August 01, 2012
TIMBUKTU - "If you destroy the library, it's all gone. Everything. Our history, our cultural heritage, our identity. It would mean total loss," says the man who for years has been with the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research library in Timbuktu. He works in the section for medieval manuscripts, archiving and digitizing them.
It's always been a race against the clock, he says, to research and record the precious sheets and scrolls so vulnerable to termites, the ravages of light and more. And it's a race that may now be lost, as the manuscripts he has worked so hard to preserve are threatened with destruction.
For several weeks now, Ansar Dine extremists with links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have been occupying Timbuktu in northern Mali. They have been systematically destroying Sufi Muslim shrines, and the treasures in the library may be the next object of their fundamentalist wrath.
The Ahmed Baba Institute was created in 1973 after UNESCO passed a resolution calling on the government of Mali to establish a center for the preservation of Arab manuscripts -- manuscripts that belie the chauvinistic colonialist assumption that before the advent of the white man there was hardly any culture of writing in Africa.
In the late Middle Ages, Timbuktu's scribes wrote down everything they knew in Arabic, in the Berber language called Tamashek, and in African languages of the Sahel zone. The caravan city at the southern edge of the desert was for centuries not only a center of trans-Saharan trade, but a center for ideas from all over the world. Over time, in a climate of liberal and tolerant Islam, a huge store of knowledge was amassed.
With its many scholars and over 150 Koranic schools, Timbuktu at its peak ranked on a par with Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad as an intellectual hub. According to an old Malian saying "the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu," and researchers believe there are as many as 300,000 manuscripts in northern Mali, dealing with religion, history, philosophy, astronomy, astrology, numerology, biology, geography, grammar, literature, medicine, mathematics, Islamic law and more.
And now, says the library academic: "At least three Ansar Dine men are occupying the new library building. The computers have been stolen. They've spared the manuscripts until now but that can change at any moment." In January, as ever more heavily-armed Tuareg rebels who had formerly served fallen Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi returned to northern Mali to fight the Malian Army for the independence of the Tuareg Azawad territory, the library worker fled Timbuktu with his wife and two children to Mali's capital Bamako, which is some 1,000 km (621 mi) to the south. Since then the 38-year-old -- who doesn't wish his name published for fear of reprisals by the Ansar Dine "defenders of the faith" -- has been calling friends in Timbuktu almost daily. And what he's hearing scares him. "Ansar Dine has set up a reign of terror in the city. Timbuktu used to be a joyful place, but there's no laughter now," he says.
A frenzied destruction
On April 1, Tuareg tribesmen and Ansar Dine fighters took over control of the desert city. But in a matter of days the Islamists had chased the Tuareg out. They didn't need them anymore, and the Tuareg impeded the imposition of Sharia law.
Now in Timbuktu, women who appear unveiled in public are flogged. If a man and a woman go for a walk together, both are flogged. TV sets and antennas have been destroyed. Only radio is available, and most broadcasts consist of orders issued by the occupiers and religious teachings.
"There's no music, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no jewelry -- no joy. Anybody who can is leaving," says the former library worker. According to the UN, over 120,000 people have already fled to neighboring countries and there are 150,000 displaced Malians within Mali.
The Islamists, many of whom are masked and whose numbers allegedly include Mauritanians, Algerians, Saudis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis, have turned this center of Islamic erudition into a frenzied hell. With fanatical furor, wielding hammers, pickaxes and shovels, screaming "Allahu Akbar" (meaning "God is Great"), they've attacked Timbuktu's centuries-old mausoleums containing the remains of saints (Timbuktu is known as the City of 333 Saints) and announced that they would not rest until all 16 mausoleums, declared World Heritage treasures in 1988 by UNESCO, had been destroyed.
That the helpless UN cultural organization placed Timbuktu on its list of "World Heritage in Danger" last June; that the outraged but powerless head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, pronounced the Islamist abuse an "attack on humanity;" and that Fatouh Bensouda, the Gambian lawyer who is now Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague called the destruction of the monuments "war crimes' -- all this merely egged the Islamists on to continue their vandalous rampage.
While the graves of saints, for West African Sufis, are sometimes considered even more important than mosques, to Ansar Dine Salafists honoring the saints or the dead constitutes idolatry. They believe that true believers should worship Allah only. Hence all graves higher than 15 cm (6 in) off the ground must be leveled, Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Bamana told the BBC, claiming that this was in accordance with Sharia law.
Princeton-educated historian Shamil Jeppie also fears that the Timbuktu manuscripts could fall victim to this fanaticism, "particularly Sufi texts and texts containing numbers that the Salafists could take for the blasphemous work of the devil and consequently destroy." It can be assumed that many of the fighters have low levels of education -- if indeed any -- and could destroy manuscripts that actually do not conflict with their religious views out of sheer ignorance, adds the researcher from the University of Cape Town who has been studying the manuscripts together with other experts from around the world.
Jeppie has been to Timbuktu several times and says that the precious documents could also suffer damage through neglect and rough handling. But should they be destroyed, "the loss, material and otherwise, would be beyond quantifying. So far we've only been able to research a fraction of the library's holdings," says Jeppie.
30,000 historical documents
What was supposed to protect the manuscripts, which date mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries but with a few thought to date back as far as the 13th century, could now turn out to be their undoing. Over the past few decades, researchers at the Ahmed Baba Institute gathered up to 30,000 documents in northern Mali so that these could be properly stored and researched. The institute, in the words of former president Thabo Mbeki of South Africa (which partially financed the library's building costs), was to become a "center of the African renaissance." Before the manuscripts were collected at the institute -- which is named after the scholar Ahmed Baba who died in Timbuktu in 1627 -- families kept their manuscripts at home or in small private libraries, well hidden from invaders that included the Moroccans and the French.
Now that Ansar Dine thugs have forced their way into the Ahmed Baba library, many families regret having turned over the work of their forefathers. Those wishing to reclaim their manuscripts have not been allowed by the extremists to do so.
"The Ansar Dine men are heavily armed. Nobody's going to risk their life to save the manuscripts. Luckily, many families never gave their manuscripts to the library," says the worker who used to proudly guide visitors around the building.
Since tourists -- potential hostages -- no longer come to the oasis city, the manuscripts have become a major tool for the Islamists. They know that by threatening to destroy them they can get international attention and demonstrate their total control over the northern part of Mali. The former library employee hopes they won't play the ultimate card. But it's only a hope.
Read the original article in German
Photo - UNESCO/WHC
Die Welt ("The World") is a German daily founded in Hamburg in 1946, and currently owned by the Axel Springer AG company, Europe's largest publishing house. Now based in Berlin, Die Welt is sold in more than 130 countries. A Sunday edition called Welt am Sonntag has been published since 1948.
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Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger
October 19, 2021
Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.
[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]
🌎 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW
• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.
• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.
• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.
• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.
• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease
• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."
🗞️ FRONT PAGE
The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.
Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.
📰 STORY OF THE DAY
Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?
After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.
🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.
🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.
💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.
— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."
✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger
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