Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Month: August, 2016

Of books and bandits


There is an extraordinary and uncomfortably beautiful scene in Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu, in which a camel-herder kills a fisherman, both of them silhouetted at the end of a spit of land in a great inland lake. It is the seminal moment of the film, the moment when one man’s fate spins out of his control and places him at the mercy of the capricious ‘justice’ system of the jihadi-salafi terrorists from the north who have taken over his city with brutal disregard for its culture, history and people. Eventually the camel-herder will die, gunned down in a graveyard by the same foreign thugs, as his wife struggles to reach him, a symbol of lost innocence, goodwill and of the music he loved to play.

I had imagined him to be an emblematic, imaginary figure, and no doubt in many ways he is, but in Joshua Hammer’s new book, called (with a rather silly gonzo vulgarity) The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu, the author picks out a number of vignettes from the barbarian occupation that also appear in the film, including the fisherman’s murder, the fierce regulation of men’s beards and trousers and the spirited resistance of the market’s fishwives to being made to wear gloves and burkas to handle fish at their stalls. The emblematic figure whom Hammer himself chooses is a librarian, Abdel Kader Haidara, a man whose extraordinary story frames the book and provides a fine counterpoint of high civilisation to the barbarism of the semi-literate bandits who take over the town in the name of jihad and sharia.

Haidara was a reluctant bookman, almost dragooned into the book business as a boy and only slowly becoming hooked, until manuscripts became an all-consuming obsession. Deployed at first by the nascent Ahmed Baba Library, he spent years patiently travelling around northern Mali, persuading the owners of countless mediaeval manuscripts to lodge them in the safekeeping of the library. Later he founded another library – the Mamma Haidara Library – for his own family’s great collection, and encouraged the establishment of many other family libraries. He collected grants, built networks, studied and became expert, lecturing across Europe and the US on Timbuktu’s manuscript heritage. And in the city itself, hundreds of thousands of often decaying manuscripts emerged from wooden chests, sackcloth bags and holes in the sand to be restored and protected in climate-controlled environments. Timbuktu became again what it had once been – a City of Books.

When the jihadis seized Timbuktu in November 2011 there was an assumption that the rich heritage of Timbuktu’s manuscripts would be put to the torch, and indeed there were press reports that this had happened. This kind of cultural nihilism was typical of the sub-Wahhabi iconoclasts who bulldozed shrines, chopped off musicians’ fingers, banned the celebration of Mawlid an-Nabi and the famous Festival in the Desert. This was – or would have been – a tragedy of global proportions. Timbuktu had a quite extraordinary manuscript culture. An intellectual centre of huge importance, a pivot in the world of Islam, its scholars and universities had since the middle ages (though with an interruption caused by the annexation of Timbuktu, Gao and the ‘Soudan’ of the Songhay empire by the Moroccan Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in 1591) been a humming motor of international scholarship. To the ignorant modern European, for whom Timbuktu signifies simply the back of beyond, this can come as a surprise. But re-imagining the geography of North Africa encourages us to see the Sahara not as an obstacle but as a thoroughfare – a sea to be navigated in pre-modern times (until very recently) with swaying cargoes of salt, gold, ostrich-feathers, slaves – and manuscripts. Timbuktu, like Gao, Walata and Agades were ports on the southern shore of this ocean of sand, where it met the Niger river; and in our century the Tuareg and Islamist fighters in their 4WD pick-ups are simply desert-pirates who sail the sand-sea, with cargoes of cigarettes, weapons, migrants and drugs.

Books 2

Hammer tells two stories. Haidara’s is the first, a tale of immense personal bravery and obstinate determination in the service of history and culture. The second is that of Timbuktu, seized by barbarians, terrorized by whimsical Islamic courts, and saved by a French expeditionary force which arrived in January 2013 to prevent the invaders capturing Bamako, the capital, in the south of Mali. Hammer’s account of the final battle between French foreign legionnaires and Chadian troops, together attacking the terrorists’ last, remote, hiding place in the Adrar des Ifoghas hills is splendidly dramatic. However, the first story is the beating heart of the whole drama. As the jihadi invasion became inevitable Haidara instigated and supervised the removal of many of the manuscripts from the libraries to safer hiding-places in private homes. Later, when – after a surprising lull – it seemed clear that the city’s rulers would turn at last to destruction in preparation for their own retreat, Haidara ran an even more daring evacuation by land and by river, smuggling vast numbers of manuscripts to safety (in mysterious containers called ‘footlockers’) under the noses of the jihadis, organising armies of men and boys in trucks and pirogues and spending hour after hour himself on his red-hot telephones pleading, threatening, negotiating and paying for safe passage.

He saved 377,000 manuscript books and unbound bundles – and only 4,202 (just over one percent) were destroyed, burned in the courtyard of the Ahmed Baba library by the departing barbarians in a fit of spite. The silent librarians watched in horror, but all too aware of the climate-controlled store-room in the basement where the library’s greatest treasures were stored. The store was never found, and all its contents survived. Haidara has a claim to be the saviour of a large slice of civilisation.

It’s a very good story, and told with pace and enthusiasm; but it could have been much better. Couched in the laborious but careless cadences of middle-brow journalism, it elides and it patronises. To be told – to take only one example – that “Major General Horatio Herbert Kitchener” commanded the relief force at Omdurman, simply because Omdurman is one of many cities that Haidara visited, is irritating: we don’t need to know what Kitchener’s full name and rank were (since this information, like what he did at Omdurman, is the irrelevant accretion of nugatory research); nor the college and NFL football history of “General Charles F ‘Chuck’ Wald, the deputy head of the United States European Command, based in Vaihingen, Germany, on the eastern outskirts of Stuttgart,” (so what?)  nor the completely unmoored and irrelevant fact of one Malian character, Manny Ansar having a “family name that means ‘defenders.’” (Again, so what?) Sometimes, you find yourself wanting to shout that an author is allowed find something out without necessarily having to shoe-horn it into his book.

Perhaps more important is the journalistic sourcing – almost every reference is to an interview. This of course lends immediacy and in dealing with the immediate past of a still largely oral culture is vital; but there is a sense of much (particularly French) written source material having been unconsulted, and much vital background, like the history of Tuareg revolt and the role of the Algerian intelligence services, having been explored only very lightly, if at all. The same is presumably true of local languages and of Arabic – the first few pages offer the bizarre transliterations of tariq for history and fikh for a legal ruling, which suggests that either author or editor doesn’t know the Arabic alphabet and, worse, didn’t care enought to check.

But hey, it’s a good read and I enjoyed it. Though I still don’t know what was so bad about the librarians’ backsides.

AKH books

Coriander from a goat’s testicle and other farming lore

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Last night I was walking along the Charing Cross Road and I saw in the window of a bookshop a little book I did not recognize, called A Moorish Calendar. I bought it, and it has proved quite enchanting. A tiny, beautifully illustrated, collection of extracts from the enormous Kitab el-Filaha of Yahya ibn al-‘Awwam al-Ishbili, much of this edition is an almanack, a catalogue of eloquent suggestions for farmers, divided by month. Yahya was a country squire, a gentleman farmer in the Wadi al-Kabir, today hispanicised as the Guadalquivir valley – al-Ishbili means ‘the Sevillean’. This is what he saw, looking out of his farmhouse window in the late twelfth century, in the present month of his own year, and how he reflected on the tasks his farm required of him and his men that long-ago Andalusian August:

In August the day’s heat declines, dews settle and in the depths of the night it is cold. On the twentieth day the Simoon wind ceases. Now  people of the coast begin the pressing of grapes and the making of wine. The nectarineScan_20160817 (6) and the downy peach are eaten in this month, and the acorn and the melon of Constantinople mature; the date and the jujube begin to ripen, and by the raising of dust you help the ripening of grapes. Cut timber after the third day of August and it will never be hindered by worms. It is time for harvesting rice and carobs, safflower seed and cress, indigo and coriander, sesame, water-melon, basil, melon and gherkin. Now you should see to the vine-shoots and those which are best you tend with extra care and those which are weak you ply with manure and water so that they may be revived. In Seville they sow orach and late gherkins and the long radish and the round.

Actually of course, I don’t suppose that Yahya thought in terms of Roman months, and the texts are therefore adapted, just as the charming woodcuts at the head of each section with the month’s name are modern and English. Some of Yahya’s old wives’ tales are a particular delight, though it is not quite fair to laugh at him. He has a stern way with trees that don’t fruit: “you may cure it in the following manner: let two men, one of them carrying an axe, approach the tree and let the one say ‘This tree shall be cut down.’ At which the other should plead for it, saying ‘No.’ Then the first must say ‘But it bears no fruit.’ To which the other shall reply ‘It will do so this year – and if it does not then you will be free to do as you please.’ Abu Khair and other writers say that this method has generally been found effective.” A gullible sort of tree, not to mention a credulous Abu Khair.

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More usefully perhaps, if you take a goat’s testicles, “and plant them in the earth and water them … you will see coriander grow where no seeds of it have been sown.” Now there’s a thing. And should you be troubled by camels grazing on crops, Yahya recommends that you “sprinkle the leaves with a liquor made of dog’s droppings or (which is even better, for it will not be so readily washed away by rain) an emulsion from water and fat from a goat’s head, or the fat of boiled puppies. Sometimes the addition of human urine will be beneficial. Rags soaked in this mixture and tied to the trees will repel animals.” So I should imagine.

He tells us how to make roses grow in different and unexpected colours “according to a method contrived by HaScan_20160817 (7)j of Granada” by grafting dyes into their roots – saffron for a yellow rose, and indigo for a blue one; and how to make them give off unnatural but no doubt charming smells, of camphor, sugar or cloves, by inserting pellets of the substance just as the sap descends. He explains how to write on apples so that they reveal the secret messages as they ripen, and how to jolly along fading orange trees, “so that those leaves which have become yellow are restored and a red tint is given to the fruit. Do this by pouring hot goat’s blood on the roots of the tree, or even human blood …” and he warns that to allow unseemliness anywhere near a violet is to court disaster. All this I have passed on to my daughter, who is about to become an under-gardener at an ancient Cambridge college where practical tips and bookishness, well mixed, will perhaps catch the flavour of the place. I have no doubt she will protect the violets of her college garden from unseemliness.

As for the book itself, it is a delight. Published by the Black Swan Press of Wantage in 1979, it it translated and illustrated by the printer and his brother, Philip and Peter Lord, and introduced by Glubb Pasha. Peter Lord, who cut the illustrations in wood and scraper-board has provided an enchanting (if not entirely Andalusian) series of vignettes of plants and animals and implements. All in all, well worth the £6 it cost me. And now, only three days until the Simoon ceases, and I have nectarines and downy peaches (albeit from Saffron Walden market) for my lunch.



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