship. Bazaars overflowed with books that arrived on the backs of camels. Calligraphers sold copies for grams of gold.

Timbuktu's decline began in the late 16th century, when Moroccan raiders chased away scholars they viewed as threats. Trade shifted to West African ports. The books that serve as a testament to those earlier days were put away and neglected.

"Twenty years ago, people didn't even know about most of these manuscripts," said Alexio Motsi, a preservationist with the South African National Archives. "They were just stumbling across them."

Sense of urgency

Although the books began to resurface in the 1970s, when Mali created the Ahmed Baba Institute, efforts to preserve them have gained momentum in recent years. South Africa has been a key player. The nation's scholarly former president, Thabo Mbeki, viewed the manuscripts as a tool for addressing "an urgent need to rethink Africa . . . an urgent need for Africa to define herself," as he said in a 2008 speech.

Early this year, archivists and curators trained by South Africa will take up residence at the Ahmed Baba Institute's new building. The 30,000-volume collection -- complete with a 17th-century Koran written on the skin of a gazelle -- will move into its climate-controlled rooms.

There is space for 100,000 books. Haidara said he is trying to persuade families to ensure their books' protection by selling them to the library, but it is a difficult task.

"This is the family heritage. You don't give it away," he said. "We are trying to raise their awareness."

Tahar has no intention of selling. Recently, he said, an American visited and offered to buy some of the books for $18,000, which Tahar declined. He said he is determined to raise the money for a library on his own.

For now, he spends his days teaching Arabic and cataloguing the texts. Some of the margins contain notes -- pieces of wisdom written by readers in previous eras.

"It says here, 'Repeat 177 times,' " Tahar said, pointing to an instruction in the book of the prophet's verses. " 'Everything you ask from God will come to be.' "

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