It may be too late already for nominations for the next Nobel Prize in literature or history. Still, I hope that Timbuktu, a city in the desert whose glory days are in the distant past, will appear somewhere on the radar of the nominating committee. I hope, that some Malians who may never have written a line of poetry or crafted a plot themselves may be counted among the great lovers of the written word anywhere in the world.
Mali, as you may recall, made a cameo appearance in a presidential debate last fall when challenger Mitt Romney badgered President Obama about the growing sway of al-Qaida in that sand-swept country on the edge of the Sahara Desert. No question, Romney was on top of the news.
In March last year, Malian military officers succumbed to a distressing West African malady: They threw out the civilian government in a military coup. The action compounded a political crisis in the north of the country, where Tuareg nationalists have been engaged in a rebellion against the central government. Ever the opportunists, Islamist factions affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb seized the moment to move in and establish their own brand of anarchy. With training camps and weaponry believed to be remnants of Moammar Gadhafi’s Libyan arsenal, the Islamist group set up shop in the vast sub-Saharan region.
The news stories coming out of Mali in the past year have sounded eerily like those from the years of Taliban control in Afghanistan — the merciless application of religious laws, the suppression of freedoms, the all-out effort to erase “Western” influences, which covers anything, including music and television, that does not conform with a radical interpretation of Islam.
In 2001, in absolute disdain for history, and against all pleas, the Taliban blew up the sandstone Buddhas of Bamiyan. The statues, dating back some 1,500 years, were designated U.N. World Heritage monuments.
The Islamist insurgents who seized control of northern Mali took a page out of that Taliban book, too.
In the ancient city of Timbuktu, the rebels destroyed centuries-old tombs, including two at the Djingareyber Mosque, a 14th-century sanctuary listed as a World Heritage site. Also destroyed were mausoleums, sites and artifacts that are part of the storied history of Timbuktu and the part it played for several centuries in western Africa and Islamic culture.
Last month, troops led by the French landed in Mali, their assignment to roll back the Islamist insurgency in northern Mali and to prevent offshoots of al-Qaida from establishing a foothold in the region. As the troops closed in on the rebels in Timbuktu last week, the fleeing insurgents delivered another insult. They torched several buildings, including the library and a research institute that house a treasury of manuscripts, some dating to the 13th century.
But Timbuktu has grown adept at preserving its heritage. According to news accounts, almost as soon as the rebels took control, library officials in the city began taking measures to protect the fragile documents. So did individuals who have access to thousands of manuscripts held in dozens of private family collections. Little by little, often at night, they packed into boxes and sacks the scrolls, leather-bound books and loose documents that covered the gamut of knowledge in the medieval empires of western Africa and the Islamic world — poetry and medicine, geography and astronomy, religion and commerce, history and the arts.
A few at a time, the historical cargo was transported south to locations where the documents would be safe from the madness. Private owners hid their priceless documents underneath the desert sands, in caves, in the walls and under the floors of houses.
Thus, when the barbarians torched what they could find in the library, only a tiny fraction (less than 5 percent, according to a New York Times report) of the archives was lost.
Timbuktu, at the crossroads of what for centuries was a vital trans-Saharan trade, holds the written records of sub-Saharan life and scholarship, the texts mostly in Arabic, some in old African languages. The people who outwit barbarians to preserve the written word for another generation deserve the honor of world recognition.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She canb be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at email@example.com.