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Abdel Kader Haidara: The librarian who saved 350k manuscripts from jihadists

  • Innovators Project

The librarian revived ardour in Mali’s eminent past … then had to attain it other than jihadists.

Printed April 21, 2014

25 min be taught

It turned into once early within the summertime of 2012, and on the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu, a clandestine operation turned into once below procedure. Evening after evening, a team below the course of the library’s founder, Abdel Kader Haidara, quietly packed the outdated fashioned works of astronomy, poetry, historical past, and jurisprudence into steel chests, then interesting them out of the library in mule carts and 4x4s to safe houses scattered around the city.

It turned into once phase of a final-ditch strive to protect the nation’s most necessary assortment of ancient manuscripts from falling into the hands of militants allied to al Qaeda within the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Six months earlier, terrorist teams had seized northern Mali and launched a scientific effort to murder anything else they viewed as haram—forbidden—according to their harsh interpretation of Islamic practices.

The extremists’ inroads, militarily and culturally, held a tragic irony: Haidara as a student and community leader had made it his life’s work to doc, as by no system sooner than, Mali’s achievements as an outdated school heart of progressive concept, alongside side Islamic teachings that had been anathema to the fanaticism that AQIM turned into once now making an attempt to spread throughout the West African nation.

And Haidara’s manuscripts had been treasured for what they said extra broadly about Africa’s historical past. Harvard student Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who visited Timbuktu and Haidara in 1996, explains that Hegel, Kant, and varied Enlightenment philosophers contended that Africa had no custom of writing, and because of the this reality no historical past and no memory.

“And unless you may maybe maybe also simply occupy these, you may maybe maybe even be no longer a civilization, which turned into once a pernicious argument that offered justification for the slave commerce,” Gates said in a most usual interview. “The absence of writing, of books, turned into once considered as a reflection of the subhuman attach of the Africans. So the presence of these books had high, high stakes, going help to the 18th century. Kant and Hegel and Hume did no longer know anything else about this.”

Over 9 irritating months, Haidara and his team rescued 350,000 manuscripts from 45 varied libraries in and around Timbuktu and hid them in Bamako, bigger than 400 miles from the AQIM-controlled north. There occupy been many shut calls, alongside side one fascinating Haidara’s nephew, Mohammed Touré, a 25-365 days-usual curator on the library. One evening when he turned into once leaving work with a trunk corpulent of manuscripts destined for hiding, Touré came face-to-face with Oumar Ould Hamaha, one amongst AQIM’s most rigid zealots.

Hamaha shone a flashlight in Touré’s face and demanded that he delivery the chest. “He said, ‘You are stealing them,'” Touré recalled one most usual afternoon within the Malian capital of Bamako. “I said, ‘No, right here’s my library.'”

Islamic police arrested the curator and and dragged him to the commissariat of the Islamic police. He turned into once charged with theft, a predominant crime below sharia. “I risked shedding my hand, my foot,” Touré said. “They’d already started reducing off hands in public areas.”

Thinking swiftly, Touré, who’s effectively grounded in Islamic overview, cited hadiths and Koranic verses stating that incontrovertible proof of a misdeed turned into once required sooner than punishment turned into once meted out. “They said, ‘The proof is there; you had been robbing this library.’ I said, ‘It belonged to me, and I turned into once transferring it to a extra procure region.'” He sold himself time, but his fate turned into once unclear.

His uncle swung into action. Having fled Timbuktu to live in self-imposed exile in Bamako, Haidara manned the phones, calling imams, neighborhood leaders, and varied librarians, who came forward with documents and affidavits attesting to Touré’s role as curator. After 24 hours in custody, the Islamic police let him trip.

“Traumatized by the Jihadists”

However the face-offs with the jihadists saved coming. AQIM operatives stopped, searched, and arrested Haidara’s couriers. Bandits captured a boat corpulent of books on the Niger River and held it for ransom. Malian govt troopers most often broke delivery trunks corpulent of manuscripts in a seek for weapons, roughly pawing throughout the fragile volumes.

Within the last phase of the rescue, at some stage within the French military intervention of January 2013 that drove AQIM from northern Mali, a French helicopter nearly fired missiles at a boat bringing manuscripts downriver—the pilots suspected that Haidara’s assistants had been smuggling weapons. “We had been utterly traumatized by the jihadists. All we are able to also kill turned into once work,” Haidara instructed me in Bamako, of that sophisticated time. “I’m able to also by no system occupy imagined this type of element taking place simply about a months sooner than. All the pieces collapsed in a single day. The explain had stopped existing. So we simply had to protect working, doing what we are able to also kill. I had a entire bunch chums, a entire bunch companions, these that gave me a style of advice, so as that I by no system felt utterly deserted.”

A Colossal Tradition Rediscovered

For Haidara, 50, the scion of a favorite family of students and collectors from Timbuktu and varied towns alongside the Niger in northern Mali, the rescue marked the culmination of a lengthy career as a champion of the nation’s cultural patrimony.

“Abdel Kader feels as shut to the manuscripts as he does to his young folks,” says Stephanie Diakité, an American attorney who grew to turn into entranced by the works 20 years within the past at some stage in a focus on over with to Mali and made up our minds to rep their preservation her life’s calling.

She labored facet by facet with Haidara in Bamako to elevate $1 million from benefactors in Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East to finance the rescue effort. Adds Diakité: “He feels as noteworthy responsibility for them as he does for his own family.”

I first met Abdel Kader Haidara eight years within the past, when I flew to Timbuktu to jot down in regards to the nation’s rediscovery of its literary heritage. The city’s manufacturing of manuscripts reached its apogee within the 15th and 16th centuries, when Timbuktu turned into once a industrial hub on the Niger and a heart of educational overview with bigger than 150 universities. Handed down throughout the generations by Timbuktu’s main families, the volumes had been most often locked away, forgotten, and permitted to collapse. UNESCO began drawing consideration to the works within the 1960s, funding a national library, the Ahmed Baba Institute, and scouring the disaster for misplaced works, but it undoubtedly wasn’t till Haidara grew to turn into eager of their conservation effort that the city’s literary renaissance began in earnest.

Haidara and I met up at his Mamma Haidara Library, a ideally suited limestone villa within the center of the usual city, with the correct samples from his assortment displayed in vacuum-sealed glass conditions in air-conditioned and effectively-lit rooms. By 2006, when I visited Haidara—an imposing and ebullient figure who turned into once clad that day in a beige skullcap and draped in a peacock-blue extinct dress identified as a bubu—scholars and historians from across Europe and the Middle East had been flocking to the Mamma Haidara to have a study a assortment that offered perchance essentially the most revealing glimpses of what Timbuktu had been on the height of its glory.

Haidara took me around the assortment. The manuscripts had been breeze in goatskin and handwritten in aloof calligraphy, with prospers of gold and pen-and-ink drawings of mosques and desert landscapes. They integrated accounts of the battles fought by medieval Malian kings and their armies; treatises on extinct medication, Islamic jurisprudence, and arithmetic; volumes of romantic poetry; and Koranic overview, all testifying to the advanced, intellectually worrying society that had flourished in Timbuktu for a entire bunch of years, till the Moroccan navy invaded within the slack 16th century, sacked the city, and carried its scholars off to slavery in Fez.

One of essentially the most treasured manuscripts in Haidara’s assortment turned into once a later work comprising simply about a pages: an 1853 epistle by Sheikh al-Bakkay al-Kounti, a non secular leader in Timbuktu, to the ruling sultan of Masina, asking him to spare the lifetime of German explorer Heinrich Barth. The sultan had ordered Barth’s execution on story of non-Muslims had been barred from entering the city, but al-Bakkay argued that Islamic law forbade the killing. “He’s a human being, and he has no longer made battle in opposition to us,” al-Bakkay wrote. Barth remained below the safety of al-Bakkay and made it help to Germany unhurt. “The manuscripts conceal that Islam is a faith of tolerance,” Haidara instructed me that day, arguing that his assortment would trip a lengthy procedure in opposition to breaking negative perceptions within the West.

“Custodian of a Big Psychological Tradition”

Abdel Kader Haidara’s father, Mohammed Haidara, nicknamed Mamma, turned into once born within the city of Bamba on the Niger in 1897, within the early years of French rule. A self-taught student, he amassed an predominant amount of uncommon handwritten books.

“Since the 16th century our ancestors had been shopping manuscripts,” Haidara instructed me. “They’d constructed up a library in Bamba, and my father added to it. He traveled all the procedure in which through Africa, bringing help manuscripts from Chad, Sudan, and Egypt.” He also helped augment the manuscript assortment of the Ahmed Baba Institute, created by UNESCO in 1967 with the target of maintaining the disaster’s rich written historical past.

In 1981, Mohammed Haidara died on the age of 84. The director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, Muhammed Zubair, requested Abdel Kader, who turned into once then 17, to interchange his father as head collector. Haidara instructed him he wasn’t eager. “I a in point of fact mighty to enter enterprise and rep cash, no longer work in a library,” he says. The director saved pursuing him. “He said, ‘Here’s your work, right here’s your destiny. You occupy an predominant responsibility. You are the custodian of an predominant intellectual custom.'”

After months of prodding, Haidara dropped his plans for a enterprise career and started intensive coaching, finding out every little thing from conservation programs to guidelines on how to evaluate the monetary worth of individual works. Rapidly he turned into once bent.

“After I turned into once on the Ahmed Baba Institute, I had an region of enterprise that turned into once stuffed with manuscripts. After I turned into once dwelling, manuscripts surrounded me. My chums instructed me, ‘You occupy long past crazy. You may maybe maybe also’t focus on anything else but these manuscripts.’ They’d this scent, the manuscripts, and so that they said, ‘You are smelling of manuscripts, Abdel Kader.’ I said, ‘Leave me by myself, simply trip away me to it.'”

Haidara began knocking on the doors of families in Timbuktu, looking out to lead them to declare their manuscripts out of hiding. Resistance turned into once intense. Many families had been so frightened, after a century of French pillaging, that they refused even to debate the topic. “Little by shrimp, I sensitized folks to the conservation work the library turned into once doing,” he says.

Then he traveled by motorized dugout canoe alongside the Niger and by camel caravan across the Sahara, visiting chiefs and family librarians in distant villages. “Other folks would explain, ‘The manuscripts are for us, and so that they achieve no longer trip away our presence. What kill you may maybe maybe even be looking out to kill with them?’ And I would label, ‘I are looking out to bewitch them to Timbuktu. There is a heart there; they’re going to preserve them, conceal them, and achieve them in lawful situation. They’re going to be there for all americans, the general world to portion and overview.'”

When the art of persuasion failed, Haidara tried playing on guilty consciences, stating the appalling neglect that most of the books had suffered: water hurt, termite infestations. Within the kill, he resorted to cash. He carried around a suitcase corpulent of cash, which he dispensed lavishly—building mosques and colleges; shopping cows, camels, and goats for collectors and village chiefs. After a decade of attain-ceaseless scurry, Haidara managed to grow the Ahmed Baba’s manuscript assortment to bigger than 20,000 works.

Retaining Mali’s Heritage

In 1993, Haidara stop his job on the Ahmed Baba Institute and went out on his own, looking out to elevate funds to dwelling the family archive. A breakthrough seemed imminent in 1996, when he got a call from the Libyan govt, promising him “aid.” Weeks later a delegation dispatched by Muammar Qaddafi confirmed up at his dwelling, pored throughout the Mamma Haidara assortment—and offered to purchase every little thing on the explain and bewitch all of it help to Tripoli.

“They said, ‘We need every little thing we overview right here, even the trunks. We are able to pay you in any forex you’d like. Moral name your fee.'” Haidara insisted that he wasn’t even tempted. “They couldn’t imagine it,” he says. “They requested, ‘Why no longer?’ I said, ‘On story of this is no longer for me. Here’s the heritage of Mali, of an predominant nation. It be no longer for sale.'”

The right breakthrough came right now later on, when Professor Gates stopped in Timbuktu whereas making a television documentary assortment about Africa. Haidara confirmed his manuscripts to the Harvard student, who had delved perfect calmly into the written historical past of murky Africa.

“It turned into once one amongst essentially the most transferring days of my life. I turned into once tearing up on camera,” recalls Gates. “I turned into once so emotional, keeping these books in my hands. I would concept they had been a memoir at perfect, from the time I turned into once a boy, reading Ripley’s Assume It or No longer. But they had been undoubtedly right.” Gates turned into once also impressed by Haidara, “this vibrant man, no longer extravagant or flamboyant, but deeply discovered. He turned into once riveting to interview.”

Gates helped procure a grant from the Andrew Mellon Basis, which allowed Haidara to protect attempting for family books and to manufacture a library to dwelling them. The similar 365 days Savama-DCI, a foundation that Haidara established to succor others with access to family collections to use in his footsteps, got a $600,000 grant from the Ford Basis to manufacture two unusual libraries in Timbuktu: the Al-Wangari and the Allimam Ben Essayouti. Dozens of quite loads of libraries occupy sprung up in subsequent years.

Jihadist Takeover

Haidara turned into once traveling in Burkina Faso when the Islamist and Tuareg rebels began their march in opposition to Timbuktu in slack March 2012. He arrived help dwelling simply hours after the rebels seized the city. Overnight, Timbuktu turned into once plunged into a nightmare. The police, the navy, and all govt officers fled, alongside with thousands of wierd electorate. Looters filled the streets, pulling cash out of banks, ripping apart stores, breaking into houses and accommodations with impunity.

Then essentially the most important Islamist policemen began acting, driving pickup trucks draped in murky jihadist flags.

Before every little thing Haidara tried to act as despite the incontrovertible reality that nothing had came about. He went about his enterprise and saved the library delivery, avoiding any contact with the frosty-eyed, bearded, Kalashnikov-toting jihadists who wandered the streets. “I didn’t focus on over with them, they by no system called me, they by no system noticed me.”

But swiftly he realized that the radicals would rapidly bewitch undisputed energy, and when they did Haidara turned into once obvious they would maybe intention the manuscripts. These books—scattered in 45 libraries across the city, most of which Haidara had helped rep constructed—epitomized the reasoned discourse and traditions of intellectual inquiry that the militants, with their rigid views of Islam, their intolerance, and their hatred of modernity and rationality, a in point of fact mighty to murder.

A month into the jihadist takeover, Haidara and his nephew, Touré, began venturing into the markets of Timbuktu, shopping up steel cantines, or trunks, and storing them on the Mamma Haidara and varied libraries around the city. When they’d sold each and each one in Timbuktu, they found extra in markets farther south; when these ran out, they bought steel oil drums and brought them to a craftsman within the river city of Mopti, and he hammered them into trunks.

Within the help of locked doors, Haidara, Touré, and about a varied volunteers packed the manuscripts into the trunks. They labored most often by flashlight since the jihadists had nick the general energy. By July they managed to switch all 350,000 manuscripts from Timbuktu’s libraries to safe houses around the city, owned by the family participants of library homeowners.

Haidara fled Timbuktu for Bamako in May maybe well, to coordinate the fund-elevating campaign and to attain the brakes on UNESCO delegates in Mali who a in point of fact mighty to publicize the jihadist chance. Haidara feared that such consideration would alert Timbuktu’s occupiers to the manuscripts’ worth. “I said, ‘I judge that lawful now, simply kill soundless. Originate no longer kill anything else. Originate no longer teach about them.’ UNESCO said, ‘OK, you are lawful. We’ll trip away it.'”

Haidara’s wife, Khadija, and their six young folks—alongside side a son who turned into once born in attain and can’t stand or teach—joined him in Bamako two months later. (Haidara has a 2nd wife, no longer an abnormal apply in Mali, also named Khadija, who’s a high-score Malian diplomat primarily primarily based in Paris.)

Held in a Squalid Jail

By September, the news turned into once turning into grim: Salafists had burned a library attain Tripoli and destroyed a entire bunch of manuscripts; at in regards to the same time, radicals in Timbuktu had embarked on a brutal campaign to murder the tombs of the city’s revered Sufi saints, breaking the tombs apart with pickaxes. When Haidara got the discover that the militants—feeling stronger and additional assured—had removed checkpoints across northern Mali, he gave the orders to his operatives to delivery transferring the manuscripts from Timbuktu’s safe houses to Bamako.

Between September and January, couriers made a entire bunch of trips backward and forward between the two cities in rented 4x4s, basically carrying two or three cantines of manuscripts on each and every scurry. The trips seldom went smoothly: On his first scurry south, Mohammed Touré turned into once stopped half a dozen times at Malian govt checkpoints. Troopers careworn him, breaking the locks off his trunks and rifling throughout the works. His automobiles broke down twice; his driver got misplaced en route.

After per week on the highway, he reached Bamako, where he turned into once rearrested and held in a squalid jail. “Abdel Kader arrived, had to pay a style of cash, and we had been within the kill liberated, with the manuscripts,” he says. “You didn’t occupy any option but to proceed. You had to protect working. It got a shrimp more uncomplicated over time. I made this scurry many times. I paid them off over and over—the troopers, the police—and so that they got to grab me, and it grew to turn into more uncomplicated.”

Weeks sooner than the French military arrived in Mali, AQIM closed all roads main to the south, forcing Haidara to resort to disaster B: organizing dozens of boats to carry the manuscripts down the Niger. By the kill of February 2013, Haidara had succeeded in evacuating nearly each and every manuscript from 45 libraries to safety. The correct casualties: 4,200 manuscripts that had been burned to ashes in a bonfire dwelling by militants on the Ahmed Baba Institute simply minutes sooner than the militants fled the city sooner than the French invasion.

“I am The entire Time Surrounded by Fear”

I caught up with Haidara one last time in mid-February 2014, on the kill floor of a four-story condominium building within the Baco Djikironi Golf neighborhood of Bamako. Haidara had transported dozens of chests to this newly obtained safe dwelling at some stage within the rainy season that had ended the earlier month, and he turned into once checking to have a study how effectively the manuscripts had been keeping up.

“We had been obliged to search out houses that had been raised off the bottom, with air-conditioning or dehumidifiers to greater protect them,” he explained, thumbing through a 500-365 days-usual work from Timbuktu’s Sankoré Library, its yellowing pages breeze by a melancholy-brown goatskin veil. The guide turned into once a roughly medieval Encyclopaedia Britannica, Haidara said, chronicling the lives of Islamic scholars, broken into rapid biographical sections with aloof prospers, corresponding to green, pink, and gold embossed letters marking the starting of every and every unusual portion. Scribblings by many varied hands filled the margins, presumably added by scholars at Sankoré who consulted this work for their very own overview throughout the ages. “It be glaring that or no longer it’s a a in point of fact mighty work,” he instructed me. “It be from the 16th century, and or no longer it’s aloof readable, and or no longer it’s stuffed with statements that reveals or no longer it has been consulted by many intellectuals. That gives it an predominant worth.”

Haidara had anticipated to escort the general manuscripts help to Timbuktu by now, but persevering with instability within the north had made that very no longer seemingly. (All over my focus on over with to Timbuktu in February, jihadists clashed with French Particular Forces simply north of Timbuktu and fired rockets on the city’s airport. At this time after my focus on over with to Mali, French forces tracked down and killed Oumar Ould Hamaha, the AQIM fanatic who had arrested Touré on that evening in Timbuktu two years earlier.)

The persevering with explain of limbo turned into once taking a toll on Haidara: “I am the general time surrounded by bother, by responsibility, most often I even put out of your mind my family,” he admitted. “My perfect ambition is to rehabilitate all these libraries in Timbuktu, so as that I’m able to declare the general manuscripts help to each and every family that entrusted them to me. That will give me a shrimp little bit of peace.”

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting ( helped strengthen reporting for this story.

Originate you believe Haidara that outdated school manuscripts must be preserved for the sake of a entire culture?

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