Magic in Mali
BY Annie Waterman | June 14, 2012
Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu
Stephanie Diakite is a master bookbinder, illuminator and ancient manuscript conservator. For many years, and with the support of UNESCO, she has been contributing to the development and safeguarding of the antique volumes that are found throughout northern Mali. Due to recent political events, Timbuktu Manuscripts have been in extremely grave danger, especially due to the rapid deterioration of these fragile documents. In order to protect these private collections, they are being hidden throughout the desert; however, as Stephanie explains, “This is obviously neither secure nor sustainable. Fundamentalist forces oppose this sort of literary material, and it is crucial to maintain supportive peace keeping and participative governance in the region.”
Stephanie’s work is imperative, as she raises international awareness around the risks of losing these manuscripts and helps to prevent unfortunate events that may destroy the cultural heritage throughout this west African country. Recently, I had the opportunity to find out more about Ms. Diakate's important work.
HAND/EYE: Please tell me a bit about the bookbinders and their craft work?
Stephanie Diakite: Over the ages, traditional Tamasheq blacksmith and leather workers (aka Gariissa) have worked on bookbinding and repair for Islamic scholars. They were part of a value chain based on scholarship-royals mentored scholars who hired Gariissa to handle their binding and restoration projects. After colonization by the French, where cultural education was discouraged, the Gariissa, for the most part, converted to crafts and jewelry in order to make a living.
When the insurgents invaded the northern part of Mali, the Gariissa were vehemently opposed to the idea of their country being divided. Soon after, they left the rural town of Timbuktu and became exiles. They were forced to live in refugee camps where their children became sick due to the lack of sanitation and proper nutrition. They now have returned to producing touristy crafts and costume jewelry, just enough money to pay rent for the simple housing where all the 'friends of the manuscripts' reside as outcasts.
Like many traditional artisans, teaching the Gariissa is an epiphany–their hands exude craft, and they don’t learn in the usual way, as they instruct their hands to just 'do it'. They also don’t experience the painful, but often passionate, struggle of the mind’s eye to the hand.
I use hand forged Japanese knives for book work–I literally love my knives, and painstakingly preserve them from harm, and coddle them into doing very detailed work on objects of great value. I’m not a generational artisan, I learned the craft; it took years of study and uncountable creative flops!
H/E: You mention that after the colonization by the French, scholarship was discouraged and many began making crafts and jewelry. What sort of works did they begin creating and what happened to all of the manuscripts in the process?
SD: There was a transition into the tourist market – jewelers starting using steel instead of silver, making souvenir type boxes instead of book binding, etc. The manuscripts went into hiding.
H/E: What are the main challenges that you have faced in trying to preserve these ancient manuscripts?
SD: Paper conservation and book arts in general are very technical professions. There are few qualified technicians that are specialized in book conservation or restoration in this particular field of work. It takes ages of painstakingly detailed and risky practice. The inks are volatile; the paper is extremely unstable and vulnerable.
Like everything, it takes loads of funding and there are always other really important priorities in impoverished economies like those of Sub-Saharan Africa.
H/E: What do you find to be "magical" about this field of work?
SD: Book work saved my life – I’m a kind of overly analytical and have spent my life studying: I have two JDs, an MBA, and a couple of PhDs. One of my professors in France said that either we find you something to do other than think, or you are going to drive yourself and all of us NUTS!! He sent me to a medieval books conservator with a teeny tiny workshop behind one of the old books stores in the 6th arrondissement in Paris. I spent years of spare time learning and escaping my own mind there, with a very special binder in a workshop high above the garment district in NYC, and then later with an abominable binder monster in Seattle!
H/E: Is the traditional trade of book binding being revived?
SD: YES! This is my satisfaction – seeing an ancient craft serving the scholarship again. A book is a combination of knowledge and the physical support for education. Without the conservation/restoration work, the Malian cultural identity can’t be passed on as many of the books in this body of work are in such a sorry physical state that they can’t even be digitized for virtual sharing.
H/E: What are some of your favorite manuscripts that have been preserved?
SD: I married into the Fulani. My very favorite are the epic poems “Kadyra,” which is translated from Fulbe into Arabic. I see my husband and my family in those poems. I feel the depth of their love of the land, nature, and the breadth of the spirit of man–‘wide as the savanna, deep as the deepest erg ….’ These are the same people who emigrated to the north of Nigeria and deep into the Sudan. I want those Fulani, who have somehow been separated from the expansive view of life and traditional generosity of spirit of the Malian Sahara, to renew their knowledge of these poems–to voyage anew in the wealth of the experience of their people. I want people everywhere who live small and constrained lives, who are ruled by limits instead of being challenged by limitlessness possibilities, to experience this scholarship and to gain intellectual and spiritual freedom by it.
H/E: What is your intention behind preserving these ancient manuscripts? What awareness do you want to spread?
SD: I want to protect the manuscripts, and keep the cultural heritage, the scholars, and the community of the books safe. This is global patrimony. Everyone in the world has the right to know of it and to use it for their personal and/or societal development. No one – for any reason – should destroy this knowledge or force it to stay in hiding.
For more information, please visit: www.dintlafrica.com.