The Rebel Librarians Who Saved Timbuktu

In an excerpt from The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer describes one collector’s quest to preserve the rare manuscripts hidden away across Africa.

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times, Redux

Abdel Kader Haidara signed on as a prospector for the Ahmed Baba Institute in the fall of 1984. Mahmoud Zouber, the director, showed Haidara how to approach the manuscript owners, and how to encourage them. The most important thing, Zouber said, was to avoid mentioning the Ahmed Baba Institute at first, because, after the trauma of the French occupation, people were still deeply afraid of organizations affiliated with the government. “Say you’re the son of Mamma Haidara, the illustrious scholar,” Zouber advised. “You have to bring up the manuscripts gradually,” he went on. “Don’t get them angry, don’t make them nervous. Use patience. You may have to go back several times.”

One of Zouber’s longtime friends was John O. Hunwick, the world’s leading expert on Timbuktu’s literary heritage, as well as a scholar of the manuscript tradition in Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana. At Zouber’s invitation, Hunwick set up camp in Timbuktu for a month and gave Haidara a crash course in manuscript history.

Born in Somerset, England, in 1936, Hunwick had served with the British Army in Kenya during the Mau-Mau rebellion and with the Somaliland Scouts in Hargeisa, then mastered Arabic at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He had first encountered Timbuktu’s manuscripts while teaching in the mid-’60s at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, translated original manuscripts recounting the history of the Songhai Empire, and spent the next quarter century gathering information about the titles and locations of tens of thousands of Arabic manuscripts from Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Hunwick also created the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa at Northwestern University in Chicago, widely regarded as the foremost academic institution for Arabic manuscript study in the world.

In Timbuktu, Hunwick and Haidara sat together for hours each day at the home of Zouber and in a conference room at the institute, discussing the provenances of manuscripts, preservation methods, and the best areas of Mali to prospect for the books. After his tutelage from Hunwick, Haidara attended UNESCO conservation workshops in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, and Bamako, and learned to assess the value of manuscripts by age, authorship, and design. The training course went on for eight months.

Haidara began his search by knocking on the doors of the twelve most prominent families in Timbuktu, who had dominated book collecting in the region for centuries. Haidara introduced himself, made small talk, sometimes going back two or three times before gently broaching the subject of the manuscripts. The reaction was always the same. “You?” the owners responded dismissively, waving Haidara away. “Who do you think you are, mon petit?” they would say, mocking him for his youth and his inexperience and the less exalted position of his family in Timbuktu’s social hierarchy. “You have the nerve to talk to me about the manuscripts?” After a few weeks he gave up, having failed to persuade them to turn over more than a handful of manuscripts.

Then he expanded his territory. On his maiden voyage beyond the city, Haidara headed down the Niger in a pinasse, a motorized and covered wooden longboat that was used to carry passengers and cargo. His destination was a town one hundred miles down-river, or east, from Timbuktu, called Gourma Rharous, an intellectual center at the height of the Songhai Empire. Haidara had met many people who spoke about the town in wondrous terms, as a meeting place for poets, scientists, and marabouts. The hereditary chief, Mohammed Al Hana, had been a friend of his father, and Haidara knew that the town had been a repository for manuscripts for centuries.

The previous prospecting teams had roared into villages in two or three government Land Cruisers—an army of eight people carrying cameras, microfiche machines, and generators. Realizing that the onslaught intimidated villagers, Haidara traveled by himself, dressed humbly, and carried nothing but a small satchel. He had several thousand dollars hidden inside the bag for purchasing manuscripts, but reasoned—rightly, as it turned out—that his modest appearance would prevent him from becoming a target of bandits.

The boatman motored the craft past beaches and low dunes, devoid of vegetation except for patches of desiccated grass and the occasional acacia tree—typical of the landscape along this stretch of the Niger River as it curved and flowed eastward through the semidesert of central Mali. Protected from the sun by a canvas roof mounted on the gunnels, Haidara passed the dugout canoes of Sorhai fishermen, known as Bozos, who dwelled in boxlike mud huts lined up against the olive-green water. “They form the sole population of these settlements and occupy distinct quarters in the towns and cities, thus emphasizing... that the Bosos still belong exclusively to the river,” wrote Félix Dubois, the French journalist and historian who traveled throughout the area at the time of the French conquest, and who observed the riverine subculture during a 300-mile journey downstream from the colonial town of Ségou to Timbuktu in 1895. The scene witnessed by Dubois had changed little by the time Haidara made the journey. “I have seen them set out to the capture of their great prey (the alligator and the sea-cow),” Dubois went on. “Silently, almost without movement, they advance until the watchful eye in the bow discerns some alligator asleep on the tide, or some great bearded fish dozing betwixt wind and water. Then the nude silhouette in the bow is strained by a beautiful movement of the free body, the right arm is poised, and the harpoon flung, striking the great beast unawares.”

Arriving in Gourma Rharous after a journey of two days and one night, Haidara clambered onto the riverbank and searched through the sandy alleys for the hereditary chief. Haidara introduced himself as Mamma Haidara’s son to Al Hanafi. They drank tea together and he spent the night at Al Hana ’s house. The following morning, over further cups of tea, he announced the real reason for his mission.

Haidara assured Al Hana that the Ahmed Baba Institute would register all manuscripts, so that nobody would lose track of his contributions. He emphasized that he was willing to compensate the owners generously. The chief said that he had no manuscripts himself, but offered to do what he could to help. “Stay here, don’t go into town,” Al Hana said. “I’ll go to the mosque, and I will speak to all of the owners there.”

Villagers trickled in, bearing books. Some were in good condition, while others fell apart in Haidara’s hands. Silently and carefully he turned the pages, assessing their value with expert eye, noting their age, their place of origin, the decorations in the margins, the amount of gold leaf. He purchased 250 manuscripts, loaded them into a pinasse, and sailed back upriver to Timbuktu.

Over the coming months, Haidara returned two more times to Gourma Rharous and bought 250 more works. He was becoming increasingly confident about his persuasive powers and his ability to assess a manuscript’s value. Then, on the fourth voyage, without explanation, the sellers stopped coming.

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“Nobody’s talking to me. People are avoiding me. What’s going on?” he asked the chief. “I’ve got no idea,” Al Hana replied.

Another week went by. When he greeted people on the street, they turned away. At last, an acquaintance approached him in the market. One of Gourma Rharous’s offcials, a man whose responsibilities included safeguarding the town’s cultural patrimony, was looking for Haidara, he said. “He’s very angry.”

Haidara sought out the man, and introduced himself. The official refused to shake his hand. “You’ve created a lot of problems for us. Everybody thinks you’re trafficking in manuscripts for profit. Nobody is happy with what you are doing.”

Haidara tried to explain the nature of his mission, but it was no use. The official, a highly influential figure, had begun actively dissuading everyone in the town from cooperating. “Pay attention, you have to keep hold of your manuscripts, ignore this fellow,” the official advised. “We don’t have any idea who he is. We don’t know where he’s going.” Haidara stayed a few more days. Unlike the previous three visits, when he had collected a total of five hundred volumes, he left empty-handed and discouraged. It had taken a single skeptic to undermine Haidara’s efforts to win over the population.

The skeptics were everywhere. He journeyed down the river to his ancestral home of Bamba, and east along the Niger as far as Gao, the ancient capital of the Songhai Empire, located two hundred miles east of Timbuktu. There he sought out the Islamic judge, or qadi, one of the city’s foremost intellectuals. He greeted Haidara cordially, invited him to sit down, and they talked about the manuscripts and the patrimony of Mali. Haidara gently broached the subject of the Ahmed Baba Institute and said he had come to encourage the qadi to contribute his manuscripts to the collection. Abruptly, the qadi’s attitude changed.

“Who led you here?” the qadi demanded.

“I read a lot, and I learned that your family comes from a long line of scholars and intellectuals, and has a collection of ancient manuscripts.”

“No, no, no,” the qadi said. Haidara knew that he was lying—he had heard from a reliable source that the qadi stored his treasures in a secret chamber in his house—but there was nothing he could do. The qadi called Haidara a “bandit” to his face, and threw him out of his house.

He journeyed by camel for five days to the onetime salt-trading entrepôt of Araouan, deep in the Sahara, 150 miles north along a historic caravan route. Five hundred years ago Araouan, the birthplace of Ahmed Baba, had been a center of Islamic scholarship as well as salt commerce, and he had heard through his Saharan sources that many illustrious works were hidden there—including those collected by the Scottish explorer Laing and stolen by Arab nomads after his murder. Haidara was not used to traveling by camel. He held on tightly to the saddle as the beast mounted 60-foot-high dunes covered with grass, then, knees buckling, plunged sharply down the other side. He rode jarringly through valleys filled with a sea of spiny bushes that thinned out as they journeyed further north. Then the great waves of sand gradually disappeared, replaced by so undulations furrowing a barren desert plateau. Nearby were the ruins of the legendary city of Taghaza, which had inspired medieval travelers to fantastic flights of imagination. “The ramparts of the city were of salt as also all its walls, pillars, and roofs,” the medieval Persian cartographer Al Qazwini wrote of Taghaza, basing his account on the fanciful testimony of an eyewitness who had recently visited the oasis. “The doors, too, were made of slabs of salt covered with leather so that the edges might not crack... all the land around the town is a salt pan... if an animal dies there it is thrown into the desert and turns to salt.” Araouan, a crumbling village where it hadn’t rained in 40 years, hadn’t turned to salt, but it had fallen on hard times. The population of 200 subsisted on a diet of fried locusts, and regarded outsiders with hostility. “He’s dangerous. What does he want with these manuscripts?” people said about him. “Maybe he wants to destroy them. Maybe he wants to bring us a new religion.”

Promising leads turned into crushing disappointments. In Majakoy, on the Niger River, villagers led to him to a man who, they said, had a valuable collection. Haidara found him guarding a locked trunk. He refused to open it.

“It’s for the town’s orphans, it’s not for me. I can’t even touch it.”

“Can I at least see it?” Haidara pleaded.

“That’s not possible.”

The dialogue went on for four days, until the man threw open the chest. Haidara eagerly peered inside—then recoiled in dismay. Termites scuttled in every direction. They had been devouring the last shreds of the manuscripts. Ninety percent had been reduced to dust. The owner looked at the seven volumes that were left—and wept. He hadn’t opened the trunk, he admitted, in 20 years.

But Haidara was patient. Over the course of his journeys he constantly refined his approach to manuscript hunting, and achieved better and better results. “My predecessors made a number of errors that I tried to correct,” Haidara recalled years later. “I avoided everything that didn’t work for them, and I introduced my own strategies.” He never traveled by motor vehicle, believing that it would cause the manuscript owners in poor villages to think that he had vast wealth, and prompt them to inflate their asking price. Instead, when he journeyed away from the river, he rented camels or donkeys. Traveling with pack animals instead of in a motorized vehicle extended his journeys by days, sometimes weeks, but Haidara was convinced that it earned him the villagers’ trust. Often, when Haidara talked with the head of a family about “buying” the manuscripts, he was immediately shown the door. “Get out. Get out!” the owner would say. He soon realized that the word had a distasteful connotation for many manuscript owners, equating a treasure passed down through generations with cold cash. From that point, he used only the word “exchange.” He acquired manuscripts in return for building the village a school, and, more often, in a trade for livestock. “I gave out a lot of cows,” he said.

Many times he arranged to trade the manuscripts for printed books, a highly sought after commodity in remote villages. Haidara reached out to booksellers across the Maghreb—Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Libya—and received shipments in the mail of Arabic literature, history, and poetry, then returned to the villages bearing the books. The process could take six months, but it was almost always worth the trouble. “Take whatever you want,” the owners exclaimed joyfully, running their hands over the bound and printed volumes. Over time, as well, word spread up and down the Niger and through the desert about the conservation work being done by the Ahmed Baba Institute, and some manuscript owners traveled to Timbuktu and saw the care with which their precious heirlooms were being treated. Faith in Haidara grew.

Haidara was developing an acute sense of each book’s worth, and was becoming a skilled negotiator. If the manuscript was complete, which was not that common, it would elevate its value. If Timbuktu’s scribes had made many copies of a single work it would diminish the price. He valued manuscripts written by Timbuktu’s most illustrious calligraphers—a handful of artistic geniuses identified by the colophons at the end of each volume—far more highly than the work of lesser scribes. Subject matter was another key criterion. Haidara highly esteemed works on conflict resolution, contemporary politics, geography—particularly those with detailed and colorful maps—and government corruption, because few such studies existed, and he also placed a high value on medical manuscripts, because the knowledge they imparted was often applicable today.

Haidara took into account damage from termites, dust, or bacteria, but weighed the extent of the destruction against the rarity and beauty of the work, and often bought it anyway, figuring that he would restore it when he brought it back to Timbuktu. And he was prepared to pay huge prices if something captured his imagination. In Sikasso, a town southeast of Bamako near the border with Burkina Faso, he once came across a large trunk containing several hundred manuscripts—poetry written by the great ulemas, or Islamic scholars, from the Peul tribe of Massina in the 18th century; manuscripts that described the arrival of French troops in the country in the mid-19th century and debated the implications of the foreigners’ presence; manuscripts about jurisprudence written in a variety of Malian languages, including Peul, Bambara, and Soninké, and transliterated into Arabic; and works that delved deeply into herbal medicines and other esoteric remedies. Haidara acquired the trunkful of manuscripts in exchange for constructing a new mosque for the village as well as a primary school, paying “many thousands of dollars” for the collection. It was the most expensive transaction he made in fifteen years of manuscript prospecting.

People also sensed that Haidara was playing fair. After nearly being run out of Gourma Rharous, the first town he had visited, Haidara returned there a year later. On his first afternoon back in town, a Tuareg nomad in his forties, a gaunt man in a ragged turban with half a dozen children playing around him in the sand, called out to him in greeting as he passed by his tent.

“Come inside,” he cried.

Haidara entered the traditional dwelling, stitched together from goatskins, and sat on the ground in the semidarkness. He noticed a metal chest at the rear of the tent, the type normally used to hold manuscripts.

“You come from where?” said the Tuareg.

“I’m from Timbuktu,” replied Haidara in Tamasheq, the language of the Tuaregs. In addition to his native Songhoy, he was conversant in Peul and Tamasheq, the two other main languages of Mali’s north, as well as French, and thus had no problem negotiating with manuscript owners across the region.

Haidara made small talk, and, seeing that the Tuareg was too poor even to offer his visitor a cup of tea, he offered to purchase some food and drink for him and his family. Haidara ran out to the market, and returned with half a slaughtered lamb and a kilogram bag of tea. The Tuareg grilled the lamb outside the tent and, as they sat eating in the sand with the man’s family, Haidara gently broached the subject of manuscripts.

“I don’t have any of those,” the Tuareg said. “I only have printed books.”

“Can I take a look?” asked Haidara. “Why not?”
Haidara opened the trunk and pored through the volumes.

Buried among the printed material was one work that caught his eye: a Quran from the 17th century. He looked through it carefully, noting the delicate Maghrebi letters, the fragile gilt that caught the late afternoon light filtering through the tent flap. It was, Haidara realized, a masterpiece.

“How much do you want for this?” asked Haidara. “Whatever you want to give me,” the owner said, shrugging.

“You have to name your price.”

“Give me five thousand CFA,” or about ten dollars, the nomad said. It was a pitifully low sum. Haidara could not accept it. They bargained—but this time the buyer was bidding up the price.

“No, no. This treasure has a huge value,” he replied. “Ten thousand CFA.”
 “No,” said Haidara. “Twenty thousand.”

Haidara gave him one hundred thousand CFA. The man received the money, wide-eyed. “If I’ve got more books like that will you pay for them?” he asked.

“Of course.”

At 5 o’clock the morning after that, in total darkness, Haidara heard a knock on his door.

“Who’s that?” Haidara said.

The Tuareg entered his room, carrying a large camel-skin sack. Wordlessly he dumped a pile of manuscripts on the ground. In the murkiness before dawn, Haidara could barely see what was lying there. But at 6 o’clock, golden light filtered through his window, illuminating magnificent treasure. When Haidara stepped outside the hut later that morning he stared in astonishment. Tuaregs from across the region had formed a long line in front of his door, bearing camel and sheepskin sacks stuffed with manuscripts. Many had been hidden in caves or holes in the sand for decades. Haidara handed out the equivalent of thousands of dollars—Kuwait and Saudi Arabia had subsidized the effort—and left with more than a thousand manuscripts. He had paid the sellers everything that they had demanded, and even more. He had taken everything they had.

Haidara headed back upriver to Timbuktu, his boat riding low in the water, weighed down with footlockers and piles of camel-skin sacks.

In Timbuktu, Mahmoud Zouber looked on with astonishment. “You found all that?” he said.

In his first year of work at the Ahmed Baba Institute, Haidara managed to acquire as many manuscripts as the previous team of eight prospectors had collected in a decade.

Haidara’s obsession was growing. He was spending an average of three weeks a month on the road, mostly traveling by pinasse and dugout canoe along the Niger, then returning to Timbuktu to catalogue his works and rest before heading out on the road again. Serendipitous discoveries kept him craving more. Once, in a village near Timbuktu, Haidara acquired a 50-page fragment of a biography of Islamic saints that he found pleasing, then, on a hunch, traveled up and down the Niger looking for the rest. After two years of assiduous searching he located a similar fragment in a storage room in a village near Gao, 250 miles from the site of the first acquisition. In Timbuktu, he assembled the two parts—and discovered that he now held a complete work by the great Ahmed Baba written during the savant’s captivity. On the last-page colophon Baba had written his name; the date, “991,” according to the Islamic calendar, equivalent to 1593: and the place of its creation, “Marrakesh.” The biography, in two pieces, had made its way back across the desert centuries later to Mali.

Haidara had become consumed by the urge to discover the provenances of the manuscripts, tracing the often circuitous journeys that they made over the centuries. “When I was at the Ahmed Baba Institute, I had an office filled with manuscripts,” he would recall decades later. “When I was home, manuscripts surrounded me. My friends told me, ‘You have gone crazy. You can’t talk about anything else.’ I said, ‘Leave me alone.’ The manuscripts had a certain smell, and they said, ‘You are smelling of manuscripts, Abdel Kader.’”

In 1992, Zouber confronted Haidara at the headquarters of the Ahmed Baba Institute. The director, who had taken a paternal interest in his young prospector, was concerned about his personal life. “What’s the matter with you?” he asked. “Why haven’t you gotten married yet? What are you waiting for?”

“Look,” Haidara said, not wanting to feel pressured. “I don’t even have a house to call my own.” Haidara was content sharing with his siblings the spacious home in Sankoré that had been bequeathed to them by their parents. And though he hadn’t yet found a mate, he felt no need to hurry. He had an active social life, plenty of friends in Timbuktu, and remained close to many of his siblings, including a couple of farflung elder brothers who had become traders in Cameroon and Senegal. Zouber, however, insisted that Haidara settle down.

“Okay,” said Zouber, “I owe you a lot of money for the last mission you undertook for us. I’m going to write you a check, and I want you to buy some property with it.” With his earnings, Haidara heeded Zouber’s wish and purchased a plot of land owned by an uncle in Bella Farandja, a newer neighborhood on the eastern edge of Timbuktu, facing the desert. Later, he built on the property a traditional house of limestone blocks, a large vestibule, and an inner courtyard, much like the one in which he had grown up. Months afterward, Haidara met a young woman, a university student in Bamako and the daughter of a traditional Sorhai chief from Timbuktu’s Djingareyber quarter. They initiated a courtship and continued to see each other whenever she returned to Timbuktu.

One day Haidara set forth from Timbuktu toward Mali’s border with the Sahel nation of Burkina Faso, five hundred miles to the southeast. He had heard that a family in a remote village had accumulated the finest collection of manuscripts in the region. He traveled by truck toward Gao, skirting a vast lake the color of café au lait, where longhorn cattle grazed along the barren brown shore and the skeletal remains of drowned acacia trees protruded from the shallows. The lake, near the town of Gossi, was also known for the large herds of desert elephants, among the last in the Sahel, that cluster around its banks during Mali’s dry season. Just beyond the lake rose the strange quartz-and-sandstone outcropping called Fatimah’s Hand, named after the daughter of the Prophet and his wife Khadijah, three fingerlike pillars almost the color of human flesh, tilting slightly backward and extending two thousand feet from the desert floor toward the sky.

In Gossi, the site of the region’s biggest cattle market, he hitched another ride on a truck to a smaller village. There he joined a 50-camel caravan, bringing bars of salt from the Taoudenni mines in the northern Sahara to Burkina Faso. Haidara mounted a camel at 2 o’clock the first afternoon, but after half a mile, he begged to get off.

“What’s the problem?” the camel driver asked.
“I’m in pain. I need to walk.”
They trudged through the sand for 11 hours, and at 1 o’clock in the morning they found a suitable place to camp. His companion prepared a meal, but when Haidara saw what he was eating—gristly, rotten-looking antelope—he felt sick, and preferred to go hungry. At 6 a.m. they resumed their journey, heading east for another 12 hours and camping in the sand. They left early again the following morning, and crossed a shallow lake near the Burkina Faso–Mali frontier. “We’re going to go our separate ways here, and you have to continue on your own,” the camel driver said upon reaching the other side. With his small sack on his back, Haidara began walking. “It’s very close,” the man shouted after him. “Just follow the lake. Don’t leave it behind.”

Haidara trudged along the lake beneath a broiling sun, with temperatures approaching one hundred degrees, sipping from the half-liter ask of water that he had brought with him, managing to cool himself off by splashing himself from time to time in the tepid, muddy waters of the lake. He was carrying thousands of dollars of cash in his satchel, but, as always, he was dressed humbly, and was confident that he would strike nobody as being a promising target for robbery. Eight hours after starting out, nearing sundown, parched and exhausted, he arrived at the village. The manuscript owner was gone. He recuperated from his exhausting walk, and waited two days until the man returned. Haidara introduced himself and announced that had come to see his manuscripts.

“Who told you about that?” the man demanded.

“Everybody knows about it. Your father was a friend of my father.”

“What do you want? You want to copy them? You want me to lend them to you?”

“No, no, I want to exchange them with you.”

“I can’t even talk about this with you. This is our history, there is no price.”

“Well I want to see them anyway.”

The man brought out sacks filled with manuscripts. Most were in terrible condition—bloated from water damage or gouged by termites—and were beyond repair. Some had torn pages and mold growing on them, but Haidara was confident that he could restore them. Others were in mint condition, and included some of the finest works that he had ever seen. There were theological treatises from the 15th and 16th centuries, leafed in gold, and adorned with the handwritten commentaries of generations of scholars. The greatest treasure was a Quran from the 11th century, written in Egypt one hundred years before Timbuktu came into being.

Haidara knew that he had to have them—at any cost.

“I’m not selling them,” the man insisted. “The manuscripts don’t leave our presence.”

“I want to take them to Timbuktu,” Haidara explained. “An institute there will conserve them, display them, and restore them to good condition. They will be there for the whole world to share and see—including you and your children.”

“This is not just for me,” the man replied. “It is for for my older brother, who lives in a village not far from me.” A search party went out looking for the brother. He showed up the following night. Haidara could sense that he was open to negotiation.

“I’m ready to give you goats, sheep, cows, whatever you want.”

Haidara and the older brother crossed the marsh in a pirogue and then walked another two days to a market town across the Burkina Faso border. In this remote and sparsely populated corner of the Sahel, the frontier was not clearly marked or policed, and people moved back and forth freely. The man brought out a shopping list: 50 goats, two mules, a huge quantity of rice, millet, and fabrics. Haidara spent $10,000—an unheard of sum. Mules brought the goods back to the village. Haidara loaded the sacks of manuscripts onto the backs of three camels, and then, after handshakes all around, headed back to Timbuktu.

By now he had spent almost all of his money. His guide brought him to a village, where he waited five days before renting a four-wheel-drive that carried him to Gao, and from Gao he hitched a ride on a truck back to Timbuktu. It had been a four-week journey to retrieve these manuscripts, the longest, most difficult voyage that Haidara had ever made. When he finally arrived, after all the grueling days of trekking through the bush there and back, he was gaunt, broke, thirsty, and physically spent. But he never regretted making the trip.

Nor did Haidara have second thoughts about the life that he had chosen. “I was well paid for this work. They let me do whatever I wanted, and I did it well,” he recalled three decades later. “I had my freedom. And I had a great responsibility. I had to convince people not to lie. I had to convince them to hand over their manuscripts. They gave me this responsibility with confidence, and I had to fulfill it. And when I started reading these manuscripts, I discovered amazing things, and I couldn’t leave them alone. I couldn’t stop reading.” He steeped himself in the lives of kings and savants, in the wondrous encounters of Timbuktu’s intellectuals with the city’s first Western visitors, in the divisions within Sufism over fikh, or Islamic law, and in the ethical arguments of Ahmed Baba and other polemicists.

He was particularly interested in manuscripts that contradicted Western stereotypes of Islam as a religion of intolerance—pointing with pride to Ahmed Baba’s denunciations of slavery, and to the strident correspondence between the jihadi sultan of Massina and Sheikh Ahmed Al Bakkay Al Kounti, a mid-19th-century Islamic scholar in Timbuktu known for his moderation and acceptance of Jews and Christians. As time passed he became something of a savant himself, revered by many peers in Timbuktu for his knowledge of the region’s history and religion, sought after by parents to offer their children guidance.

Soon after returning to Timbuktu with his prized acquisitions from the Burkina Faso border, he went back on the road. The pace was unrelenting. He traveled for hundreds of miles along the Niger, paddling canoes and riding in motorized longboats, heading up-stream and downstream, stopping at nearly every village and town en route—Diré, Tonka, Goundam, Niafounké, Gourma Rharous, Bourem Inali, Gao. He made repeated trips in camel caravans north to the barren desert along the Algerian border, and sometimes crossed the frontier into Algeria and Morocco. Haidara was single, and could be gone for long periods, but he found the journeys exhausting—and sometimes dangerous. He fell off a camel. He suffered from exposure, burned beneath the desert sun, and seared himself in the desert wind.

Near Gao, an 18-wheeler he was riding in overturned while trying to surmount a huge sand dune. Dozens of passengers, including women and children, were sandwiched between large burlap sacks of grain and other goods carried with them in the back, and several were badly injured. Haidara leapt free of the huge vehicle moments before it toppled over, and came out of it with only a few scratches. Three times his pirogue overturned in rough waters in the Niger, sending satchels and other belongings to the bottom of the river. By an astonishing stroke of fortune, each accident occurred while he was on the way to a village from Timbuktu on a buying expedition. Each time, he was able to salvage the money he had brought with him, carefully wrapped, inside his gown. And he never lost a single manuscript.