In Timbuktu, Protecting Priceless Manuscripts From Senseless Destruction

In northern Mali, Islamist extremists are on a rampage, destroying Sufi Muslim shrines and historical treasures. In a Timbuktu library, a man has vowed to protect his precious manuscripts from the fundamentalist wrath that has taken over the city.

The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu (UNESCO/WHC)
The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu (UNESCO/WHC)
Philipp Hedemann

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


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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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