THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

4 posts categorized "Research collaboration"

18 October 2017

Bestiary of Fears – an artist’s inspiration from illustrated Hebrew manuscripts

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Today's  post is by guest contributor Jacqueline Nicholls, a London based visual artist and Jewish educator. She uses her art to engage with traditional Jewish ideas in untraditional ways. She co-ordinates the Art Studio and other Arts & Culture events at JW3, and regularly teaches at the London School of Jewish Studies. Jacqueline’s art has been exhibited in solo shows and significant contemporary Jewish Art group shows in the UK, USA and Israel, and she was recently artist-in-resident in Venice with Beit Venezia. Jacqueline is a regular contributor to BBC R2 Pause for Thought

In the Jewish religion the seven weeks between the freedom festival of Passover and the festival of Pentecost is called the Omer. It is traditional to ritually count every day of these seven weeks and to use this time for personal spiritual transformation. For the last couple of years I have used this time for art projects, and I have undertaken this counting as a daily drawing practice, exploring different themes each year.

In 2016, I was invited to make use of the online digital Hebrew manuscript collection of the British Library and give feedback on how this resource could be useful for artists. I used this as an opportunity to explore the collection with a very personal project: The Bestiary of Fear. If this time is one of personal transformation, the focus for this project was to be on the things that terrify and paralyse the self and prevent growth. The etymology of the word ‘monster’ and the word ‘to demonstrate’ have the same root. They issue out an omen, bring forth a warning, and make visible that which is hidden in the dark. This Bestiary would be an externalising of the internal hidden fears, drawing them out to identify and demonstrate them, transforming the fears into finite monsters that can be contained, and hopefully, overcome.

The process of making this Bestiary was one of daily introspection; by contemplating my vulnerabilities, I was able to identify the fears I wanted to explore through this project. This introspection was followed by searching through the collection items included in The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts to find forms that resonated with the fears I had identified. I was drawn to the strange animals and fantastical beasts in the marginalia, and decided to focus on adapting them to develop the drawings for the Bestiary of Fears.

Seven manuscripts were selected for this project, exploring one each for a week of the seven-week Omer. They were: The Barcelona Haggadah (Add MS 14761), The Yonah Pentateuch (Add MS 21160, Prayer book (Add MS 26957), The Northern French Miscellany (Add MS 11639), The Hispano-Moresque Haggadah (Or 2737), The Sister Haggadah (Or 2884), and The Golden Haggadah (Add MS 27210). As the Omer begins during the festival of Passover when the Haggadot would have been used, it seemed appropriate to primarily focus on the illustrations within the Haggadot in the British Library’s collection.

The beasties and monsters within these manuscripts are delightful and charming. Sometimes the connection with the text is clear, fulfilling an interpretive role of commentary. And sometimes their inclusion seems decorative with very loose connections to the content. There are breaks and dividing markers within the long body of writing and playful insertions in the margins. One of my favourites is the depiction of a dog licking its bottom on the page containing some special festive prayers in the Northern French Miscellany (Add MS 11639 f.232v).

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Dog licking its bottom, The Northern French Miscellany, France, 1278-1324 CE (British Library Add MS 11639, f. 232v)  noc

This whimsical and vulgar treatment is not found in modern day printed Hebrew prayer books, and contemporary Jewish religious culture is poorer for its exclusion. These are manuscripts that were made for a particular audience and therefore they can be intimate and personal in a way that printed books for a wider readership cannot.

An example of this can be seen in the Italian Prayer Book (Add MS 26957). This manuscript was created in 1469 for the patrons Menachem ben Shmuel and his daughter Maraviglia bat Menachem ben Shmuel. In this manuscript, mindful that it is made for a woman, the stage-directions for the prayers depict a woman and not a man as the active participant who performs the rituals. This is something that would be unusual to find in a mainstream printed Hebrew prayer book today. I was inspired by the woman on folio 55v, who is pointing to the blessing to count the Omer, as the inspiration for my Omer Drawings Day 24: Fear of Domesticity. To portray the fear I turned her pointing instructing finger into the gesture of an overbearing matriarch.

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Illustration of a woman pointing to the text for the counting of the Omer, Italy, 1469 CE (British Library Add MS 26957, f. 55v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 24: Fear of Domesticity ©Jacqueline Nicholls

In the process of searching through the beasts in the marginalia looking for the right external form to match the inner emotion, I sometimes made connections with the text on that page. An example of this can be seen in Omer Drawings Day 5: Fear of Disapproval. This features a stern, condescending, and judgemental creature looking down his nose and frowning with contempt. The inspiration for this beastie was found in the Barcelona Haggadah (Add MS 14761) accompanying the introductory passage of the Four Sons (f33v.), where it describes how a parent should tell the Passover story to their different types of children. It seemed fitting for this fear, because there is nothing more disapproving than the patriarch who judges his children, who pigeon-holes them and finds them lacking. 

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Introductory passage of the Four Sons, Barcelona Haggadah, Spain, 14th Century CE (Add MS 14761 f. 33v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 5: Fear of Disapproval ©Jacqueline Nicholls

I was particularly struck by the nuance and detail of expression that were captured in these small and delicate drawings. The high quality of the photography and the ability to examine close details on the computer screen meant that the subtleties and sleight touches in the drawings can be scrutinised without damage to the original manuscript. As the online digitised manuscripts do not have a scale on the screen, one can only estimate the size of the original manuscript and accompanying illustrations by noting the width of the pen strokes.

In the Yonah Pentateuch (Add MS 21160), the text of the Five Books of Moses is decorated with micrography of patterns and beasts in the margins around the text. This unique Jewish scribal art form consists of weaving minute letters into abstract, geometric and figurative designs. In the section which tells the story of Jacob and Esau, there is a strange dopey looking dinosaur-like figure (f. 19v) that became the inspiration for my Omer Drawings Day 9: Fear of Messing Up. The narrative of Esau and Jacob is one of a relationship that does not run smooth, with patterns of deceptions and mistakes.

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Micrographic dinosaur-like hybrid, Yonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE (Add MS 21160 f. 19v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 9: Fear of Messing Up ©Jacqueline Nicholls

Discussions about definitions of Jewish Art tend to centre on the prohibition of making graven images in the Ten Commandments. This focus side-lines the history and existence of Hebrew illustrated manuscripts. It misinterprets a specific Rabbinic directive about idolatry, putting it into a wider context of disapproval of the plastic arts. This has resulted in a tendency to be suspicious of or to downplay the role of the visual within Jewish heritage. As an artist who engages with traditional Jewish texts, it was refreshing and inspiring to connect with the range and diversity of imagery within the Hebrew manuscript collection at the British Library, at the same time becoming familiar with the quirks, humour and artistry that exist within the tradition, a spirit that can be renewed for contemporary Jewish Art.

The complete Bestiary of Fears can be found online at Jacqueline Nicholls: Omer Drawings.

Jacqueline Nicholls
 ccownwork

 

21 February 2017

Knowledge Exchange visit to the National Library of China

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As part of “The British Library in China Project, the Library recently set up a series of Knowledge Exchange programmes with partners across mainland China and Hong Kong. Gemma Renshaw, Loans Coordinator at the Library, and Robert Davies, Editorial and Rights Manager of the Library’s Publishing team, were the two colleagues selected to visit the National Library of China (NLC) in Beijing in December. The aim of the trip was to learn from the host institution and to explore new terrain for future skills-sharing activities and collaboration.

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Robert Davies and Gemma Renshaw on the first day of their visit to the National Museum of Classical Books at the National Library of China. © British Library in China

The British Library in China Project is a UK government-funded, three-year project designed to strengthen cultural ties between the two countries. The first of a series of exhibitions will be held at the NLC from April 2017 and will feature 11 iconic items from the British Library collections, including an early edition of the works of Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle’s manuscripts. As part of this project, the Library is also developing a Chinese-language website based on the successful “Discovering Literature” platform, to introduce English literature authors and themes to the Chinese public.

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Ms Guo Ni from the NLC International Office welcomed the Library colleagues. From left to right: Robert Davies, Gemma Renshaw, Guo Ni and Tan Wang-Ward. © British Library in China

While working closely together to develop a large-scale, joint exhibition, the Library and the NLC are now collaborating in new and exciting ways. The preparation of the joint exhibition has involved several months of fruitful interactions, including video conference calls between teams in London and Beijing. These regular conversations have increased mutual understanding, which helps tremendously when two organisations have different working methods and operating languages.

For Gemma, one of the important objectives of this trip was directly related to the upcoming exhibition. She hoped to find out more details about the exhibition hall facilities and conditions, as well as to finally meet the colleagues in Beijing with whom she had remotely worked for so many months! Gemma writes:

(On the first day of visit) we arrived early at the NLC and were introduced to the Exhibitions and Property Management teams. They showed us around the gallery that we’ll be displaying our objects in and we talked about the display cases, the types of objects they usually show, how the exhibition hall can be laid out for our joint exhibition and how practical work is divided between the two teams. It was really helpful for me to talk to both teams because they split the work that is done by my department at the Library between them. Also, seeing for myself what the gallery and the store room were like allowed me to get answers to important questions regarding security and exhibition hall environment, which otherwise would require a lot of email exchanges and translation help from my Chinese-speaking colleagues at the Library.

Robert paid a visit to the National Library of China Press. This trip provided a valuable opportunity for Robert to build direct contact with the NLC Press. As Robert says:

The visit to the National Library of China Press was a fascinating glimpse into the very different context of museum and library publishing in China. Our counterparts at the NLC Press have a large staff (over 100!) and publish many deeply scholarly books, curating and preserving China’s traditional literary culture for a highly specialist audience. Compared to the BL press, the NLC press focuses much more strictly on its own collection and on Chinese books.

The British Library has longstanding relationships with NLC Press for key projects – works about the Diamond Sutra, for example – but we have never had direct publisher-to-publisher contact in the past. There are clear opportunities for strengthening our partnership in future years – for example, facsimiles of ancient Chinese books and manuscripts as well as the on-going project on the retro-conversion in electronic format of the catalogues of our exceptional holdings of Chinese material from the early republican period.

This visit gave me a unique chance to see these projects from the other side and to build direct contact with editors and publishers – who were generous with their time in showing me their neighbourhood near the beautiful lakes of Beihai Park in central Beijing and provided an extremely delicious Peking duck lunch….

In addition to the NLC press, Robert also visited one of the most popular local bookstores – San Lian Bookstore, which is open 24/7 and is so vast that it spreads over three floors in the central area of Beijing:

Visiting a flagship Chinese bookshop was a great opportunity to find out more about the market for books in China – how they are priced, what cover designs and binding styles are used, and how translated Western books are categorised and sold among Chinese original works. It was also surprising (and inspiring) to see a very traditional bookshop – no café, and no gift products – busy with customers, late into the evening.


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Gemma Renshaw and Robert Davies with Mr Lei Qiang from the Exhibition Department of the NLC. © British Library in China

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A corner for audience participation at an NLC exhibition dedicated to the guqin, a traditional Chinese musical instrument that was often associated with scholarly life. © British Library in China

The exhibitions on display at the National Museum of Classical Books of the NLC were particularly interesting and informative: new media and interactive technologies have found their way into the NLC exhibition displays and narratives. For Robert, the highlight of visiting the exhibitions was a guided tour of the oracle bones gallery, which has an immersive set-up supported by multi-media projection and ambient sound effect. The way that the exhibition curator had made a complex and specialist subject into an accessible, interesting and hands-on gallery was very impressive.

Other activities of the Knowledge Exchange visit to the NLC included a tour of the book conservation studio and of the Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy department. In the conservation studio, the traditional Chinese way of master-apprentice knowledge transmission is still very prominent, demonstrated by the way the room is arranged: the master conservators’ desks are positioned in the central area of the room while apprentices’ desks are on the right side of the room by the windows.

While we were there a conservator was working on her research on paper colouration. She was using Chinese brush and mineral paints and experimented combining the paint with a wide range of materials to see which combination would better match with that of an aged page from an old book. This type of approach to paper is rooted in the long history of bookbinding and book conservation in China.

The NLC conservation studio is equipped with very advanced technology machinery, including two labs for paper testing and analysis and a newly established Western Books conservation lab, which the studio manager very kindly introduced to us. This new lab is led by Xiao Yu, a young conservator who studied at the Camberwell College of Arts and has a remarkable knowledge base of both Chinese and Western book bindings and materials.

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Visit to the conservation studio at the NLC. © British Library in China

At the Department of Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy we were given a fascinating insight into the large collection of Chinese rubbings. Chinese rubbings are paper copies of the surface of engraved items or reliefs. As a technique, rubbings enjoy a long history of more than 1,500 years in China and East Asian countries. As objects, rubbings represent an invaluable medium for preserving the history and culture contained within important stone stele, bronze vessels and objects in other material such as brick and jade. We were shown how to make rubbings out of a beautiful ink-stone engraved with plum blossoms: a piece of traditional Chinese rice paper was laid flat on the ink-stone and carefully moistened with sprayed water. After the paper dried but remained stuck to the ink-stone, an inkpad with some ink was carefully and lightly pressed on the paper, leaving an ink impression of the plum blossoms image as the carved parts of the engravings were left white on the paper.

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An expert at the NLC showing how to make a rubbing out of the ink-stone engraved with a plum blossom pattern. © British Library in China

Creating a Chinese rubbing is a delicate task: it requires extensive experience to balance the level of the moisture in the paper, the quantity of ink and the correct pressure. The British Library’s Chinese collection hosts a collection of Chinese rubbings, and the Curators of the Chinese section hope to work together with the NLC in future to gain specialist knowledge on how to better conserve, catalogue, store and digitise them.

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Experts of the Department of Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy at the NLC welcomed Library staff Gemma Renshaw and Tan Wang-Ward. © British Library in China

The Knowledge Exchange programme will continue alongside the three-year exhibitions project in China and will consist of a series of reciprocal visits between staff members of different areas and departments of the British Library and the Chinese partner institutions, including Shanghai Library and Mu Xin Art Museum in Wuzhen.


Tan Wang-Ward, Project Assistant to “British Library in China” Project, with thanks to Gemma Renshaw and Robert Davies for their contributions.
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31 May 2016

An 18th Century North African Travelling Physician's Handbook

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POSTSCRIPT from editor: This manuscript has now been digitised and can be viewed online

While cataloguing the British Library’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa (see BL blog passim) I came across a very strange item. This manuscript, Or.6557, was given to the British Museum Library (the forerunner of the British Library) by a Muhammad Shami on the 10th of October 1903 and catalogued the following year. According to a slip of paper pasted on the blank recto of the first folio in the handwriting the donor, this work is a “book on Reml [Arabic: ʻIlm al-Raml, meaning divination by sand] and magic and some of austronomy by Saidi Saeed Abdoul Naim” with the date of composition given as 1202AH (1788 AD). The text block is loose-leaf, as is often the case in North and West Africa, and protected at either end by squares of animal hide.

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Key to writing a secret alphabet (British Library Or.6557, f. 47r)
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The reason for the work’s composition seems to be to detail practices for the curing of various physical and mental conditions. Throughout the work, subjects are itemised in the left-hand margin, suggesting ʻAbd al-Nāʼim used it as a reference guide during his practice. The lack of any clear order nor beginning or conclusion, along with various small pieces of paper scattered throughout the text block featuring simple arithmetic, receipts or aides-memoires, suggests that the work was compiled gradually over the course of ʻAbd al-Nāʼim's career and was meant to be a private document. The handwriting of  ʻAbd al-Nāʻim seems to be a mix of several different styles and –confirmed by the mention of various North African place names- it appears he travelled widely in search of learning, or perhaps new patients.

True to the words of the donor, among the subjects covered are sand divination and astronomy. However, the work is a veritable compendium of all kinds of knowledge, ranging from the purely scientific to the very occult. There are sections on alchemy, the fabrication of potions and talismans, the exorcism of demons and jinn and the voiding of black magic, to the treatment of a plethora of medical complaints, from sore eyes to bad backs. Toward the end of the work, ʻAbd al-Nāʻim also quotes versified works by the Egyptian al-Ḍimyātī, whose poems are still renowned in North Africa for their therapeutic properties. ʻAbd al-Nāʻim refers several times to the use of hashish as well as other recognisable drugs and chemical compounds, often noting that he has tried many of the cures on himself.

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Two of the “nine family heads”. Text in red indicates that these are instructions for performing the exorcism, while the text in black gives their personal name and a description (British Library Or.6557, ff. 40r and 41r)
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However, the most impressive aspect of the work is its full-page illustrations. The work features nine full-page illustrations of beings ʻAbd al-Nāʻim calls “tisʻa rahṭ”. This phrase can be traced to the Qur’an 27:48 in the line “And there were in the city nine family heads causing corruption in the land”. In the tafṣīr of al-Jalālayn, this city is identified as Thamud and the “corruption” is described as “sins such as clipping dinars and dirhams”. From this obscure Qur’anic reference, ʻAbd al-Nāʻim elaborates the story, giving each “family head” a personal name, listing his attributes, signs of the interference of this entity in the world of the living and the means to exorcise or remove him. His representations of each “family head” –executed in black or red ink- are highly original, ranging from a horned demon to a long-beaked red bird, to a long-armed creature with a brazier for a head. If these forms are not unsettling enough, ʻAbd al-Nāʻim ends his section on the “nine family heads” with the warning that “whoever says that they are birds or anything else has lied for I saw them [myself] in Safar 1214 (July/August 1799)”.

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Left: “Legions of Jinn” (Or.6557, f. 6v); right: group of Jinn or humans, engaged in shooting and riding (British Library Or.6557, f. 26v)
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Aside from numerous astrological and alchemical diagrams and talismans, the work also includes many pictorial representations of jinn. ʻAbd al-Nāʻim’s illustrations are again highly idiosyncratic and he has taken pains to differentiate each jinn from the next. Some sprout three horns, some are stooped over while others stand tall, thrusting batons or other implements; some appear to be holding firearms while others ride on beasts of burden.

There is still much work to be done on this item -which I believe must be a unicum- and no doubt further textual analysis will shed more light on the circumstances of its composition.

My thanks to Constant Hamès, with whom I have corresponded concerning this item.

Paul Naylor, British Library Collaborative Doctoral Student, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork

Paul Naylor, British Library Collaborative Doctoral Student, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2016/03/the-british-librarys-west-african-manuscripts-collection.html#sthash.GT132MvI.dpuf

15 December 2015

4,000 Arabic manuscripts by the River Niger

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Paul with the MARA (Manuscrits Arabes et Ajami) team (© IRSH, Université Abdou Moumouni)

From West Africa
I am writing this piece from Niamey, Niger, where I am staying for a five-week research trip to investigate the country’s largest manuscript collection held at the Département des Manuscrits Arabes et Ajami (MARA), a department of the city’s Université Abdou Moumouni. This renowned collection contains mainly works in Arabic, but also many regional languages such as Hausa, Fulfulde, Zarma and Kanuri written in Arabic script (we call this ajami). The range of subjects covered in the collection is vast, but mainly concern works of history and religion, but I have come across works on dream interpretation, the benefits of eating kola nut and a book discussing the relative benefits and drawbacks of “associating with the French”.

At the British Library, my work is to catalogue the BL’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa as part of an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Project with the University of Birmingham. My thesis concerns the theocratic state founded in this region in 1804 by Sheikh Uthman dan Fodio (popularly called the Sokoto Caliphate). I am especially interested how Uthman’s successors, Abdullahi dan Fodio and Muhammad Bello, set about maintaining and governing the state entity they had helped to create, as well as the legacy of the Caliphate today.

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The MARA and Boubou Hama (© IRSH, Université Abdou Moumouni)

History of  MARA
The founding of MARA occurred under unusual circumstances. The story starts with Boubou Hama, one-time President of the National Assembly and also a passionate historian of the Niger region. Using his political clout to garner funds, throughout the 1960s and 70s he had been purchasing manuscripts that concerned the history of Niger from both within the country and in the wider West African region. When he could not purchase the manuscripts themselves, he paid scribes (notably in Agadez) to copy them out for him, housing his growing collection in a room in the National Assembly.

In 1974, there was an army coup in Niamey and the National Assembly was flooded with soldiers. The young rebels who discovered Boubou Hama’s manuscript collection could read neither Arabic nor their regional languages in Arabic script. They decided that these were works praising the government, which Boubou Hama had commissioned from marabouts. In their revolutionary fervour, they set about destroying the collection. It was only after an unknown quantity of these manuscripts had been destroyed that the collection was found to contain mainly historical and religious works, most of them pre-dating the Hamani government. The four hundred remaining manuscripts were transferred to the Institut de Recherche en Sciences Humaines (IRSH). The IRSH subsequently merged with the newly founded Université Abdou Moumouni and MARA was created as an official university department that same year.

Under MARA’s first directors and with help from UNESCO, the department continued to purchase and copy regional manuscripts until they possessed more than 3,000 items, for which a new storeroom was built. However, there was little effort to catalogue or preserve this rapidly expanding collection. When current director of MARA Dr. Moulaye Hassane took up his position in 1995, his priorities were to catalogue, preserve and expand the collection further. For this task, he increased the department staff to seven, including Dr. Salao Alassan, a graduate of Al-Azhar University.

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Dr. Salao Alassan beside a display of manuscripts (© IRSH, Université Abdou Moumouni)

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Staff of the MARA, Dr. Hassane in the centre, wearing brown (© IRSH, Université Abdou Moumouni)

Between 2004 and 2008, they created an eight-volume catalogue containing entries for 4,000 manuscripts, an operation funded and published by the Al-Furqan Foundation. During the cataloguing process, it became apparent that there was an urgent need to undertake measures to preserve the manuscripts from damage. In 2005, the MARA acquired funding from Libya’s World Islamic Call Society to construct a new, specialised storeroom for the manuscripts. To prevent the appearance of termites –the greatest enemy of manuscripts in this part of the world- builders used traditional methods such as salting the earth and adding a saline mixture to the concrete used for the foundations. USAID also provided several dehumidifiers to control the climate of the storeroom as well as scanners, colour printers and training in digitisation techniques with the aim of safeguarding the collection permanently.

However, like many curators, Dr. Hassane is wary of digitising the entire collection, especially in Niamey where laws concerning the use of digital images are not as stringent or comprehensive as in Europe or North America. As Dr. Hassane said himself, “When I started to digitise the manuscripts, it was to safeguard them. But at the same time, I saw that it would be dangerous to digitise them because once a digital copy is made, it can be taken away. If this material becomes available, then who will come to use the archives?”

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A saddlebag Qur’an, very similar to British Library Or.16751 on view in the British Library exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song (© IRSH, Université Abdou Moumouni)

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A selection of  manuscripts on display at a Colloquium held at IRSH (© IRSH, Université Abdou Moumouni)

Threats to the collection
Even after the rescuing of the initial collection from destruction in 1974, MARA’s archives have faced several threats over the years. The World Islamic Call Society has not always been so helpful to MARA. Throughout the 1980s and 90s its directors sent representatives to Niamey offering extortionate amounts of money to purchase the entire collection and move it to Tripoli. Dr. Hassane said no. “What they don’t understand”, he says, “is that if I give away the manuscript collection of MARA, what is left for me to do here?” The same could not be said for the large number of manuscripts held by private individuals all over Niger. For many of their owners, the huge financial gain was too great an opportunity and they sold their manuscripts –until that point regarded as family heirlooms- to the foundation. In 2007, during a tour of a manuscript preservation centre in Libya, Dr. Hassane saw quite a few manuscripts of Nigerien provenance. Although the manuscripts are stored safely in underground vaults, they are not likely to be studied in the near future.

MARA also recently lost its UNESCO funding. As such, MARA can no longer afford to purchase manuscripts held privately in Niger. As well as many of these private holdings being purchased by World Islamic Call Society, they are also under threat from the Izala Society, a reactionary Islamic movement that started in Nigeria. The movement’s branch in Niger has been known to purchase or demand manuscripts in order to destroy them. This is because many of these manuscripts contain the writings of Qadiri and Tijani Sufi orders, whom the movement believe to be heretical.

But maybe the biggest threat to the MARA archives is de-centralisation. Each region now envisages its own museum and archive collection. While an admirable idea, this risks the collection of MARA being split up. Already, the university-funded initiative started in 2005 by Dr. Hassane to collect and catalogue regional manuscripts held by marabouts is failing to produce results because marabouts no longer want to part with their manuscripts. In fact, many are demanding the manuscripts they sold to MARA in previous years back again. As a result, a large proportion of the manuscripts included in the projected ninth volume of the al-Furqan catalogue series will not actually be held at the MARA but will stay with their owners. Should a scholar wish to consult these items in the future, the catalogue will give the name and address of the marabout and they will have to ask for a viewing.

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A manuscript in need of conservation (© IRSH, Université Abdou Moumouni)

Future aims, and worries
Over the coming years, Dr. Hassane and his team will continue their project to map and evaluate Niger’s private manuscript collections, which has four regions still to survey. While the project may not result in many new acquisitions, they are still creating a fantastic resource. The team will collect the name of each marabout, their religious affiliation, education and current teaching activity, as well as a photograph of them with their prized manuscripts. There is also an initiative to translate and publish critical editions of as many as the manuscripts as possible. For this task, Dr. Hassane wants to involve post-graduate students from Université Abdou Moumouni writing theses in history or Islamic studies.

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MARA staff member Boubacar Moussa interviews marabout Side Iyé, who is explaining his invention, a “Universal Calendar” (© IRSH, Université Abdou Moumouni)

My time here with the manuscripts has so far been fruitful and rewarding. My temporary colleagues have become more like my friends, and after a day’s work with the manuscripts we indulge in fried fish caught in the River Niger, some 100 metres down the road -although this may make some BL staff rather nervous, as the manuscripts are still lying around as we eat! Plus, as the initiative to survey and evaluate Niger’s privately-held manuscripts continues, there is a regular stream of wise old marabouts turning up at MARA offices to share their knowledge and donate copies of their works.

It is often difficult for Nigerien academics to get their work published in mainstream academic journals (not least because they are restricted to the Francophone world) and Dr. Hassane’s fears about the collection being digitised and distributed amongst Western academics and the trickle of foreign visitors to the collection drying out is completely understandable. MARA is neither short of human resources, nor short of material to work on. However, it does not have the financial resources or the international presence of –say- the Timbuktu manuscripts, mainly because the threats to this collection are not as visible (and media-friendly) as an Islamist insurgency. Often held up as an achievement for global cultural heritage, Dr. Hassane in fact wants to avoid the Timbuktu model, where private archive collections lobby for sponsorship by powerful external donors and monetise access to the manuscripts, making collaborations almost impossible. “I am an academic,” says Dr. Hassane, “I don’t do business with manuscripts.”

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Paul hard at work (© IRSH, Université Abdou Moumouni)

Paul Naylor, British Library Collaborative Doctoral Student, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork