Ever since reading Lands and Peoples Encyclopedia in 1962, I wanted to go to Timbuktu. From 1999 - 2001, while living in Bamako, I realized my dream and visited this ancient city three times - by road, by plane and by boat. It truly sat on the edge of the world, far from everywhere, bustling in the Saharan heat. Calmness ruled the place in the midst of activity. Men in jalabiahs and turbans strolled hand and hand, and women walked freely down the dusty streets in long colorful gowns.
The sense of well-being in a very challenging climate always impressed me. But my first sight of ancient Timbuktu manuscripts took my breath away: beautiful, precise writing in Arabic, with incredible pen and ink sketches and patterns, on brittle, yellowed parchment. These treasures eloquently refuted Western pronouncements that Africa had no written history. The topics of the manuscripts covered everything from jurisprudence to medicine, astrology to diplomacy. Each book or essay was hand-written on the finest vellum and dated back as far as the 11th century.
The manuscripts inspired my young adult novel, Trouble in Timbuktu (2009). I wrote the book because I was moved by the pride I saw in the people of Timbuktu regarding the ancient manuscripts, the ancient mosques, the tombs of the 333 saints of Timbuktu and the remote city's history as an academic center centuries ago. The main characters in my novel, two young Bella kids - Ahmed and Ayisha - embody this sense of pride. They courageously thwart American "tourists" trying to buy contraband manuscripts.
The smuggling challenges my fictional characters face seem minor when compared to recent threats to the manuscripts by invading religious extremists. Fortunately the militants only managed to destroy a very small portion of the collection. Under the very noses of the foreign occupiers, Timbuktu residents like Ali Imam Ben Essayouti moved thousands of the manuscripts to safety. In a recent New York Times interview Mr. Essayouti explained why he risked everything to protect the ancient manuscripts. "These manuscripts, they are not just for us in Timbuktu. They belong to all of humanity. It is our duty to save them."
It was heartbreaking to witness the wanton destruction of precious manuscripts but heartening to know the lengths to which the brave people of Timbuktu went to save their family heirlooms and national treasures. Timbuktu has faced invasions before and always survived. I trust this time will be no different.
**Visit the Africa Access website for a lesson on Kessler's Trouble in Timbuktu. The lesson provides strategies for exploring the novel and guides students through a preservation project of their own.