Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Ancient Books and Libraries of Tichit, Mauritania

Caravan Leaders and Saharan Scholars
Source = Saudi Aramco Magazine September 2010

Caravans have long been the lifelines of the Sahara. But today, Tichit (in Mauritania) remains largely “landlocked,” without a highway linking it to Mauritania's national road system. Its dwindling population nonetheless relies less on caravans than on the diesel truck that regularly makes its way across the rough terrain from Tijikja, to the east, to replenish the town's supplies and carry out its primary exports: amersal salt and dates.

Throughout history, long-distance trade in Mauritania was a male profession. In Tichit, though, caravanning was not just a man's world. The wealthiest women of Tichit invested in caravan journeys by contracting family members and laborers, or sending slaves; women in the lower classes of society joined caravans themselves, for the most part accompanied by their husbands and children. Those women are remembered by all because of their leading role in planning, coordinating and directing camels, loads, supplies and family labor. This is why the story of Jarfuna, the remarkable woman caravan leader, lives on in the oral traditions of Tichit


Tichit has a long tradition of excellence in Islamic learning and scholarship. As early as the 12th century, several Muslim scholars had settled in Tichit, among them Sharif 'Abd al-Mu'min. Today, there are some 20 large libraries in this Saharan oasis that contain manuscript collections bearing witness to the vibrant scholarly community that once flourished here--including the 800-manuscript library of the family of Limam Ould Abdel Mu'min, who heads the only museum of Tichit.

Lying at the base of a limestone escarpment, accessible only by camels and off-road vehicles, Tichit was once so verdant that archeologists have found evidence of plant domestication going back some 4000 years.

Lying at the base of a limestone escarpment, accessible only by camels and off-road vehicles, Tichit was once so verdant that archeologists have found evidence of plant domestication going back some 4000 years.

In recent years, the Fondation des Villes Anciennes, under the Mauritanian Ministry of Culture, has been working to preserve manuscripts in Ticht and sister oasis towns. In Tichit, some families have taken matters into their own hands by creating the Club pour la Sauvegarde des Manuscrits de Tichit, which is cataloging six family-library collections. Mohamedou Ould El-Sharif Bouya, who directs the club, is a scholar and local historian, a role passed down to him by Daddah Ould Idda, the late custodian of Tichit's history. Much material assistance is needed to secure these Saharan treasures for posterity, he says.

Several Tichit women were known as distinguished scholars, and their stories are recounted in the town's oral traditions. The mosque of Tichit, its fa├žade decorated with the triangular niches typical of the town's stone buildings, has a special entrance for women that is notable for its beauty and size. Today women from all three of Tichit's clans still run primary schools in their homes where they teach the Qur'an and basic Arabic literacy to boys and girls.

In Tichit, it is traditional for both boys and girls to become literate, mostly through education in the chapters (surahs) of the Qur’an.

Historically, many of Tichit's female intellectuals belonged to the Shurfa clan, which traces its lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. Like their male counterparts, they memorized the Qur'an to earn the respectful title of hafidhat, and some of their writings are preserved in the Club pour la Sauvegarde des Manuscrits. The earliest example is A'ishatu mint al-Faqih Abu Bakir ibn al-Amin ibn al-Sha' al-Muslimi, who lived in the 18th century. It is said that she once traded 70 camels for a single manuscript: Ibn Hajjar's collection of hadith, or sayings of the Prophet.

Another example is Al-Hasniya mint Fadil al-Sharif, a 19th-century scholar. She married another scholar with whom she had four sons, all of whom became scholars themselves. When she died, numerous praise songs and poems were written in her honor. Several of them have been published in Dala al-Adib, an anthology of Saharan literature by Jamal Ould Al-Hasan. Fatima mint Shaykhna Buyahmed is the most celebrated of these learned women, partly because she lived in more recent times—from the late 19th through the mid-20th century. The daughter of a legal scholar who taught her Islamic jurisprudence, she so excelled in the study of the law that she occasionally wrote fatwas in the name of her father.

Jarfuna, by contrast, used her limited literacy to run her caravans, but she wasn't the only Masna woman to leave her mark as a businesswoman. Fatimatu mint Seri Niaba, for example, was a gifted 19th-century entrepreneur, as well as a learned individual. Although she did not leave any scholarly writings, Fatimatu, like many women of Tichit, earned her access to the caravan economy thanks to her literacy.

Muslim women protected their property rights by keeping a paper trail of their commercial and civil affairs. They documented credit transactions and loan disbursements, and they wrote to men and other women with whom they conducted trade and exchanged market information. To be sure, only privileged and exceptional women—Fatimatu among them—acquired the skills necessary to make use of contracts and correspondence. Tichit depended on caravans to bring in limited supplies of writing paper, making that commodity relatively expensive. Not everyone could afford to engage directly in the caravanning economy at this level or, alternatively, to hire scribes.

Ornamental leatherwork adorns what will become a usaada, or cushion. In the past, women used the same skills to decorate the leather bindings for manuscripts that are preserved in Tichit’s libraries.

Women were involved in Tichit's scholarly and caravanning activities in other ways, too, by crafting and ornamenting the leather bindings that protected manuscripts. The women of Tichit also made and decorated with colored dyes the cushions and small leather pouches that were among their primary export products. Indeed, there is a firm foundation for the popular Mauritanian proverb, “The woman is the man's trousers” (Limra' sirwal al-rajul), for it conveys the idea that a woman protects her husband and, by extension, their family.

Partial reprint of article in Saudi Aramco World Magazine, September 2010

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