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Timbuktu in the 1980s was already home to an organization devoted to studying Arabic texts. With the encouragement of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Malian government had endowed a research institute in the city in 1973, named after the sixteenth-century Timbuktu scholar Ahmad Baba, tasked with collecting and preserving Mali's written heritage. The Ahmad Baba center started out with fewer than one hundred documents and had added around 3,300 more by 1984, when its director approached Haidara and told him he should come to work there as a prospecteur, a seeker of manuscripts. Haidara agreed. He would become the most prolific manuscript prospector the center ever had.

He began by contacting friends and using his charm, his family name, and his natural persistence. Often people would deny that they had manuscripts, but Haidara would return again and again until he had won them over. He searched in Timbuktu but also in the wider region, crisscrossing northern Mali by donkey, camel, pirogue, and Land Rover. Sometimes he traveled with the salt caravans, trekking alongside them for fourteen hours straight. He went into towns and villages and hamlets, cajoling people into relinquishing the documents they had hidden or forgotten. He traveled to the borders of Mauritania and Senegal in the west, and to the frontiers with Burkina Faso and Niger in the east. He went to Goundam, Dire, Tonka, Niafounke, Niono, and all the places in between. He would pay as much as two hundred dollars for a valuable single-page document and three hundred for a complete manuscript, though sometimes he would pay in animals, which were often more valued than cash. Historical manuscripts were the most sought-after, followed by those that were elaborately decorated, very old, or written by local authors. If his haul was cumbersome, Haidara would hire a car or a riverboat to carry it back to Timbuktu. Little by little, he brought the books and documents in. In twelve years he added 16,000 manuscripts to the Ahmad Baba collection. He continued his prospecting after that, but stopped counting.

As he built up the state archive, Haidara increasingly thought about his own manuscripts, which lay in trunks stacked in small, dark rooms, exposed to damp and termites and the risk of fire. Even if he had wanted to, tradition did not allow him to sell them, so he decided to set up his own research library. He sent out faxes to international institutions and foundations and buttonholed influential visitors to the famous city, asking them for support. People offered to buy them, but no one wanted to pay him to keep them in Timbuktu.

In 1997, the eminent Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., came to Mali, and Haidara invited him to see his collection. Gates shed tears over the documents that were laid out in front of him. Why, Haidara asked, was Gates weeping? Because he had taught at some of the best universities in the world for almost twenty years, Gates explained, and had always told his students there was no written history in Africa, that it was all oral. Now that he had seen these manuscripts, everything had changed. On his return to the United States, Gates lobbied for funding for Haidara's project, which soon had the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Other foreign donors—the Ford Foundation, the London-based Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, the Juma al-Majid Center for Culture and Heritage in Dubai—would provide more money as the years went by. In 2000 the first modern private archive in Timbuktu, the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library, was opened at a ceremony attended by the First Lady of Mali. After that, Haidara helped his friends set up their own institutions, and soon libraries were springing up all over, as Timbuktu families brought out their collections.

The manuscripts by this time were becoming a cause celèbre. Increasingly they were being used to argue for a new interpretation of Africa's past that could combat the racism that had dogged the continent for so long. From Immanuel Kant to David Hume, Western philosophers and historians had cited the lack of written works from Africa as proof that the continent was too backward even to have a history. "There never was any civiliz'd nation of any other complexion than white," Hume wrote in 1748, "nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences." This view was still being echoed by the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1963: "Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness." Manuscripts existed all over West Africa, but Timbuktu's were the most famous, and now they were held up as counterevidence. In 2001, South African president Thabo Mbeki enlisted them in a campaign to help redefine the continent in African terms. He ordered the creation of a giant new Ahmad Baba building in Timbuktu with an exhibition space, a conference hall, restoration workshops, and an academic program of conservation. "[The manuscripts] open up possibilities for thinking in new ways about the world," Mbeki said, "the opportunity to look at history afresh."

Research into the growing numbers of documents reaching Timbuktu was meanwhile proceeding apace. In 2001, John Hunwick of Northwestern University, the leading international expert on the written Islamic heritage of West Africa, announced that a hoard of three thousand manuscripts he had been shown in one Timbuktu collection was "rewriting history." "My eyes were popping out of my head," Hunwick told the Chicago Tribune. "I'd never seen anything quite like them before." Hunwick's friend and colleague Sean O'Fahey said it was "like coming upon another Anglo-Saxon chronicle that gave us a new view of the early history of England." The find was simply "monumental," according to David Robinson, a professor of African history at Michigan State University.

By 2011, Haidara and his manuscript-hunting colleagues had made enormous progress with the task Hampâte Bâ had set them of restoring Timbuktu to its rightful status in the world. The number of manuscripts counted in the province now stood at no less than 101,820, Haidara estimated, and the figure for the whole country was close to a million. Had it not been for fire, war, and natural disaster, the number would be far higher.

Then the disturbance in the desert outside the city, which had rumbled along for decades, became a cacophony.

This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition.

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