Anyone who has read my short stories “Persephone’s Library” and “What Rough Beast” knows how profoundly the idea of preserving books in a time of ignorance, violence, censorship and the destruction of knowledge resonates with me. The preservation of knowledge, which often comes at great personal risk, is to me an act of immense heroism.
In Mali, amid all the other horrors and tragedies being perpetrated, Islamist insurgents set fire to a library that is a World Heritage site, and the repository of ancient texts, some dating as far back as the 13th century. These texts represent the history of the people of Northern Africa, and their loss would have been devastating not just to the history and culture of the region, but also a deep blow to all of us in the world who value history, knowledge, learning.
They set fire to the state of the art new building that had been built to preserve these documents–but fortunately, they didn’t know enough to check on the old building–which still housed the bulk of the collection. This allowed Abba Alhadi, a 72 year old man who has been caretaker and custodian of these rare manuscripts for the past 40 years, to smuggle the majority of the collection out over several weeks by placing them in empty rice and millet bags. He walks with a cane and is himself illiterate, but every night, he would load those rice and millet sacks full of books onto a cart which he would push across town to be loaded onto a truck that bore 28,000 of the 30,000 volume collection to safety. Says Alhadi:
“I have spent my life protecting these manuscripts. This has been my life’s work. And I had to come to terms with the fact that I could no longer protect them here. It hurt me deeply to see them go, but I took strength knowing that they were being sent to a safe place.”
And, in a parallel to the events in “What Rough Beast” that gives me chills, other books had been preserved in a special, secret, fire proof underground room in the new facility that had remained secured and undiscovered while the insurgents pillaged, destroyed and burned all the manuscripts above. A final consolation is that at least some of the books that were destroyed had been digitzed as part of a preservation project.
When I read the article from the Associated Press, I couldn’t help but start tearing up with deep gratitude to the heroes of this story–the people who risked much to save the history of many peoples and cultures that would otherwise have been destroyed by extremism and ignorance. Thank you, thank you, thank you.