Three librarians risked their lives to smuggle out a cache of medieval manuscripts threatened by jihadist forcesby Arifa Akbar / May 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English (William Collins, £20)
Charlie English was working as the head of international news at the Guardian when he heard an amazing story. Three librarians in Timbuktu, Mali, had risked their lives to smuggle out a cache of medieval manuscripts threatened by jihadist forces occupying the city. The story obsessed him to the point where, he says, “I left my job, determined to turn the story into a book.”
The preserved manuscripts have been compared in their historical significance to the Dead Sea Scrolls. They contain “some of the most valuable written sources for the so-called golden age of Timbuktu in the 15th and 16th centuries.” Their rescue, led by the librarian Haidara, is related with filmic melodrama: they are smuggled to Bamako in bags or else in boats and locked containers by road which are stopped at checkpoints by jihadists. Luckily they got through.
This is not just a story about intrepid archivists, but a more complex tale weaving in past occupations and invasions of Timbuktu, a city that stands for the middle of nowhere in the western imagination, and whose mythology is entangled in fantasy and mystique. A second narrative delves into the tale of the 18th and 19th-century western explorers (the Frenchman René Caillié; the Briton Alexander Gordon Laing; the German Heinrich Barth) who visited Timbuktu. English’s research is equal to his storytelling and the modern-day narrative draws out past parallels. Both strands show how difficult a task it has been to extricate the real city of Timbuktu from centuries of western misconceptions about Africa….