“It exists”: a PhD scholar’s visit to a Timbuktu archive

24 May 2011

By Susana Molins-Lliteras

In April I spent two weeks in Timbuktu as part of my doctoral research.  It was extremely hot there, 45˚ C on average during the day, however the extreme temperature could not stifle my excitement.  On the one hand, I was there to sign an agreement on behalf of the Tombouctou Mss Project to establish a formal collaboration with the Fondo Ka’ti library.  One the other, I was to begin accessing material for my dissertation’s research.  I did not know what to expect from the visit, or what I would find while there…  However, the outcomes surpassed anything I could have imagined!

The Fondo Ka’ti’s director, Ismael Diadié Haidara and his family and staff, who generously cleared their schedules to work exclusively with me during my limited time in the town, received me with open arms.  We realized that our organizations share similar and compatible goals, which meant that we quickly signed our official collaboration agreement.  This will centre around research and publications, as well as exchanges for skills training in Cape Town.  Watch this space for further details …

Ismael Diade Haidara signing the agreement between the Fodo Ka'ti and the Tombouctou Mss Project. Ismael Diade Haidara signing the agreement between the Fodo Ka'ti and the Tombouctou Mss Project.

In terms of my own research, I gained invaluable insight into my topic and began to scratch the surface of the mountain of material with which I will be working during the next few years.  I am working on a ‘biography’ of the Ka’ti library as an archive, the processes of its construction and the competing projects of knowledge production around the Ka’ti archive over time. 

The Fondo Ka’ti, or Andalusian Library of Timbuktu, is named after the famous scholar of the sixteenth century, Mahmud Ka’ti, considered the first ‘true’ historian of the region.  Although Mahmud Ka’ti is a well-known figure in the intellectual history of Timbuktu, his personal story, and indeed the writing of his main historical chronicle, the Ta’rikh al-Fattash is enshrouded in fabulous construct and confabulation.  In the early 20th century, two French Arabists and orientalists Octave Houdas and Maurice Delafosse published an Arabic edition and French translation of the al-Fattash.  Their search for the ‘original manuscript’ and subsequent reconstruction of both the chronicle and of Mahmud Ka’ti’s life would form the basis for a particular version of the history of the Western Sudan often debated for the next century.  The debates on the authorship of the chronicle and its consequences are among the most hotly contested of the history of the region.

In the 1990’s Diadié Haidara ‘unearthed’ and publicised the Andalusian origins of Mahmud Ka’ti and his family, from whom he descends.  He travelled to many villages across Mali, convincing various extended family members and relatives to give him their manuscripts for safekeeping and to re-unite the Ka’ti family’s long scattered collection.  Over the years he has been able to gather a substantial number of manuscripts, numbering about 7026 at present.  In his efforts to access funding to build a library for his manuscripts, and in a deliberate attempt to ‘reconnect’ with his ancestral ‘homeland,’ Diadié Haidara established close connections with a number of Andalusian politicians and intellectuals interested in the history of al-Andalus.  This process culminated in the inauguration of the Fondo Ka’ti library by an Andalusian delegation in 2003.  However, Diadié Haidara not only physically ‘constructed’ his family’s collection, he also started to write about and divulgate the origins of the Ka’ti family.  According to his narrative, based on his interpretation of the family’s manuscripts and genealogy, the family traces its origins to 15th century Spain through the figure of ‘Ali bin Ziyad.  Bin Ziyad was what we would today call a Spanish Muslim from the city of Toledo, who identified himself as al-Quti, or ‘the Goth.’ He was exiled from al-Andalus in the 1460’s and settled around the Niger bend.  Mahmud Ka’ti is said to be his eldest son from his marriage with Khadija, who was the daughter of Abu Bakr Sylla and sister of the future ruler of the Songhai, Askia Muhammad Sylla.  Since Ismael began to divulge this lineage, the Andalusian links of the family have often been contested and debated, with claims of ‘invented’ heritage and sources being circulated.

Inside the Fondo Ka'ti's exhbitition space Inside the Fondo Ka'ti's exhbitition space

I spent countless hours with Ismael, taking notes on his story of the reunification of the archive and the creation of the library as it is today.  This oral history was told to me in various stages and in various places: on the steps of the Imam ben es-Souyouti library/Internet café, sitting on a goat’s skin in the manuscript room of the Ka’ti Library and in the doorway to his house, on a low chair under the stars when the electricity was cut off.  Ismael’s story, told in French and Spanish, and intermingled with poetry and literature from around the world, is one of the essential sources for my research.

The other major sources are of course, the manuscripts.  On a Sunday afternoon that I will never forget, Ismael slowly and reverentially started to show me the manuscripts, one by one.  We began with the oldest, those belonging to Ali b. Ziyad, the patriarch of the family.  I began to glance at the countless number of marginal notes on the manuscripts, which is a unique feature of the Fondo Ka’ti library, in contrast to other manuscript collections in the Islamic world and in Timbuktu itself.  Many of the notes have no direct bearing on the manuscripts; they are records of its owner and/or of events happening at the time.  There it was, the famous marginal note translated and published by the renowned historian John Hunwick, which first documented the exile of Ali b. Ziyad from Toledo, in the flesh, or should I rather say, on paper…  I even touched it!  And like it, hundreds more…
I saw marginalia after marginalia, always signed by the members of the family, some even dated, especially those of Mahmud Ka’ti (the first, as he has several namesakes in the family), who with a historian’s sensibility carefully dated his notes: commentaries on events happening at the time, fatawa and nawazil and, crucially for me, a detailed family history and genealogy tracing their roots to al-Andalus.  Thus, the rumours around the inexistence or exaggeration of the Fondo Ka’ti’s marginalia were wholly unfounded; there they were, for anyone to see. 

After a few hours of going through the manuscripts, I was beginning to feel quite dizzy and flushed; I literally had “archive fever”!  Just with this cursory glance at the marginalia I could begin to decipher the differing handwritings of the members of the family… thus problems such as establishing a chronology of Mahmud Ka’ti’s life became a real possibility; the answers to one of the most hotly debated topics for the last hundred years in West African history, the question of authorship of the Tarikh al-Fattash could begin to be unravelled.  No wonder Professor Hunwick was so overwhelmed when he ‘discovered’ the collection at the end of his career, in the late 1990’s!   

Exhibition materials at the Fondo Ka'ti Exhibition materials at the Fondo Ka'ti

As I walked back to the house at the end of the day, finding my way through the now-familiar moonlit winding streets of Timbuktu, I began to slowly make sense of what I had just seen.  I would need much more time to absorb and analyze it; in fact, more than a month later, I still am doing so.  For five hours, I had immersed myself with manuscripts that really have a life, a history of their own.  My research was doable, the rumours, mysteries and unknowns could be broached.  It was overwhelming.  For the first time on this trip, I found myself without any energy left; it was all spent.  Without eating, bathing or even drinking I slipped into bed.  Before I fell into a deep sleep I was able to sms a few family and friends and told them: “It exists!”     

Susana Molins-Lliteras is a PhD fellow in the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project.

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