How a Timbuktu calligrapher saved family manuscripts

Sidiki with his manuscripts

When conflict erupted in Timbuktu, calligrapher Boubacar Sidiki was one of many who fled with a precious cargo secreted away - ancient manuscripts that he feared would otherwise be destroyed.

We were in Bamako at the very end of our month covering the conflict in Mali, last February. Fine dust had settled in every pore and piece of equipment.

I went to settle up with a Malian friend, Amadou, who had organised transport and translation for us. We talked about how the war was being reported.

"You know," he said, elegantly sipping tea, "this manuscripts story is not quite right."

"The famous Ahmed Baba library in Timbuktu that was attacked by militants?" I asked, referring to the 2,000 manuscripts supposedly burned in the raid.

"Yes, some were burnt," he said. "But more are outside the library than inside, you know."

To explain, he directed me to a friend of his. A rattle through the suburbs of Bamako in a yellow taxi, to a high metal gate in a row of suburban compounds, the whitewash yellow from dust. Up some stairs, and there they were. Manuscripts. Just lying there on a desk, their corners lifted slightly in the warm breeze.

"How did they get here?" I asked, amazed. "In this box," said my host, Boubacar Sidiki, 33, a calligrapher from Timbuktu. He pointed to a nondescript blue metal box in a corner.

"I have them with me at all times now," he said. "I have to keep checking they are there."

Sidiki explained, in French and in gestures, how he'd smuggled them out from under the noses of the Ansar Dine Islamic militants, when they took control of the town.

But how did you come to have them in the first place? I asked. It is highly unusual to find rare historical documents in a suburban living room.

"Lots of families in Timbuktu have manuscripts," Sidiki explained, patiently. "They are our knowledge and our wealth. Manuscripts are handed down from father to son over centuries, and only those who can't look after them have given them museums or sold them."

Historians back this up.

Regionally, about 300,000 manuscripts are held not in museums, but by families, says Professor Shamil Jeppie, a Cape Town-based expert on the Mali manuscripts, who was aware at the time that many were being "quietly taken out" and saved.

Image caption Inside the Ahmed Baba Institute before the conflict

And so this was the story behind the story that my Malian friend Amadou was referring to. It was just ordinary Malians, with their small pieces of history, who had quietly saved their culture. Ordinary Malians like Sidiki.

In the library of one normal Timbuktu family, in 2005, a Lyon University professor found a famous "lost" text from the 17th Century.

The manuscripts on the table in front of me used to be on display in Sidiki's workshop, where he restored ancient texts and also practised the dying art of the copyiste - the copying of ancient writings, using the same techniques and calligraphy.

"It's not like a photocopy. These last a century or more, but I'm the only one in my generation with the skill," Sidiki says.

His workshop also functioned as a school, teaching children the basics in order to keep alive the skills that his family has passed down, like its manuscript collection. from father to son. That school was abruptly shut when the al-Qaeda-aligned militants Ansar Dine came to town. Not least because he taught boys and girls together.

"We'd seen on TV how people flee from war. But we never thought it would be us," Sidiki said.

Most caught buses south, but they were searched on the way out for laptops, phones and anything else valuable - including manuscripts.

But Sidiki had noticed something. The militants who searched people leaving increasingly didn't bother with the drivers.

So he asked his neighbour, a bus driver, to place the box of manuscripts in his driver's cab very early in the morning.

He sat in the bus and was searched like everyone else, nervously hoping the militants would not change their routine and search the driver.

They didn't, and the manuscripts arrived in Bamako, the capital city, after a day and a night's drive south.

"There are 80 different texts on paper and animal skin from the 13th, 14th and 17th Centuries," Sidiki says. "They concern all manner of subjects - geography, theology, astronomy, The Koran. It's not a joke, keeping these safe. I was very nervous."

He breathed a long sigh of relief. It was as if he had just now arrived from Timbuktu, and laid his family manuscripts safely on his table.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook