Responsable is a French noun whose meaning is easy to guess at in English. There were few better words to describe the librarian then than as a responsable for a giant slice of neglected history, the manuscripts of Timbuktu, a collection of handwritten documents so large no one knew quite how many there were, though he himself would put them in the hundreds of thousands. Few had done more to unearth the manuscripts than Haidara. In the months to come, no one would be given more credit for their salvation.
In person the librarian was an imposing man with a handshake of astonishing softness, a drive-by of a greeting that left a hint of remembered contact, no more. He was well versed in the history and content of the documents, but appeared not so much a scholar as a businessman who controlled his affairs in a variety of languages via his cellphones, or in person from behind a desk the size of a small boat. He was not the only proprietor of manuscripts in the city, but as the owner of the largest private collection and founder of Savama, an organization devoted to safeguarding the city's written heritage, he claimed to represent the bulk of Timbuktu's manuscript-owning families.
Haidara had been raised in a large Timbuktu house made of banco and built around a courtyard, like a hundred thousand others in the region. He was one of fourteen children of Mamma Haidara, a Timbuktu scholar, and the town in which he grew up had changed little in a hundred years. At the heart of the city were the three large mosques: Jingere Ber, the "great mosque," in the west; Sidi Yahya in the center; and Sankore in the north. The spaces between the mosques were filled with houses and markets, and the old medina, in the shape of a fat teardrop, was a mile and a half around. The people had buried their relatives close to their houses, and as the city had grown, the burial grounds had been absorbed into the network of alleys and streets. The living and the dead now existed side by side, and in the tradition of mystical, Sufi, Islam, the divide between them had become blurred: the most holy ancestors, the scholars and judges and leaders of former times, lay in grand mausoleums where they were worshipped as saints.
Someone had counted 333 such saints, and since it was an auspicious number, that was what Timbuktu had come to call itself, the City of 333 Saints.
There were no cars or trucks in Timbuktu when Haidara was growing up; the city did not get its first gas pump until the mid-1970s. Instead it was filled with animals. Sheep and goats and cattle and chickens picked at the sparse vegetation and at the scraps thrown in the streets. Caravans of donkeys brought cereals in from the river port to the south, while the biggest events of the year were the arrivals of the salt caravans, thousands of camels strong, from the mines in the desert.
At the age of six, Haidara had been sent to Kuranic school to learn the holy texts, and afterward to the Franco-Arab school to learn everything else. He remembered it as a childhood sans souci, free from worry, but like most Timbuktiens the family had little money. Their principal assets were the manuscripts. These were stored all over the house, Haidara would later recall, on shelves that bowed under the weight of paper, and in relatives' homes in and around Timbuktu. They were written mostly in Arabic, and were bound in cracking camel and gazelle hide, their fabric eaten by termites and stained with water. They covered almost every subject under the sun. There were works on astronomy, poetry, and medicine, as well as mundane documents of ownership, legal rulings, and bills of sale. More than anything, they were Islamic, commentaries on the holy texts and interpretations of their legal meanings.
Haidara's father used the manuscripts for teaching. Students came from around the region to learn from the scholar and his books, while his friends—the grandes personnalites, the neighborhood leaders and the notables of Timbuktu—came to sit and swap opinions. Sometimes his father would ask him to fetch a certain document, and Haidara would search through the rooms of the house to find the right work. Later he started to copy out parts of the manuscripts, and in this way he came to know and understand them.
His father died in 1981, when Abdel Kader was seventeen. It was tradition that the family of the deceased and the city fathers should meet to divide up the estate, and to this end a list of Mamma Haidara's possessions was compiled in an exercise book. The manuscripts, though, were kept apart: the collection was not to be divided, sold, or given away. Instead, one of the next generation would be tasked with looking after it.
The elders, who had witnessed his inquisitive nature, chose Abdel Kader. He would be the responsable.
It was around this time that the Malian sage Amadou Hampâte Bâ came to speak in Timbuktu. Hampâte Bâ, who had lived since the early days of French colonization, was a gifted writer, a collector of traditions, an expert in West African culture, and a man of great intelligence and stature. Haidara went along to listen to him. Hampâte Bâ told his audience to imagine that in the cultural scheme of things the world's cities were in a line. At one time, he said, Timbuktu had stood at the front, but then God had ordered the queue to do an about-face, and now it was at the back. "We do not know how," Hampâte Bâ said, "but perhaps one day God will order another about-face so that Timbuktu finds its place again. You should not cross your arms and wait for that moment. You must help history. You must bring out your manuscripts. You must use them."
Hampâte Bâ's words sank deep into Haidara's consciousness. That day, he understood his purpose. He would try to revive the city through its manuscripts.