Thursday, January 31, 2013

Languages of Timbuktu

A lot of people seem to have rather limited ideas about Timbuktu's ethnic and linguistic identity. Pan-Africanists think of it as a "black" centre of learning; Berber activists cite it as a Tuareg city; and Arab channels emphasise its Arab heritage. They're all correct, up to a point.

According to its chroniclers, such as Al-Sa`di, Timbuktu was founded by a nomadic Berber tribe, the otherwise unknown Maghsharan; they established it by settling some slaves there to take care of their property while they were away. These slaves probably spoke a Songhay language ancestral to the dominant language of modern Timbuktu, Koyra Chiini. When Ibn Battuta passed by it around 1352, he commented that "most of its inhabitants are of the Massufa [Inusufa] tribe, wearers of the face-veil". Contrary to initial appearances, this actually highlights its multiethnic history: there are still Inusufa in northern Niger, and many of them speak a language of their own mixing Songhay and Tuareg elements, Tasawaq.

During its heyday before Morocco conquered it, the world of Timbuktu scholarship was even more multiethnic than the town itself. The most famous of the Timbuktu scholars, Ahmad Baba, belonged to the Massufa, but studied under the Mande scholar Muhammad Baghayogho; other scholars came from the Soninke (such as Ahmad Kati), the Fulani (such as Muhammad al-Kaburi), and other groups. The Arab presence at this period was minimal, although Sidi Yahya came from the Thaaliba Arab tribe of north-central Algeria; that would change later, as the tribes of the western Azawad - notably the Kunta - shifted their identities and languages. But the language of scholarship linking these diverse groups was Arabic, and the vast majority of the manuscripts are written in Arabic. The exceptions have not been well-studied, but reportedly include religious poems in Songhay and Fulani and a medical manuscript in Tamashek.

In 1986, according to Jeffrey Heath, the first languages spoken at the town were as follows: 80% Koyra Chiini (Songhay), 10% Tamasheq, 10% Arabic. Most of the Tuaregs and Arabs were driven out during the Tuareg rebellion of 1990-1994, but many came back afterwards. Right now, the situation is in flux: reporting indicates that "white" people's shops are being looted in revenge for their perceived support of the rebels. (Yes, many Tuaregs are black by American or European standards; but other Malians consider them white, and not without reason when the point of reference is the skin colour of other West Africans.)

On book-burning in Timbuktu

The images are a shock: empty manuscript cases scattered about, their contents apparently reduced to ashes; centuries of learning left to blow away in the wind. Hearing that only a small portion of the collection was destroyed, and even that scans had been made, is cold comfort. The act invites incomprehension. What sort of person burns books? And what sort of Islamist attacks a library full of painstakingly calligraphed copies of the Qur'an?

I can claim only the most tenuous of connections to Timbuktu: its patron saint, Sidi Yahya al-Tadallisi, was a native of my hometown, Dellys, and its main language, Koyra Chiini Songhay, is a close relative of the endangered language I've worked on most, Korandjé - both in Algeria. I don't understand what happened, but the background suggests some possibilities.

Timbuktu's hundreds of thousands of manuscripts are part of a local tradition of Islamic learning continued since the 1300s or so, involving scholars from all ethnic groups - Arab, Tuareg, Fulani, Songhay, Manding... (Most of them are in Arabic, that community's language of scholarship; a few are in other languages, and have barely been studied.) But the value of their content to this small though admirable community is overshadowed by their symbolic value and its power to attract foreign money, on a scale marginal to the world but overwhelming in a small, isolated Malian town. The library that was attacked was a state-of-the-art archive recently built in partnership with South Africa; the Mellon Foundation had already built one earlier; UNESCO, Norway, Saudi Arabia had all contributed to giving these manuscripts a good home. This brought Timbuktu, as a whole, jobs and prestige. But those who didn't benefit from it must have had sour thoughts sometimes: they build palaces for books, while we live in huts? This would apply all the more to outsiders in the midst of a hostile population, as most of the rebels seem to have been.

Money attracts not just jealousy, but crime. Until the past year, AQIM's leadership were best known for two highly profitable and religiously questionable practices: smuggling cigarettes, and kidnapping tourists. The monetary value of Timbuktu manuscripts has soared even within the past couple of decades, and the fairly small amount of ashes seen in the pictures hardly seems proportionate to the number of empty manuscript boxes. Let's just say it would not be surprising to find some of the missing manuscripts turning up on the black market...

Finally, there are undoubtedly some books in these libraries that a committed Salafi would see as heretical. The local Islamic tradition reflected by these manuscripts continues practices that were normal in pre-modern North Africa, but suspect or anathema to most modern North Africans following the religious reforms of the early 20th century: most conspicuously, joining Sufi organisations (some themselves holding controversial beliefs, ranging up to Ibn Arabi's near-pantheism) and visiting saints' tombs. But while this may have played a part in shaping attitudes, this is unlikely to have been decisive; otherwise they would have burned them earlier.

The order of motivations I'm postulating is kind of sad in its own right. The books of Timbuktu aren't just a symbol for proving that Africa has a written heritage, or an image to look at in museums or coffee table books. They were intended to be read and taught from, to form part of a living tradition. Yet their content is the one thing that not only their attackers but even most of their defenders seem oblivious to; oh, you'll find glittering generalities about the astronomical and mathematical manuscripts all over the place, but quotes or translations are much scarcer. You can read a few dozen of them (in Arabic, but with English summaries) at the World Digital Library; the Tombouctou Manuscript Project is working on translating them. But as you read, spare a thought (or a donation) for the people caught up in this, not just the books...