The Book Smugglers Of Timbuktu by Charlie English is a painstakingly well-researched saga of a far-flung desert town in the West African nation of Mali and the incredible modern-day effort by that town’s librarians and archivists to save its cache of ancient manuscripts. But it’s also more than that: It appears to warn against taking anybody’s word at face value.
A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and former head of international news at Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, English tells the story of Timbuktu by alternating between two timelines: the West’s long quest to discover the city, and the attempt in 2012 to protect its trove of texts from a civil war.
For centuries, the City of 333 Saints (and probably just as many spellings of its name) was a key part of a trans-Saharan trade route, small parts of which salt caravans still ply today. Early accounts by medieval-era travellers painted Timbuktu as an African El Dorado. The city did thrive on trade, but Timbuktu’s wealth and stature has long faded since then.
However, it had other treasures. Timbuktu was also a university town in its heyday. Scholars from the Islamic world flocked there, and tons of written material on various subjects, including mathematics, medicine and astronomy, were produced, copied, and imported. It is estimated that tens or even hundreds of thousands of manuscripts could reside in its libraries and private collections.
Both strands of the narrative are well-paced and thrilling. Tales of derring-do and misadventures abound, showcasing the best and worst of humanity. Besides the terrain and weather, the early European explorers also grappled with disease, hostile tribes, local politics, and anti-Western attitudes, while the book smugglers had to deal with ransom-seeking thugs, faulty equipment and patrolling rebels.
However, we lurch between the two timelines like a camel’s ungainly walk, making it onerous to closely follow both in long stretches. Key figures and events blur and blend into the background as impatient readers pray for the ride to end. Well, at least the experience is immersive.
The story doesn’t end with the Great Manuscript Rescue. Questions eventually arise over details of the operation, the final tally of the salvaged manuscripts, how foreign donations for the task were spent, and whether the texts were in any danger at all. Even the principal rescuers appear to be vying to claim control of and credit for masterminding the effort.
One also notices similarities between the two timelines: the role of legend in shaping the image of Timbuktu in the minds of outsiders, the Timbuktiens’ resistance to hostile forces and changes to their way of life, and how the town and its manuscripts became the focus of competing agendas.
From what I could gather, besides those ancient voyagers, the Timbuktiens of old may have concocted their own myths about their town and its personages. They attributed religious piety and supernatural abilities to the resident Muslim scholars, perhaps to deter invaders or bandits. Such sketchy and sometimes fantastical anecdotes helped feed the West’s centuries-long curiosity of Timbuktu and boosted its reputation among adventurers looking for a challenge.
In the present, news of the manuscripts’ successful evacuation raised a similar degree of excitement, relief, and a sense of victory. At the time, Timbuktu was occupied by al-Qaeda-linked jihadists embroiled in the civil war. They had vandalised some of the city’s landmarks, which had been accorded World Heritage status, and many feared the prized papers might be targeted as well.
But one can’t help but wonder: could the threat to the manuscripts have been played up to bring more of the world’s attention to this town?
English provides notes for his sources and appears to vouch for them but he seems cautious, as we should be, about who and what to believe. When it comes to researching and writing about people, places and events of bygone eras and in isolated locations, one has to start with and trust contemporary sources of information, and dig deeper from there because – pardon the cliche – nothing is what it seems.
According to English, “This book is as much historiography as history. That is to say, it is an account of the interpretations of Timbuktu’s past at least as much as it is the story of what actually happened there. The reasons for this will, I hope, have become clear: Timbuktu’s story is in perpetual motion, swinging back and forth between competing poles of myth and reality. Spectacular arguments are made and then dismissed before another claim is built up, in an apparently continuous cycle of proposition and correction.”
So one should read it without judgement, and take whatever is printed with a pinch of (caravan-borne?) salt. Like the glittering fables of West African empires, English’s tale of these latter-day book smugglers can be compared to pearls: grains of truth layered with opalescent embellishments from the author’s sources, with a little writerly polish.
Yet this doesn’t diminish the story, its protagonists and what they sought to save, or cast doubts on the author, his work and his motives. Instead, English has brought us closer to this corner of the world, helping to lift the mystery shrouding it and revealing that even bare truths are just as fascinating as illusory palaces of gold in the African desert.
The Book Smugglers Of Timbuktu: The Quest For This Storied City And The Race To Save Its Treasures
Author: Charlie English
Publisher: William Collins, history