Editorial, December 2015

9 December 2015

The attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako on Friday 20 November was a reminder of the political instability in Mali. The political crisis in the country surfaced with the insurrection in the North, which led to the occupation of that region and major towns such as Timbuktu and Gao in mid-2012. During this period hundreds—perhaps a couple of thousand even—of metal crates of manuscripts were moved from Timbuktu to Bamako. Fortunately, these metal crates are housed far from the hotel that was the scene of the hostage-taking by two armed men affiliated to one or other rebel grouping in the country. By the end of the 2012 – 2013 crisis, when I learned of the transport of the manuscripts from the insecurity of the North to the relative security of the capital, Bamako, I mused to myself: “What if the capital is not all that safe?” But I did not declare this concern because it would have appeared too negative. My concern with that transfer of the metal crates was expressed in rather technical terms: Bamako is far too humid, storing paper in metal crates in a humid climate is not a very good idea, the cost of renting space to house these crates must be prohibitive, when will the situation in the North return to normality allowing the manuscripts to return to their original locations? The concern I kept to myself—about the probability of armed violence and general insecurity in Bamako—was based on what was reported about Bamako during the 2012 – 2013 period. The Presidential Palace was attacked and even ransacked. If this can happen to the most secure of building precincts in the capital then it does make one doubt the security of other spaces in the otherwise peaceful capital by the Niger River. We hope that the bloody incident of Friday November 20 does not happen again. We have many friends and colleagues in Bamako including those who relocated there from the North because of the problems besetting the region. We have many reasons to keep going to Bamako not least because the libraries are now hidden there.

On workshops, libraries and soldiers in Bamako

9 December 2015

I spent ten days in Bamako in early October, participating in a series of workshops organised by the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg, under the framework of events “Paroles de sagesse: les manuscrits anciens du Mali” sponsored by joint Malian-Franco-German cultural funds. Four workshops spread over seven days were held at the Malian National Library in Bamako, and were directed at a multi-national group of West African manuscript researchers, library and archive personnel, as well as manuscript owners.

My first impression upon landing in Bamako airport was the overarching presence of UN personnel and soldiers in the city. The only other airplanes on the runway at the time I arrived, besides my Ethiopian Airlines Boeing, were numerous UN cargo planes.  As I waited patiently for my luggage, I was surrounded by many returning hajj pilgrims clad in white, accompanied by overflowing baggage, as well as serious MINUSMA (the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) soldiers attired in khaki uniforms; the contrast was stark. These foreign soldiers were ever-present in government buildings, restaurants and hotels, altering the landscape of the city in ways I am still trying to understand. Ironically, I felt much more insecure when in their company at the workshop hotel, than I ever experienced when wondering the dusty streets of Bamako on the back of a motorcycle.

Nouakchott-Tombouctou via Cape Town

9 December 2015

Le Mali, notamment dans sa partie septentrionale, représente à plus d’un titre un centre d’intérêt pour les études sociales en Mauritanie. Il est d’ailleurs très significatifs que les grands chercheurs comme H.T. Norris, P.F. de Moreas Farias ou P. Bonte ont souvent procédé à de fréquents va et vient dans l’étude des sociétés malienne et mauritaniennes ce qui fait penser à l’existence d’un tronc commun quelques part. 

Je suis pour ma part particulièrement interpellé étant donné que les centres d’intérêt de mes recherches se focalisent sur l’histoire médiévale des Sanhadja et la langue berbère ce qui trouve des extensions ou au moins des possibilités de comparaison dans le Nord Mali de la même époque domaine d’un peuple cousin des Sanhadja, nomade comme eux mais aussi parlant une branche voisine du berbère.


On Not Reading Manuscripts in Makassar

9 December 2015

In early June this year I travelled to the village of Borong Calla in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, to participate in an important religious ceremony marking the date of Nisfu Sha’baan, or the halfway point in the month of Sha’baan. An hour by car from the capital city Makassar, Borong Calla is a small fishing community consisting of roughly 30 households. As locals – especially older residents – remark, the village is special because it is a place of tarekat (tariqa). According to oral history sources, the community was established several generations ago as a centre of Islamic learning, where people could further their knowledge in the Sufi traditions of the Naqshabandiyya and Khalwatiyya. As a resident in her 80s explained to me, when she was younger Borong Calla was an extremely important, respected place; not just anyone could enter the area, there were rules regarding modesty of dress and conduct and only those seeking knowledge would be accepted into the community. While the village ‘isn’t like it used to be,’ with an influx of outsiders holding new and contradicting ideas of Islamic knowledge, the remnants of certain traditional learning practices can still be found, especially around the time of local religious festivals such as the Moulood an-Nabi and at Nisfu-Sha’baan.

Report: Searching for Manuscripts in West Africa

9 December 2015

In July/August 2015, I conducted a short research trip in West Africa (Senegal, Ivory Coast and Ghana) with the financial support of the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project and the Research Board Award of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I started in Senegal, Dakar, where, during the period of July 20 – 30, 2015, I worked at the Institiut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN). Access to the manuscripts is possible to researchers at the Laboratoire d’Islamologie, Salle Professeur Amar Samb, at certain times during the week: Monday - Friday, 08.00 – 12.00 and 15.00 – 18.00, and Saturday 08.00 – 12.00 (and during vacation period which is August 1 - September 30, from 08.00 – 13.00).

The staff of the library, Mr. Souleymane Gaye, curator at IFAN, and Mme. Oumou Kalsoum Ka Diop, kindly facilitated my work with the manuscripts during my stay. Unfortunately, the lack of detailed catalogues prevents scholars from fully exploiting the potential of this very rich collection of Arabic manuscripts. For example, while my visit was aimed primarily at collecting evidence for my ongoing project on “Arabic Script Styles in West African manuscripts;” I also worked with very interesting and mainly unpublished historical accounts from Mauritania and Mali.