Timbuktu: a city of mysteries

I have held an 800 year old book in my hand. Do you know what that means? This is insanity! To think that pages can survive in these conditions for so long. This happened at the Ahmed Baba Center which is the major government run institute dedicated to the preservation and study of the numerous famed manuscripts of Timbuktu. The old center is a small cluster of sand colored buildings located close to the main hospital of Timbuktu complete with a large convention hall (which they were cleaning in preparation for the visit of Iran’s President) and numerous other bungalows that house reading rooms and preservation workshops. We started the day off in the library with director of research who gave us a complete history of the center and a run through of the manuscripts. I’m not normally one for museums or historical ramblings, but there is no way not to be fascinated by all that is captured in these books, some of the most beautiful of which were stored in glass display cases – their brown and yellowed pages still intact with Arabic scrawled across in perfect lines, some with student crib notes from four or six hundred years ago in the margins. The copies of the Koran had beautiful gold leaf illustrations and patterns on pages facing texts. The volumes of legal documents, or medicine had tables. The volumes of astronomy had star charts that though hundreds of years old still twinkled. These books are a living legacy of Timbuktu and to hold one as I did later in the restoration room is to feel absurdly empowered as a human, as an African. I shook. I smiled. I trembled. I have delivered babies – that is held a living being so precious because of it’s newness to the world – and who would have thought that to hold history would provoke the same nervous joy, the same protective instinct, the same awe. Indeed some of the private libraries only allow women to work in the restoration laboratories because it is thought that only a woman who has cared for a new born understands the delicacy required to manipulate these documents, this history. I’m not sure how to feel about that.

I have to say the major disappoint for me is not being able to read Arabic script. A book is a scared thing, but even more so when its meaning is understood. Perhaps most remarkable is what I can only term as the amazing fusion of cultures that these texts represent. Before leaving for Timbuktu, I remember commenting to a friend about my unsure feelings due to the fact that these celebrated African written texts are actually written in Arabic. Are they really an example of the African written word? Can’t somebody easily say that we sub-Saharan Africans don’t have our own record of our own languages? I am so glad I came to this place for the questions it has answered and the numerous questions it has stirred inside my thick thick skull. As the director of research for the Ahmed Baba center explained to me so many of the texts are Arabic script, but indigenous languages. Imagine that! I thought about it and thought about it and I guess the best comparison I can come up with is the fact that French, German, English etc. are all written with Latin letters though none of these languages is actual Latin. Chinese and Japanese use similar scripts but are two very different languages. My conclusion: the script isn’t so much what matters as the language that’s written and the ideas. And then, what a fabulous exercise in cultural exchange.

That is Timbuktu encapsulated – nothing is what it seems – everything is a reflection of everything including identity. As such you are forced to see yourself in the other in a way the wider world may not allow and your mind opens. I guess this is the purpose of books – even if you can’t read them.

I don’t know that there’s all that much for me to say now that I’ve seen these libraries – at some point the boredom sets in and leather bound volumes that you can’t read cease to be exciting but wow that initial rush.

We decided to turn to other aspects of life in the city and being a medical student, high on my list of priorities was the Timbuktu hospital which is conveniently located just behind the Ahmed Baba center. Behind a high tower and blue gates is a series of one story bungalows situated around a dusty courtyard in which patients and their family’s sit and wait for care or cook food for the sick. It reminds me of many a hospital I’ve been to in Nigeria – the same structure, the same stillness in the courtyards, the smell of Detol disinfectant along the open corridors and in the doorways of rooms. I got the chance to see patients with the chief of medicine – a youngish man who was the first person in his family to attend school. There in each of the rooms, we push through cases holding plain films that show pleural effusions and enlarged hearts, bone infections and tuberculosis up to light streaming in through windows. It is a far cry from the “state of the art” medicine that I am learning in New York City, but because of this I feel better about myself as a potential Doctor. Medicine in Timbuktu, is like other things in Timbuktu, about people and connections between them, not machines, not academic journals and articles, not prestige and recognition. I’ll explain further. When learning medicine in the States, so much is focused on technology and protocols, on the precision in memory and diagnostics that will allow us to treat anybody who comes in the door. It often feels like the reason why I wanted to become a doctor (why most people what to become doctors) is lost in the mix, that ability to lay on hands and heal. Healing may not mean curing a disease but it does mean making a person feel more human. As we walked down the halls, between the beds, I would whisper to Lauren that this patient with the liver cancer or that patient with the enlarged heart probably has less than a year left in the absence of treatments readily available in the west. And that bothers me a lot. I want that to change. But what I don’t what to change is the way the Doctor must connect differently with a patient in the absence of these life saving treatments. Medicine cannot be practiced by handing over a prescription for a series of tests and then a series of drugs after twenty minutes of speaking. The conversation is extended. The doubts tendered and expelled and if it’s loss of life that one must face, the coping practiced together with the provider of care instead of in private. This is be a simple minded rendering of this situation, but I never claimed genius.

I turned to my friend Lauren – an engineer by training who dutifully traipsed around with us striving to understand medical jargon delivered in French – at one point at told her “I can do this. I can be a Doctor. I like this!” She laughed because she is so used to my enumerating the various reasons why medicine is just not for me as a profession. To think I had to venture a thousand miles from anywhere to see healing (as opposed to treating) and hear that still small voice that says yes you do care about people and how they feel.

They say Timbuktu is a city of mysteries.


History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving.

T.S. Elliot — Gerontion

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