For most of us,
has been a noun and an adjective—a shorthand for a far off place. I also knew
of Timbuktu as the title of a Paul
Auster novel. Over the decades, Timbuktu
has come to acquire the same kind of mystic aura that is reserved for places
like Casablanca, thanks to the
classic Hollywood love story. What has happened in the
case of places like Casablanca and Timbuktu
is that cinema and literature have turned a real place into a mythical
Yet, in the last few days,
has been hogging the limelight for all the wrong reasons—the desert town had
been captured by Tuareg nationalist rebels and Islamic extremists and the
French army had to intervene to flush them out.
In the process, it was reported that something very precious was lost—a treasure trove of ancient Greek and Islamic texts. The rebels had torched a library (The Ahmed Baba Institute) that was the repository of these ancient texts. They also destroyed some sufi shrines, “claiming such shrines were forbidden” in their version of intolerant Islam.
The loss was mourned internationally and it was on the news everywhere. The rebels, who were adamant on imposing shariah laws, were condemned.
You can’t miss two ironies here. One, Islamic extremists setting fire to texts that were part of their own heritage. They were not the infidel Mongols who had raided and destroyed the ancient libraries in
in 1258. During the siege of Baghdad,
many books on subjects ranging from medicine to astronomy were destroyed. The
siege marked the end of the Islamic Golden Age.
Two, the saviours in
were the French. In 1789, when Napoleon entered Cairo
and “vigorously appeased conservative Muslim clerics in the hope they might
form the bulwark of pro-French forces in the country,” there were many revolts
against his occupation. “Many other Muslims saw plainly the subjugation of
Egypt by a Christian from the West as a catastrophe;” writes Pankaj Mishra in
his brilliant book, From the Ruins of the
Empire, “and they were vindicated when French soldiers, while suppressing
the facts against their occupation, stormed the al-Azhar mosque, tethered their
horses to the prayer niches, trampled the Korans under their boots, drank wine
until they were helpless and then urinated on the floor.”
One can argue what Napolean’s army did was more an act of bravado, showing how they could morally subjugate an occupied people and disrespect their culture; something quite different from an act of pure philistinism as was demonstrated by the fleeing extremists in Timbuktu.
How do we square these ironies? Let’s put it this way: time heals everything, people are ennobled by forces of civilisation and there is redemption in God’s kingdom.
Now, let us come back to the present.
While peace has returned to
stories about the burning of manuscripts are coming out into the public. I
read in today’s newspaper that all has not been lost.
According to a report in the IHT, the imam of a mosque in
was able to save 8,000 volumes of ancient manuscripts by moving them into a
bunker in an undisclosed location—that was before the attack. “These
manuscripts, they are not just for us in Timbuktu,”
said Ali Imam Ben Essayouti. “They belong to all of humanity. It is our duty to
And that’s the point I want to make here: it is our duty to save them. So what can be done?
While the act of this saviour Imam is laudable, something more needs to be done by the international community, and organisations like UNESCO and Google can really help in this matter.
Given the kind of turmoil the
and Africa are going through, won’t it be wise to get
all ancient manuscripts scanned and digitally saved? UNESCO knows where all
these treasure troves are. Google already has a global book scanning project
on. If we do this, we need not fear the extremists torching ancient libraries
anywhere in the world anymore. Not that we want it to happen, but better safe