2013
07.15

Day 41 - 11 Timbuktu- Imam and  ET 10_967x768SYNOPSIS:  A visit of the Municipal Museum.   Friday prayers at the Dyingere Mosque.   A visit of one of the manuscript libraries in town.    Buying and bartering.

Just like anywhere else in Mali, entering the Dyingere Mosque in Timbuktu is forbidden to foreigners.  When I asked Banja about the reasoning, I got the same story about the same Italian couple of fashion photographers who behaved inappropriately in the mosque that circulated in Djenne.   I asked him about the principle of applying the misconduct of two or even a handful of people to an entire group – isn’t that precisely the pattern we are trying not to fall into?  He is a Tuareg – but not all Tuaregs are bad, right, or I would have to treat him like some of the jihadists…?  But of course, this argument falls on deaf ears.   The restriction is in place even though it has no bearing in Islamic law and contradicts the practices of most Islamic countries I have visited.

The closest I got to the mosque was to be outside when the big Friday prayer was going on and that was today: the doors of the mosque were open.  The interior space is just as dark and dingy as in the Djenne mosque.  But the colorful crowd of men that poured out of the mosque after the prayer was a nice sight to photograph.

Security was provided.  Armed soldiers patrolled the area of this large gathering.  They even asked me what I was doing, but were not too upset when I told them that I had left my passport at the hotel.  I did not pose a threat.

Banja took me to the Municipal Museum today.  Just like all the other museums I had seen in Djenne and elsewhere, this one had lost some of its glass cases, now exposing prehistoric artifacts to the dust.  There was no electricity and no tourists, so the museum keeper had to be called to open up just for me. The few windows that could be opened allowed enough daylight in to make out a few objects of daily life, a dusty model of the mosque, some pots and pans.  This museum visit cost me a whopping $10…  I hope it’s for a good cause.  I wrote into the guest book, which had one entry from May, a German visitor, presumably another tourist.

The compound in which the museum is located also houses the legendary well from which Timbuktu supposedly got its name.  A woman named Buktu was the caretaker of the well and attracted desert caravans.  When they referred to the place in which they would stop for water, they called it Buktu’s Well.  In Tuareg well is Tin/Tim.  And so the place became Timbuktu.

In the afternoon, Banja had scheduled two visits of two libraries.  One actually materialized.  The owner of the other had left town.  Libraries in Timbuktu are typically private.  They came about through people who were imams, scholars, scribes, or teachers and have lived in town for generations going back hundreds of years.  They would be the ones to buy manuscripts and then have their students copy them or would, in rare cases, produce original written works of history, or Islamic jurisprudence themselves.  Almost all manuscripts are written in Arabic.

I visited the imam Sidi Mohammed Kunta at the Kunta Iguma Library.  His collection has been owned by his family since the 16th century and now comprises over 2000 volumes.  Generations of his fathers and forefathers have been imams working in the nearby Sankore Mosque.   Nothing much was on site – just one room full of relatively recent Korans and a few older manuscripts which he took out onto a mat in the courtyard to show me.  That’s all Sidi Kunta has now and that’s all he wanted to be visible when the jihadists came.  He had prepared most of his collection for safekeeping in suitcases which he distributed to families across town.  They still are there today.   Since the jihadists did not find much, his place was spared destruction and vandalism.  He pulled out a few of the older manuscripts and I was horrified to see him trying to pry open some of the stuck old pages by sheer force with his hands.   That is not how books like this should be handled!

The most valuable book in his collection he said was a collection of Sharia Law; and the most unique book, a history of the conquest of Andalusia/Spain.  In fact, this book is so unique that all the librarians and scholars have to come to him to see that one.  Most of the books though are copies.  In fact, copying seems to be the most practiced form of book art – not original writing, not illustration.  I asked him if he intended to copy this unique history book.  Definitely not – then it would not be unique anymore!

I could not quite follow this logic coming from a digital book world.  Yes, the original is valuable, but what if anything happens to it?  Moisture, dust, fungus, rain, loss through destruction?  A copy needs to be made!  Not in his world.   And who can force him? This is his private property.

The UNESCO is providing funds and some manpower to work with these manuscripts, but the Kunta Library was a far cry from the much more professional treatment of books I had observed in Djenne where privately owned books were now cared for by the community/government with international funds. That should be the way to go.   I don’t know how representative the Kunta Library is of the other 30 or so libraries in town.  Most of them are currently closed to the public and only open for a fee for journalists and scholars.  I am just a visitor with little reason to request a visit, and when I do I get to see not much.  Unfortunately, I was not able to visit more libraries today.  It would have been good for comparison.  Banja let me down a bit on this one. I needed him to make appointments for these libraries and he thought that two would be plenty.  Oh well.  I wonder how much of this material will ever be sifted through, not to mention properly researched.

This was my last day in Timbuktu, and a few of the young vendors who had harassed me from day one knew that tonight was the night when I would spend what I had left – it was little enough.  Issa, or as he liked to call himself, the John Travolta of Timbuktu, Ahmed and Mohammed had been the most persistent and also spoke the best English.  They were there waiting for me.  As they started their “for you, I will make a good price” spiel, I told them that we could cut to the chase.  Here is the money I have and I would like each of them to be able to sell me something.  Let’s split this three ways and see what they could come up with.  It worked. I got two small necklaces and a T-Shirt which properly states:  I have been to Timbuktu and back.  And then they had the great idea that we could barter, too.  After all, I had not gotten fabric for one of the so typical Tuareg turbans yet and that is a must for every tourist.  So, I went to my room, sifted through all the belongings I could spare and came up with a bag full of pens, eye drops, perfume, Calcium tablets, a couple of hooks, lip balm, and the like and traded it for 6 meters of narrow fabric which now can make a most beautiful desert turban if you know how.  What they would have really liked of course, was a T-shirt, pants, my backpack or my camera.  But that was going a bit too far.

After business was over, we sat the four of us and chatted until dark, when the electricity kicked in – my call to start writing the blog.  Their story is just a carbon copy of everyone’s story: when there were tourists, there was work.  Now there is nothing.

One last time, I ordered some food from the cook who had made me pommes frites (French fries) every night with something to go with.  When I rejected the stringy meat of the first day in favor of eggs, I got eggs the second day, too.  I was in the mood for some variation of this diet and asked him to surprise me with something of his choice and got… surprise, surprise another plate of French fries with two hard-boiled eggs.  It’s food.  I am not going hungry.  Jus’ sayin’.  J

After chickening out last night from sleeping on the rooftop, I decided that it was crazy to succumb to fear this way.   Timbuktu was protected by the army.  No rebels would enter town in the middle of the night to come and get me.  And those in town who knew where I could be found where not about to get me either, since they could not leave.  And so I slept outside again, this time in the hallway in front of my room, at least for half the night – until my feet and legs were bitten by I don’t know what – mosquitoes?  Possibly.   But perhaps, fleas or bedbugs or who knows what from that mattress…  And so I fled back into my room to sleep until dawn, hot or not.

Good night.

4 comments so far

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  1. Interesting that the Malians celebrate their independence from the French colonialists but are now only too happy to call the French colonialists back for help against the Islamists.

  2. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot about that ONE other tourist: Chris.

  3. I came back to look at some pictures and I see that my comment which I wrote and submitted yesterday didn’t make it through the blogosphere. I remember feeling kind of sad about the condition of Mali and commenting on who will help this country…their history (now covered in layers of dust) will be lost, and what kind of future can they possibly have without some kind of aid or a revitalization of tourism. Or maybe someone like Angelina Jolie will take an interest in Mali like she did in the Congo.
    It’s amazing that you are the ONLY tourist in that country right now…no wonder they all are so interested in you and your comings and goings. You may be one of the few who will see their museums and libraries…at least up in the North where all the trouble was/is. If someone does not help them, they are just sitting ducks for the Islamists!!! I hope the French continue to provide defense against a take-over and extremism.
    Poor Mali…lost in time and space….
    Let’s see if this comment gets submitted…

    • Hi Ann, Both comments got through. Even though I am treated like the only tourist in the country, remember I saw another one? I also found evidence in various guest books that about once a year or even 6-8 months ago single travelers came through. It isn’t much, that’s for sure. ET