The events at Timbuktoo have been on my mind in the last week, and probably those of anyone interested in manuscripts.
As we all now know, the colonial territory now called Mali is divided on race lines between Arabs in the north, plus some Touareg in the desert, and negros in the south. When the Americans forced the colonial power to withdraw, power was handed over to the leaders of the black south, who have behaved in the manner that everyone other than the Americans predicted. So far, so tediously 20th century. It seems likely that various no-goods, vagabonds and ruffians in the north acquired heavy arms during the recent revolution in Libya, and set out southwards to grab what they could. They quickly found that the civilised “army” in Mali was no more than a bunch of political musclemen, cruel, but weak, cowardly and ill-disciplined. The “army” promptly ran away. All this, by the way, could be a description of the events in the Sudan at the time of the Mahdi. The desert folk seized control of the towns on the southern edge of the desert, including Timbuktoo. Lacking any motive but Islam, they amused themselves by imposing it on the inhabitants. They also moved into the new library building which they treated as sleeping accomodation. These were not, evidently, a national movement. They were a bunch of bandits and nothing more.
When this ragtag band of “Islamists” threatened to take over the whole country, the colonial power, France, despatched a few hundred soldiers and some aircraft, and the desert vagabonds promptly ran away and hid in the hills. On their way out of Timbuktoo, they are said to have set fire to the library, presumably out of spite.
At the moment it sounds as if the majority of the manuscripts are safe, because they were taken elsewhere in the town. All this highlights the dangers of “preservation”, by placing valuable material in a central location in a third-world state. I do wish that people would stop doing this, for it always leads to trouble.
It highlights the need, far more urgent than building libraries, for a photographic record of all the documents.
The other point to highlight is one for those of us who try to educate, to help, to make things better in this world. It is very simple, but we tend to forget it, in our benevolence. It is this:
Some people don’t give a s***.
It is worth remembering. The bandits knew and cared nothing about Timbuktoo and its heritage. Even though, primarily, it was culturally their heritage. That heritage to them was of no more importance than a nice new building to sleep in; and something to burn, out of spite, towards others. It mattered less than an old rug on their camel.
The same attitude may be found everywhere, including in the western world. We need to remember that, just because what we are doing is obviously valuable, it does not mean that some scumbag will not set out to wreck it. Just because he can.
The presence of real evil in mankind is something that it is easy for us to forget, in our genial, ivory towers. We must not. Against such evil-doers we need to use force; for they respect nothing else. This is why we need policemen. This is why, sometimes, we need bullets, and we need to use them.