MALI – Mali Today

The Radisson Blu siege – After a hotel massacre, some encouraging signs
Nov 28th 2015 Economist

After armed groups occupied the northern half of Mali and officers in the capital staged a coup in 2012, the country accepted generous international security assistance. A thousand French soldiers now monitor the jihadist plotters who lurk in the desert and the brush; over 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers are at bases in the capital, Bamako, or patrolling the north; and Mali’s own forces are being improved. All of these forces (plus a few American commandos) were deployed after two young gunmen burst into the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on November 20th. Their collaboration was swift and co-ordinated, which undoubtedly prevented more killing, but the death toll was over 20.

In the days that followed, the Radisson remained closed to outsiders as French investigators gathered evidence before handing the process back to the Malians. It was grim inside, with blood stains and the smell of burning plastic. At other hotels, sweeps were under way as the government launched a manhunt for two or three suspects who may have aided the attackers.

The attack was claimed by an al-Qaeda-affiliated group al-Mourabitoun, led by the infamous Mokhtar Belmoktar, who attacked a vast gas plant in Algeria from across the border in Mali in 2013. Intriguingly, many witnesses said the attackers spoke English, or at least something that was neither Arabic nor local. Then a second group, the new Macina Liberation Front (MLF) from the Mopti region in the north-west, claimed responsibility for the attack, which Mali’s president said was plausible. But the details of the investigation remain opaque.

This is the second time that Bamako has been attacked in the past year. The roots of the violence lie in the troubled centre and north of the country, where armed bandits and jihadists vie for control. The MLF in particular has shown its capacity for bloodshed by murdering imams who do not support it and attacking hotels popular with foreigners.

Yet there are some hopeful signs. This week, Germany announced that it was sending 650 troops to beef up the UN operation, a welcome move that will take some of the pressure off the French. And Malians are tired of the conflict. Villagers have started calling government forces after they are robbed by bandits, and helping soldiers find the aggressors. In Kidal, a northern desert region once thought lost, former rebels now run police operations against new violent actors. In Mopti, Malian forces are tracking down the MLF themselves. And development will continue; neither America nor Britain has any intention of cutting back aid in the wake of the attack. “We should honour them by continuing,” said Gary Juste, the mission director for USAID.

The Bamako attack struck at one of the most trusted hotels in the capital, requiring an international response and revealing the fragility of government systems. But it also showed emerging strengths and a willingness to collaborate among the Malian authorities. More help, and a willingness to accept it, will be needed in the years ahead.

Between missions abroad and at home, French military power is stretched thin
May 7th 2016 Economist

Operation Sentinelle soldiers now patrol the streets, shopping malls, and office towers of Paris under France’s state of emergency. When first launched, patrolling transport hubs and places of worship after the terrorist attacks in January 2015, the idea was to reduce its size as the threat subsided. After terrorists struck Paris again last November, President François Hollande imposed a state of emergency, and Sentinelle was reinforced to its full quota of 10,000 troops. A third extension of the state of emergency covered the European football championships.

For military planners, this is a challenge. Sentinelle is the biggest military operation on home soil since the Algerian war in the 1960s. To try to meet the challenge, last year Mr Hollande raised defence spending by €3.8 billion ($4.4 billion) over four years and expanded France’s operational ground force from 66,000 to 77,000. But the extra soldiers will take time to train.

In the longer run, France may have trouble maintaining its activist defence and security policy abroad. Other European countries that deploy a heavy military force at home, such as Italy, do not also aspire to project force outside their neighbourhood. In 2013 France dispatched 4,500 troops to beat back an Islamist incursion in Mali; America’s RAND Corporation, called it a model expeditionary force. It sent another 2,000 troops to the Central African Republic, to control a “pre-genocidal” situation. France was the first European country to join the American-led coalition striking Islamic State in Iraq, and later Syria.

Overstretch could curb the capacity to respond to new threats. Technical capacity is very good, but clearly France is in no position to commit to any further adventure. French expeditionary culture is hardy: in Mali, where soldiers endure desert conditions without optimal supplies or equipment, the army makes coping with austerity a point of pride. But there is a pressing need for more attack helicopters and drones.

France’s pull-out from Afghanistan in 2014 did not much affect the allied mission there, observes Camille Grand, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think-tank. But had it not intervened in Mali, “where our troops are involved in real fighting”, there would have been serious consequences for regional and ultimately European security. France is one of the few Western countries that still projects force abroad. But with its new domestic-security worries, it will need to spend more to continue doing so.

Faith’s archivists – Catholic monks in Minnesota are helping to save a trove of Islamic treasures in Mali
Dec 19th 2015 Economist

The secret evacuations began at night. Ancient books were packed in small metal shoe-lockers and loaded three or four to a car to reduce the danger to the driver and minimise possible losses. The manuscript-traffickers passed through the checkpoints of their Islamist occupiers on the journey south across the desert from Timbuktu to Bamako. Later, when that road was blocked, they transported their cargo down the Niger river by canoe.
It formed part of a fabulous selection of Islamic literary treasures that had survived floods, heat and invasion over centuries in Timbuktu. But in April 2012 Tuareg rebels had occupied the city. They were soon displaced by the Islamists with whom they had foolishly allied, a group linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The militants issued edicts to control behaviour, dress and entertainment. Music and football were banned. They destroyed Sufi shrines that had stood for centuries. It was assumed books would be next.

Such fears were not overblown. Islamists had been ruthless with libraries and holy sites in Libya earlier in the year. So in October, the evacuation began. By the time French troops liberated Timbuktu in January 2013 and journalists saw a wing of the city’s grandest new library still smouldering, most of the precious manuscripts had already been spirited away.

The man behind the plan was Abdel Kader Haidara. Born in Timbuktu in 1965, he had grown up surrounded by the treasures: his father, an expert on ancient manuscripts, had inherited a 16th-century Islamic collection and spent his life expanding it. Dr Haidara’s ambitions were even broader. Since 1996 he had run an organisation called SAVAMA (Sauver et Valoriser les Manuscrits). In his office in Bamako, elegantly bound Korans line the bookshelves. Manuscripts lie in stacks, on tables, in corners. He has become their steward.

Dr Haidara describes Timbuktu as the Sahara’s capital of manuscript study. But the city was just one of several where north African Islamic learning flourished at the same time as the European Renaissance. Books were exchanged as caravans came through Timbuktu and, beginning in the late 16th century, they were copied there, too. Men who cared about learning bought or produced libraries full of books about the grammar, logic and rhetoric of the Koran and its teachings; the positions of stars; remedies and music. One 16th-century collector, Ahmed Baba, left behind such a wealth of notation and bibliography that historians call his period a scholarly zenith.

Leo Africanus, a Moorish traveller who visited Timbuktu early in the 16th century, said books from abroad traded at higher prices than fabrics, animals or salt. As it fell again and again over the centuries, families held tight to their collections. The city gained a boost from generous donors after independence from France in 1960, when scholars around the world, supported by agencies such as UNESCO, saw its potential as a centre for pan-African historical research. But in 2012, as the Islamists’ grip tightened, Dr Haidara appealed for donations to help evacuate the treasures.

The evacuation was funded by, among others, the Dutch lottery, the German government and private donors, to the tune of a reported $1m. Some $70,000 more was raised through crowdfunding. The details remained opaque until well after the operation was complete.

The cars travelled through the night on the bumpy roads of central Mali, their drivers sworn to secrecy. As they arrived in Bamako after more than 12 hours of driving, they were greeted by Dr Haidara, who distributed the documents to loyal friends to be stored. The drivers then turned around to make the trip all over again. Each of the hundreds of volunteers took these risks willingly, and often. More than 370,000 manuscripts now sit in safe houses in Bamako—roughly 95% of the total previously held in Timbuktu, Dr Haidara estimates. They are stored in extra rooms in secret apartments, stacked from floor to ceiling in windowless closets. In one room in Bakodjikoroni, a neighbourhood of Bamako, sit 200 of the metre-long metal cases, glittering with hand-painted filigree, each containing tens or even hundreds of books.

As he looked at the saved manuscripts, Dr Haidara saw another opportunity that his father could never have imagined: to preserve their contents in perpetuity. In 2013 he put out a request for help to digitise them. He received an answer from a monastery on the other side of the world.

There can be few places more different from Timbuktu—geographically, culturally or spiritually—than Collegeville, Minnesota. Swept by winds as icy as the Saharan ones are baking, it is encrusted with snow for more than half the year. Towns called St Michael, St Augusta and St Joseph along the 80-mile road north from Minneapolis hint at the region’s deep Christian roots. St John’s Abbey is the last turn-off on the right before St Cloud. When Dr Haidara put out his call for help, it passed via several intermediaries to a member of the abbey’s board, who delivered it to Father Columba Stewart. It had reached the right monk.

In the basement of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) at St John’s, Father Columba flicks on the fluorescent lights. “It’s basically the manuscript culture of Europe in here,” he says, looking at four rows of long metal cabinets containing as many as 100,000 rolls of microfilm. He pulls out the first roll from the first drawer and snaps it into a reader. A white light projects a document on the screen. “This is a Codex,” he says as he rolls through the pages, “Benedictine sermons from the 13th to the 15th century, 880 pages.”

Father Columba has run the HMML for 12 years. He had known of the Mali manuscripts for some time, and was intimately familiar with both the centuries-long quest to preserve them and their immediate peril. The institute is blind to the borders of geography, language and faith.
Born in Texas in 1957, Father Columba attended both Harvard and Yale and received his doctorate in theology from Oxford University. Before taking his vows he imagined a life in law, but the call was stronger, and St John’s Abbey has been his home since 1982. He reluctantly admits that he holds diamond status on Delta Air Lines, earned from spending much of his time travelling from Minnesota’s enormous airport to monasteries in Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon.

St John’s Abbey was founded in 1862 and moved here in 1865. Its monks make honey, candles and fine furniture, but have not brewed beer since a temperate Minnesota archbishop forbade it in the 1880s. They spend each day gardening and teaching, following rules set down by St Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century that call for a balance of prayer and work in everyday life. Occupying a great deal of their affection, and most of Father Columba’s time, is the abbey’s library.

The Benedictines’ longevity is rooted in their intellectual instincts. “We had scriptoria for very practical reasons,” Father Columba says, referring to the “writing places” of medieval European monasteries. “You can’t do theology without philosophy,” he says, standing in his own 21st-century equivalent. “You can’t try to be a self-sustaining monastery if you can’t take science seriously.” So, as a policy, any relevant text was copied. Over one and a half millennia, knowledge has been a matter of survival for the Benedictines, allowing one collective to pick up where another left off, in low times and in high. Today, thanks to machines, the library is copying more efficiently.

There have always been threats. The Vikings, the Reformation, Napoleon’s looting spree and the second world war all scarred the writing places of Europe. American soldiers used ancient Benedictine manuscript pages as kindling to make a fire in a freezing European castle; Russian soldiers used them to roll their cigarettes because newspaper was too expensive. Monte Cassino, St Benedict’s original monastery, was bombed in 1944 as the Allies battled to take Rome.

So St John’s has a team of latter-day scribes scattered across the world who follow a protocol created half a century ago by one of Father Columba’s predecessors, a bibliographer named Oliver Kapsner who made the first backup of the Benedictine archives of Europe. After receiving a grant of $40,000 in 1965 ($302,000 in today’s money), Father Oliver began knocking on church doors in Austria and asking to make copies of their ancient texts. He spent most of the next decade in unheated chambers indexing microfilm images. His task was to save them in case of another world war. “We are seeing what happened in Europe in the 20th century now happening elsewhere in the 21st,” says Father Columba. It is the same mix of ignorance and barbarism, but more heavily armed.

Father Oliver’s work was widely admired and soon others wanted their libraries copied. HMML built studios in Austria, Spain, Portugal, England, Germany, Malta and Ethiopia, clicking their Recordak microfilm cameras and sending undeveloped microfilm via local mail services. The collection reached 93,000 manuscripts, safely arranged in cabinets in a basement north of Minneapolis. Father Oliver hated computers, preferring card stock in neat drawers.

Later librarians oversaw the archive’s growth until Father Columba took the position in 2003. He transformed the whole project through digitisation and from there it accelerated. His own scholarship brought the library to the Middle East, where he launched projects in East Jerusalem, Turkey and Lebanon backing up Syriac Orthodox and Christian Arab libraries that could provide insight into neighbouring Benedictine heritages. He started projects in the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo in 2005, and in Mosul, Iraq, in 2009. The teams photographed 50,000 endangered volumes in a decade.
Sometimes things get dicey. The project in Syria had to hide its manuscripts in 2012. The workers in Iraq, who were archiving a Christian monastery, were evacuated from Mosul because of kidnapping threats. They went to Qaraqosh with the equipment and their remaining manuscripts, only to see it taken by Islamic State in August 2014. Today they are refugees in Kurdish Erbil. The fate of many thousands of manuscripts in Christian libraries in that region is unknown.

HMML had been interested in Timbuktu before, but had not pursued that interest because the city was saturated with donors. “They didn’t need us,” says Father Columba. That changed in 2012 when al-Qaeda’s affiliates invaded. After the French regained control, HMML was the first group to agree to do the digitisation work, funded by the Prince Claus Foundation, an Amsterdam-based organisation that aims to bridge cultures and which also contributed to the evacuation from Timbuktu. In terms of sheer volume, copying the Islamic manuscripts of Mali has become its largest project. It is a curious novelty: guided by a Christian teacher from the sixth century, monks of the 21st century archive texts about an Arabian prophet from the seventh.

Bamako was safe when Father Columba met Dr Haidara in August 2013. He brought his most trusted information manager with him to build a studio. They mounted lights and cameras over desks, and trained local cameramen to shoot pages quickly and accurately. It was the same protocol that the workers of St John’s have been refining for 50 years. Father Columba checks in once a year. Hard drives with terabytes of high-quality manuscript images are shipped back to Minnesota. He jokes that the whole operation is run by DHL, a delivery service.

An additional digital copy is stored under a granite mountain in Utah, “just a canyon up from where the Mormons have all of their microfilm”, Father Columba says with a wink. After two years of work, two of Timbuktu’s 25 large libraries are backed up. The operation has cost about $285,000 to date. The Arcadia Fund, based in Britain, which protects endangered culture, has made a large grant to support the monastery’s work. Father Columba closes the library and settles down for dinner, sharing an inexpensive bottle of red wine. Outside the bells are ringing, gently calling the monks to evening prayers.

In Bamako the muezzins’ call to prayer struggles to be heard over the din of animals and scooters in the busy streets. In the photo studio at SAVAMA, one of Dr Haidara’s colleagues sits under the high-watt bulbs with a stack of paper covered in ancient handwritten Arabic text. “OK,” he says to the woman sitting next to him at a computer. She fires the shutter using the space bar and the bulbs flash the room white. The operator turns the page; he can take 600 pictures every day. HMML now has six photo studios, producing 3,600 pages daily. At that rate the project may need 30 years to finish. Dr Haidara hopes it can be done in four. Father Columba says they will work for as long as they are welcome.

“We keep them in homes, Timbuktu-style,” Dr Haidara says, looking at the 200 aluminium boxes in a small windowless room. He lifts a slim book from a small wooden crate and opens it to reveal colourful lines of Arabic in a large sweeping font. In some of the trunks there are tens of manuscripts, he says. In some there are hundreds; a few hold even more. A dehumidifier struggles to dry Bamako’s damp air.

Dr Haidara opens the prayer book and reads: “Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem.” In the name of God, the beneficent, the most merciful: Al-Fatiha, the opening of the Koran. “In this box”, he says, “we have a complete Koran, written in the 16th century and not yet digitised.” A note in the spine says the book is number 4969. “Look at the decoration.” He opens to a page adorned with a blood-red banner criss-crossed with yellow ropes.

The vast majority of the Mali manuscripts are Korans, Hadiths, and studies on grammar and rhetoric. But the scanners capture everything, including those dealing with human rights, health and law. Paper was precious, so rare glimpses of daily life were jotted in the margins, before Europeans ever set eyes on Saharan cities. There they remained for centuries, preserved by the desert’s dryness.

The manuscripts are owned by different families, and they will decide whether or not to share their scanned copy with scholars. “We have our treasure in this place, and we will keep it hidden until the manuscripts go home,” Dr Haidara says. Of the 35 family owners, he says none has asked for them back. Even though the jihadists were pushed out of Timbuktu in 2013, they still lurk. The treasures will be sent home, says Dr Haidara, when Mali is at peace. But there is no date yet for them to return.

On the other side of the world, Father Columba heads back to the monastery’s guest house, where the windows are streaked with ice. “Benedictines are fundamentally optimistic about the human project. That’s why we’re not frightened by science or novelty,” he says. “When people look at what we’re doing with Muslim communities, they say, why do you do this? I say, this is the time God has given us. We can’t pretend we live in the sixth century when Benedict wrote his rule, or the 13th, or the 1950s, before the sexual revolution. We live now. And part of the reality is cultures which are threatened trying to figure out how to work together on this fragile planet.”

Booting up his laptop he opens an image of a poem in praise of the Prophet in Arabic, which could be 300 years old. Three years ago, it was at risk of being lost for ever; now backups exist in at least five places around the globe. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asks.

THE BAD=ASS LIBRARIANS of TIMBUKTU. By Joshua Hammer. Simon & Schuster; 278 pages; $26.
This is a book review from the May 28th 2016 Economist

Joshua Hammer’s new book, “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu”, traces the story of hundreds of thousands of medieval texts as they are rescued in 2012 from near-destruction by jihadists linked to al-Qaeda in Mali. It is at once a history, caper and thriller.

Some of the book’s most compelling passages are lists, sometimes as much as a paragraph in length. The spices, minerals, animals, fabrics and books carried into Timbuktu in the Middle Ages give a heady taste of what the city once was. The printing process swirls to life in red, gold and black inks, on paper from Fez or distant Venice. Three craftsmen were needed to create a manuscript: one for the words, another for the proofreading and a third to dash in the delicate intonation markings. Yet the tension, whether to share the texts or hide them, is ever-present. These millions of pages become the endangered species of the story, threatened by wave after wave of invaders.

Mr Hammer’s book is not strictly about the manuscripts, for their escape does not really start until halfway through the book. It is mostly a history of jihad in Mali, which for centuries lay on the trade route across the Sahara. One day, a short sandy drive from his hero librarian’s home, a “butterscotch-and-peach painted concrete mosque” appeared to Mr Hammer: an outpost of the puritan, Saudi-funded Wahhabi ideologues taking root across the Sahel. He first sees the new mosque on a visit to Timbuktu before the war, when he also spots American special forces drinking beer in the heat. Trouble was brewing.

The story picks up speed as it begins to chart the opening salvos of Mali’s own Arab spring. France and America watch a weak region, infested with criminals, moulder. Military officials want to strike extremist groups as they form, they tell the author, whereas diplomats prefer development. Hostages are taken from Mali and neighbours, and traded for huge ransoms. The Tuaregs who supported the Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, come home armed and ready for revolution. Just as the fight is brewing, a world-renowned music festival in Timbuktu welcomes Bono to the stage. Four days later, after the tourists leave, the shooting begins.

Life becomes awful in Timbuktu, with brutal sharia punishments meted out by young soldiers. Many Malians refuse to be cowed. Here the caper begins at last. Mr Haidara, the dogged manuscript collector who has spent a lifetime gathering north Africa’s most important works into central libraries, faces a difficult, at times insane, task: how to smuggle nearly half a million ancient texts from under the jihadi occupiers’ noses down a 1,000km route to Bamako. He develops an ulcer as a result of the stress.

The reader last encounters the troves of manuscripts as they arrive at safe houses in Bamako; “not one had been lost”, according to Mr Haidara. Here the author leaves them, as fragile, tantalising and inaccessible as they were in the desert. What of their future? For the ancient books themselves, this chapter is one among many.

Captured the style and history of a newly independent Mali
Apr 16th 2016 Economist

Mr Sidibe ran a photography studio in Bamako, Mali for 30 years before he became known internationally. For a few francs, he shot portraits of Malians in a country imagining itself anew. He produced thousands of images, snapping people playing, swimming and dancing, often men and women mid-swing on the dance floor. Malick Sidibe died on April 15th, aged 80.

Mali became an independent country in 1960, just as Mr Sidibe began thinking about opening his own studio. The capital, Bamako, had long been a small village on the Niger river until French colonists goaded it into focus with a bridge, trains and hotels. Under their first free president, urban Bamakois experimented with prosperity and the collision of diverse Malian culture with styles from Europe and the Soviet Union. Men were as interested in suits as they were in colourful boubous, traditional shag hunting shirts or crisp wide ties. Women wore dresses and trousers. They danced to vinyl records of brassy town bands, and drove foreign motorcycles with chrome finishings. All of these fine, fun things were brought to Mr Sidibe’s portrait studio.

Mr Sidibe was trained to draw, but he discovered photography in a Frenchman’s photography shop that he had been hired to decorate. Once he saw the faces that looked back from the silver photo paper, he was hooked. A remnant of his apprenticeship still hangs in his studio: an early portrait of his mentor gripping a buxom paper-model from the shop window, laughing like a newlywed. A similar sense of humour would fuel Mr Sidibe’s own shop for almost half a century.

In a rented cement room just three by four metres wide, Mr Sidibe hung striped and checked laminate, laid patterned rugs and placed a stool under a case of lightbulbs. He filled a box with hats and another with ties. His studio would maintain this look over decades, like the control sample for an experiment in style. Clients lined up until late in the warm Bamako night to have their picture taken. “It wasn’t gallant,” he said, if it didn’t have the very best clothes.

The door remains open at Mr Sidibe’s studio, and his son Karim will happily show visitors his father’s 80 cameras. Yet his workshop—door 632 on street 508—cannot be found on a map. To find it requires asking around Bagadaji. Everyone knows, though the photographer retired years ago.
“Would you like to meet Malick?” a young Malian photographer once asked Prospero from the front of his motorcycle, before turning onto a muddy street in a suburb south of the river. The two-story house he stopped in front of was not opulent, but it had a courtyard and several small charcoal grills already smoking for tea and supper. Women, men and children waved hello while washing clothes. Sitting with his wife behind a translucent curtain, in a small room with a twin bed, was Mr Sidibe. He wore a white boubou and a trim hat. His eyes pointed in two slightly askew arcs, and he smiled to welcome Prospero into his home. Mr Sidibe spoke between abundant laughter, in a quiet voice Prospero had to lean in to hear.

Mr Sidibe has 15 children—possibly more—and 3 wives. He has only ever seen out of his right eye, having lost the sight in his left when he was young. His favourite camera was the German Rolliflex, an archaic model with two lenses atop one another and a crank on the side. “A photographer doesn’t have breaks,” Mr Sidibe explained, and on Ramadan nights he was always in huge demand. Despite the small size of his studio, his clients always managed to bring their motorcycles, their goats and their horses inside. Sometimes they would put on powder to lighten their skin. What made him laugh most was remembering the customers who spritzed themselves with the perfume he stocked, just to make the image come out a bit better.

When collectors visited Mali in the 1990s and discovered Mr Sidibe for themselves, he sold much of his well-archived negative collection and became the icon abroad that he already was at home. Over the last 25 years of his life, he won multiple achievement awards, and his pictures can be found in museums around the world. His pictures are not just a history. They are a definition of Mali’s sense of style.

In his older age, Mr Sidibe was drawn to memories of the country’s transformation, and its blend of old and new, traditional and modern. He laughed when recalling a wooden airplane that his fellow villagers built after seeing a real one pass overhead. It crashed, he hooted in giggles, because the villagers didn’t have enough material to send it up into the air.

Against the wall behind him stood a filing cabinet, hidden by cloth yet clearly bulging from stacks on the shelves. Original prints? Much of Malick Sidibe’s work hangs abroad now, but an archive of photos of Malian grandfathers and mothers in their coolest sunglasses must hang in hundreds of living rooms around the country.

About admin

I would like to think of myself as a full time traveler. I have been retired since 2006 and in that time have traveled every winter for four to seven months. The months that I am “home”, are often also spent on the road, hiking or kayaking.
I hope to present a website that describes my travel along with my hiking and sea kayaking experiences.

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