Book review: The Book Smugglers Of Timbuktu, by Charlie English

Charlie English  PIC: Nicola Hippisley
Charlie English PIC: Nicola Hippisley
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Timbuktu, Tombuctoo, Tombouctou,Tin-Bucktou, Tenbuch, Tombut: the orthographic vagaries of even the name of the place seem to encode its fame as what the French called “La Mystèrieuse”. Charlie English has produced a fascinating book in part inspired by the writer Bruce Chatwin’s point that there are two Timbuktus; an entrepôt on the Niger river in Mali and a mythical city of Europe’s imagination. It deploys a technique more usually found in fiction: the split-time form, probably best represented by AS Byatt’s Possession. Alongside the history of European quests for Timbuktu, English – a former head of international news at the Guardian – narrates the al-Qaeda insurgency in 2012, and the endeavours to preserve and protect the huge number of manuscripts in the city; an action hyped in the West as “real life Indiana Jones”. It can seem at times as if this is two books conjoined. At its best it shows parallels and mirrorings, and the themes that shine through are arrogance and bathos.

In the early 19th century, Timbuktu was a kind of Saharan El Dorado, a fabled city with golden roofs. Various explorers – Mungo Park, Alexander Laing, René Caillié – were despatched to find whether this city was myth or truth as part of the ongoing geographical exploration of the African interior. In one telling detail Laing, who stayed five weeks in Timbuktu, sent back a single letter which was remarkably scant of detail. Caillié, who also made it to the mysterious city, reported that it was “but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth”. Later into the 19th century, Heinrich Barth also visited the city, and wrote a Teutonically detailed account of it. English makes the defensible claim that had it not been for Barth’s crotchety and quick-to-take-offence character, he would have been recognised as an explorer the equal of Alexander von Humboldt. What he established, however, was that the real treasure of Timbuktu might not be precious metals, but manuscripts. It was a place brimming with books. The next phase of exploration was more bibliographic than geographic: could they find extant and complete copies of the Tarikh al-fattash (“The Chronicle of the Researcher into the History of the Countries, the Armies and the Principal Personalities”, to give its English title), or the works of Ahmad Baba, or new old works of medicine, astrology, theology, poetry, fiction, jurisprudence and memoir?

After exploration, of course, comes exploitation. English cites a remarkable statistic that every school child should be forced to remember. In a 50-year period, straddling the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, a remarkable change happened in who controlled Africa. At the start of the period, 10 per cent of the continent was in the hands of colonial powers. By the end, 10 per cent was in the hands of the indigenous peoples.

The bridge between the historical and the journalistic sections is the significance of the manuscripts. Thinkers as profound as David Hume and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had used the lack of evidence of a textual culture in Africa as proof it was “without history”, and therefore a merely natural resource to be either cultivated or plundered. The Timbuktu manuscripts, once knowledge of them began to emerge, seemed to rewrite this narrative. It was a key point in some Pan-Africanist discourses: it skewed the stereotype of African illiteracy, indeed, Timbuktu was not the El-Dorado of the Sahara, but a kind of Cambridge of the Sands.

When al-Qaeda took control of Timbuktu, there was understandable concern worldwide that the cultural treasures would be eliminated in the same way as the Bamiyan Buddhas had been violated. The journalistic section of this book is focused on Abdel Kader Haidara, a librarian, who managed to transport the manuscripts from both the official Ahmed Baba Library and from the vast private collections to safety. There was clearly a danger; the jihadists had already started to destroy mausoleums – Timbuktu was also known as the City of 333 Saints – because of their particular belief that a grave should not be higher than an ankle. Given the books were considered heretical, it was a brave and noble thing to move them. As was said at the sacking of the Library of Alexandria, “if they agree they are superfluous, if they disagree they are blasphemous”. But the excellence of this story lies in it being more complicated than one of brave librarians using subterfuge to outwit dimwit terrorists. There are multiple, conflicting accounts. Even the book that the earlier explorers sought turns out not to be exactly what they thought – a deduction made, ironically, by a German scholar who studied graves.

This is a difficult but rewarding account. It does have several literary virtues – significant things are revealed in a choreographed manner – and it has the slight failing of gabbled detail. Occasionally, one does not need to know everything. That said, after reading it I felt I knew more, cared more and wanted to know more.

*The Book Smugglers Of Timbuktu, by Charlie English, William Collins, £20