“The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Mali and continues to recommend against all travel to the north of the country due to kidnapping threats against Westerners. . .U.S. citizens are specifically reminded that the restricted areas include Essakane, site of the popular ‘Festival au Desert’ musical event. . .” November, 2009.
Warnings like these were prevalent on embassy websites from the Western world while my husband and our two daughters, 19 and 23, (all above) were considering a trip to Timbuktu to experience the great Festival of the Desert. I had been traveling to Timbuktu about twice a year for the last decade to work with the Arabic manuscripts from the region, but was not sure I would get there this time.
Timbuktu was an outpost for European explorers of the 19th century, and now we felt like explorers, treading the forbidden territory. For centuries Timbuktu was a hub of trans–Saharan trade networks—where the camel coming from the north with salt meets the canoe transporting gold and slaves along the Niger River. Today, some of these same networks are facilitating passages through smuggling routes, transporting tons of cocaine and weapons by boat, plane, and four–wheel drive from South America to Europe.
The College of Letters had taught me to try to make sense of the world by studying its history, and the disturbing news of events in the Timbuktu region evoked some of the turmoil of the past. Today people in the desert towns communicate with both Internet and cell phones, but in the past it was the Arabic manuscript that documented transactions. For the last 10 years I have been trying to get to know these manuscripts and to transfer this knowledge to a wider audience.
These primary sources are unveiling the history of the region and providing evidence of the high level of scholarship present during the 15th and 16th centuries in what has since been considered one of the most poverty stricken and remote areas of the world. Thousands of correspondences, treaties, and legal agreements were delivered by camel, often through thousands of miles of the intolerable dry heat of the Sahara desert.
The numerous legal documents (fatwa, contracts. . .) give us an indication about how the great empires were administered. We learn from the Timbuktu chronicles about the great expeditions of the Emperor of the Mali, Mansa Moussa, to Mecca with presumably 60,000 soldiers and 500 slaves bearing 2200 pounds of gold in 1325, the Moroccan invasion of Timbuktu, and the abduction of its scholars in 1591.
Local scholars wrote theses of as many as 400 pages defending their interpretations of Islamic texts they had purchased during their travels to North Africa and the Middle East. What does one do with an escaped concubine or a slave who turns out to be Muslim? Should the Jews in the Saharan oasis of Tuwat be allowed to maintain a synagogue? The revelation of the existence of these manuscripts and the intellectual heritage surrounding them has been of utmost importance to redefining our perceptions of Africa’s history. I remember in the ’70s being led to believe that African history was based entirely on oral traditions.
When I first came to Timbuktu in 1996 and saw the manuscripts disintegrating, with traces from floods, fire, termites, and human manipulation, I was driven to preserve, promote, and provide access to these invaluable treasures. Together with a team of international and Malian experts, I developed a proposal for what became the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project based at the University of Oslo, where I have been working as coordinator for research projects since 1989.
In 10 years we have managed to disseminate information about the manuscripts and their content and prepare the field for carrying out new research. We have digitized more than 200,000 pages of manuscripts to facilitate access for future research, constructed more than 2,500 conservation boxes to protect more than 12,000 manuscripts from dust and exposure, developed a catalogue database for Arabic manuscripts providing information on both the physical manuscripts and their content, and written a book, The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu (by Professor John Hunwick and myself).
This January, feeling well armed with the history of the region fresh in my mind, as well as the latest updates from the Internet, diplomatic plates, a guest pass from the organizers of the Festival of the Desert, and reassurance that the Malian army would be discreetly surrounding the festival, my family decided to drive the 2,000 miles from the Ivory Coast (where I am currently working at the Norwegian Embassy) to Timbuktu, where we experienced three magical days of world music. Like the 19th–century French explorer Rene Caillie, in our disguises, we made it both to Timbuktu and back again.
I have always felt at home in Timbuktu. I must say I never felt in any danger during our latest trip—except when the four–wheel–drive vehicles were trying to get through a narrow passage in the sand during the festival or when I found a scorpion in my shower. To be quite honest, I felt perfectly safe and among friends. However, at the same time, the situation in Northern Mali is quite serious—that is, the likelihood of being taken hostage is minimal, but the consequences are enormous. A French aid worker taken hostage in Northern Mali by AQIM in November last year was just freed in exchange for the release of four members of AQIM being held in Malian prisons. As I am writing, there are still two Italians and three Spanish hostages in the camps in Mali.
Kidnappings and the extensive illicit trade in drugs have eroded security in this vast region. Restoring order won’t be easy, but there is a hopeful message in the manuscript project. Remote as this area may be, its intellectual traditions are rich and reveal a deep belief in Islamic law, which would certainly not condone the smuggling of cocaine. If the manuscript project can help to reassert that heritage, it may help those Muslims to show that al–Qaida’s terrorist activities have no place in this land.