There Is an Underground Railroad for Mali’s Threatened Medieval Manuscripts

Think you care about your job? Meet Abdel Kader Haidara, a librarian from Timbuktu who has become the self-appointed guardian of northern Mali’s cultural heritage. He’s started an underground railroad to rescue them. When a military coup unseated president Amadou Toumani Touré last April, Islamist militants swooped into the country’s northern cities, destroying graves and shrines associated with Islam’s mystical Sufi tradition.

Haidara, like many other professionals, packed his bags to flee the region. But as the leader of one of Timbuktu’s largest libraries, he also sought to protect the city’s historic manuscripts, which chronicle its 600-year history as a crossroads of trade and scholarship. So he began rounding up thousands of ancient manuscripts from local libraries and arranged for them to be hidden in private homes.

From Bomako, where he now lives, he runs Sauvegarde et Valorisation des Manuscrits pour la Défense de la Culture Islamique, or Safekeeping and Promotion of Manuscripts for the Defense of Islamic Culture, an NGO that seeks to care for manuscripts.

There are around 180,000 medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu, according to Hadiara, covering topics from Quranic exegesis to philosophy, mathematics, and law. So far 23,000 have been catalogued or copied, but only one professional copyist remains in the region. In addition to arranging the safekeeping of thousands of manuscripts from Bomako, Haidara is housing a cache of his own. He took 50 manuscripts with him when he fled Timbuktu.

Julia Halperin

[Christian Science Monitor]