Friday, May 10, 2013

The Brazen Bibliophiles of Timbuktu

Librarians in Timbuktu duped Al Qaeda and saved thousands of ancient manuscripts from destruction. The Associated Press picked up the story earlier this year and now the New Republic has published a more in depth story in its current issue 

An Al Qaeda-linked group ruled Timbuktu for much of last year and, according to the New Republic, did so through terror--"cutting of hands of thieves, flogging women judged to be dressed immodestly, and destroying centuries-old tombs of local saints."  Residents like Abdel Kader Haidara worried that Timbuktu's library collection of 30,0000 manuscripts might be the group's next target. So, he and friends began loading them in metal lockers, like suitcases, and sending them to the homes of some of the cities oldest families.  As Al Qaeda tightened its grip on the city, destroying its major shrines, they began to look for new targets.  That's when couriers began to load the lockers onto boats traveling down the Niger.

That's how almost all of the city's 30,000 manuscripts made it safely to Bamako. But some of those boat trips were made with real drama. Gunmen captured some of the boats and threatened to burn the manuscripts unless they paid a ransom. They barely managed to pay it. The story reads like a trhiller and students might enjoy it when we study fundamentalist strains of Islam.

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