World Views
2:06 pm
Mon November 18, 2013

'Roadmap Of Peace': Modern Lessons From Mali’s Ancient Manuscripts

Astronomy and mathematics tables on a page from a Timbuktu manuscript.
Credit EurAstro / Wikimedia Commons
Listen to Suzette Grillot's conversation with Michael Covitt.

For hundreds of years, thousands of manuscripts have been preserved in Timbuktu, chronicling a period from the 12th to 16th Centuries when Mali was the wealthiest nation on Earth.

Michael Covitt is the founder of the Malian Manuscript Foundation, and the producer of the documentary 333 – named after the saints buried in Timbuktu.

Every day before the sun rises they sit in something called a 'Circle of Knowledge,' and they impart their wisdom. They made it unequivocally clear that if you kill yourself or you kill anybody else, you not only don't go into heaven, but you also go directly into hellfire.

“Scholars came from as far away as Spain, Portugal, and Persia,” Covitt says. “These scholars would stay and they would write their own manuscripts about every subject you could think of, including women’s rights, children’s rights, and animal rights.”

Covitt says his objective with the film was to highlight Mali’s history in order to repeat it.

“I learned about the peaceful resolution of conflict with dialogue, tolerance, understanding and forgiveness that they’ve been practicing in Mali for centuries now, and it seems to work,” Covitt says. “Most of us have trouble forgiving. So I thought it was a roadmap of peace for the entire world.”

Earlier this year, Islamist rebels destroyed several manuscripts in the northern Mali insurgency. Covitt says even with Mali’s peaceful history, third-world corruption becoming a way of life has led to the conflict.

“Every time they come to a peaceful resolution of conflict with the government, the government promises them something, but it never gets there,” Covitt says. “I believe President [Amadou Toumani] Touré, who promised $2 million last time, sent it out, but who knows whose pocket it got in?”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the rise of Islamist militants in Northern Mali

They found a great way to make money, so they went to Libya to work for Gaddafi as mercenaries. And when Gaddafi died, they stole all of his armaments, including all of his ammunition. They went across a thousand miles, three different countries with 17 trucks, five different times with weapons somehow evading U.S. satellite surveillance. And then they teamed up with AQIM, which is an Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which basically [is] drug dealers and kidnappers, and a group called Ansar Dine, which is an Islamist group.

And they beat the Malian army in every skirmish. And the Malian army was 6,000 and these guys were under a thousand, but the Malian army was trained by U.S. Special Forces, but the president of Mali was basically I think a good guy, maybe a little corrupt but a good guy, did not arm his soldiers properly because he didn't want to kill his own people, so they wound up being a coup d'état. And after the coup d'état, these other three groups took the North or the three capital cities in in the North: Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

And Timbuktu, which was the global music center of the world for world music, all of a sudden you no longer hear a lot of music on radio. And it was pretty much the only tourist city in all of Mali, so it was a strange thing to happen. The mess just started getting worse and worse.

On the interfaith dialogue and cooperation found in Mali’s ancient manuscripts

The manuscripts are actually written in Arabic and Hebrew, which is interesting. There's Hebrew in the margins. And we have examined the group of Touaregs, who were scholars, known as "Ambassadors of Peace." The ambassadors teach the wisdom from the manuscripts that were brought down from generation to generation by their families. And every day before the sun rises they sit in something called a "Circle of Knowledge," and they impart their wisdom. And they made it unequivocally clear that if you kill yourself or you kill anybody else, you not only don't go into heaven, but [also] you go directly into hellfire. And we had that ratified by scholars here in the United States, too. It's a lot of very bright talking heads talking about peace.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Michael Covitt, welcome to World Views.

MICHAEL COVITT: Well thank you so very much, Suzette. I appreciate it. 

GRILLOT: Well you've produced a very interesting documentary called 333. Where does the name of this documentary come from?

COVITT: Well it comes from the city of Timbuktu, which is known as the City of 333 Saints, which are buried there. The focus on the film is on Mali, and specifically the ancient manuscripts of Mali, which were actually written during the 12th or 16th centuries, when Mali was the wealthiest nation in the world.

GRILLOT: So an African nation today that doesn't really bear any resemblance to that. It's not the wealthiest nation in the world. And yet...

COVITT: It's one of the poorest now.

GRILLOT: It's one of the poorest of the nations in the world now, and yet has this tremendous, rich background in history. And so these ancient manuscripts that teach us what?

COVITT: Pretty much every subject under the sun. During the 12th or 16th centuries, when they were the world's wealthiest nation, they controlled two-thirds of the world's gold supply to trading in slaves and trading in salt. They were also the learning center for the entire world, specifically for Islam. Scholars came from as far away as Spain, Portugal, Persia and these scholars would stay and they would write their own manuscripts about every subject you could think of, including women's rights, children's rights and animal rights. But our particular interest was the peaceful resolution of conflict with dialogue, tolerance, understanding and forgiveness.

GRILLOT: So these are ancient manuscripts that come out of this part of the world, but that seems to be very inconsistent with the narrative we have today about Mali today and about countries like Mali. So what kind of took you there? Obviously the story took you there, but what motivated you to go and tell this story and what are you trying to get out of telling this story in terms of what we can learn from these ancient manuscripts?

COVITT: Well we have a global security consulting practice, and we were looking at the world and knew the world was in a lot of trouble. Countries are land masses surrounded by borders only controlled by individuals generally referred to as "church and state." What usually happens historically is the "church and state" take from the people. The people go broke. There's a revolution. The hands change. And the same thing happens all over again in different hands.

The problem is when countries grow old, they also become financially bankrupt. Guess what: The citizens become ethically and morally corrupt. And when that happens, you see some very strange things. And before countries go under, and they always go under for the same reason, which is their inability to pay their debt, they always do the same thing, which is they usually go to war. And the reason you go to war is because if you control the land, or you own the land, you control all the wealth on that land. And wealth meaning all material objects devised by mankind for the satisfaction of human desire, comes from the land, comes by adding human energy to the land. So leaders tend to know that. When they get in this position not being able to pay their debt, they usually go to war.

The problem with today is that everybody has weapons of mass destruction, and I learned about the peaceful resolution of conflict with dialogue, tolerance, understanding and forgiveness that they've been practicing in Mali for centuries now, and it seems to work. Most of us have trouble forgiving. So I thought it was a roadmap of peace for the entire world.

GRILLOT: So your objective was to highlight our history so that we could hope in this case to repeat it.

COVITT: They're actually following it today still. I mean it's amazing the...since January last year, there was an insurgency formed by NMLA, which is the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. Azawad is the northern part of Mali, which is the size of France, and when they were kids, they were Touaregs living in Mali. Their families, you know, parents making less than a dollar a day.

They found a great way to make money, so they went to Libya to work for Gaddafi as mercenaries. And when Gaddafi died, they stole all of his armaments, including all of his ammunition. They went across a thousand miles, three different countries with 17 trucks, five different times with weapons somehow evading U.S. satellite surveillance. And then they teamed up with AQIM, which is an Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which basically [is] drug dealers and kidnappers, and a group called Ansar Dine, which is an Islamist group.

And they beat the Malian army in every skirmish. And the Malian army was 6,000 and these guys were under a thousand, but the Malian army was trained by U.S. Special Forces, but the president of Mali was basically I think a good guy, maybe a little corrupt but a good guy, did not arm his soldiers properly because he didn't want to kill his own people, so they wound up being a coup d'état. And after the coup d'état, these other three groups took the North or the three capital cities in in the North: Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

And Timbuktu, which was the global music center of the world for world music, all of a sudden you no longer hear a lot of music on radio. And it was pretty much the only tourist city in all of Mali, so it was a strange thing to happen. The mess just started getting worse and worse.

GRILLOT: So the French then intervened. Mali is a former French colony.

COVITT: The French came in January of this year.

GRILLOT: Right, and helped to liberate the North and return this territory to the Malian government.

COVITT: It's a little more complicated than that.

The French sponsored a resolution in the United Nations, which became ratified to go and liberate Mali from the insurgency. Everybody waited for the United States. President Hollande, he decided to go without waiting for everybody, and he brought in a couple thousand people with planes and drop some bombs. And he chased them into the desert, and they were living under the desert. They were prepared for this. They had oil and vehicles and weapons sitting in the desert, and they were waiting for French to leave.

But before that actually happened, Ansar Dine had a fight with NMLA in the Battle of Gao. And NMLA, which thought of the whole thing in the first place, bringing all those weapons into the country, they got chased out of the country. So the French, looking apparently victorious, left a thousand troops. They were up to 4,000, and that is a force of 12,000 of United Nations peacekeepers in there. But peacekeepers may not be enough because after the coup d’état, there wound up eventually being an election.

And they now have President Keïta in office, and one of the first things he did was hire a guy by the name of Captain [Amadou] Sanogo, who's the guy who started the coup d’état, and he went from captain to either three or four-star general in a couple days depending upon which publication you believe, and NMLA is now back in Mali's North. And during the election in the major city of Kidal, there were only 35 registered voters up in the North, and only one voted, and I think because they were intimidated by NMLA, so I don't know that the war is over yet.

GRILLOT: So by telling this story of the history of Mali, and its presence as a democratic state in Africa for many, many, years that this is more of an accurate portrayal of Muslim society in the continent and in the region and is really a roadmap? We should really look to Mali as an example despite the fact that we have this very troubling situation going on in Mali right now? So trying to reconcile these two different perspectives on the country and on the region?

COVITT: Mali, before all of this happened in January of last year was 90 percent Muslim, and a very, very peaceful country. I felt safe wherever I went, despite the fact that people pointed guns at me. I didn't feel nervous because you can look in their eyes, and you knew they weren't about to hurt you. They just figured you look suspicious when you're driving around in five vehicles.

And the manuscripts are actually written in Arabic and Hebrew, which is interesting. There's Hebrew in the margins. And we have examined the group of Touaregs, who were scholars, known as "Ambassadors of Peace." The ambassadors teach the wisdom from the manuscripts that were brought down from generation to generation by their families. And every day before the sun rises they sit in something called a "Circle of Knowledge," and they impart their wisdom. And they made it unequivocally clear that if you kill yourself or you kill anybody else, you not only don't go into heaven, but [also] you go directly into hellfire. And we had that ratified by scholars here in the United States, too. It's a lot of very bright talking heads talking about peace.

GRILLOT: But it's an interesting commentary when you say that these manuscripts have been written from an Islamic perspective, but yet written in Arabic but Hebrew notations. That it's also some sort of lesson, your film provides, some sort a lesson of interfaith dialogue and cooperation and community that Mali apparently represents, or did historically.

COVITT: There were churches next to synagogues next to mosques in Mali. And this little tribe of Jews still lives in Mali. It's an interesting peaceful place. With all the wars and all the insurgencies, before the French came, less than 200 people died by my count. After the French, maybe another 800. Any other country in the world, it'd be 30, 40,000 people. And they tend to forgive each other, which is really astonishing. I don't know if the forgiveness is going to be complete yet because when NMLA came to help their brothers, they wound up raping some of their brothers' wives, and that angered a lot of people. I don't know how easily that gets forgiven, but...in that movie we show an example of somebody's whose father was killed, and they asked him to forgive them, and he did, and he came back to Mali.  

GRILLOT: So the moral of the story is forgiveness and the history that they have to forgive one another in order to overcome these very real differences.

COVITT: Well, forgiveness is a big part of it because it is difficult for all of us. It's the peaceful resolution of conflict through dialogue, tolerance, understanding and forgiveness. You ought to have a dialogue before you get to forgiving because if you don't have the dialogue, that full forgiveness just may not be there.

GRILLOT: So do you have much hope that Mali can overcome its current troubles and find its way back to...

COVITT: I have more hope for Mali than I do for the world. 

GRILLOT: But Mali, therefore, is what you're telling us. It's an example of what we should be.

COVITT: They do practice a peaceful resolution of conflict. There are wars like there is in any other place, but for some reason or another, they come to an abrupt stop, and they forgive and they actually forget, and they move on. What has happened that precipitated all these insurgencies, I believe, is every time they come to a peaceful resolution of conflict with the government---that's the Touaregs. The government promises them something, but it never gets there. And I believe President Touré, who promised them $2 million last time, sent it out, but who knows whose pocket it got in?

GRILLOT: So you mentioned corruption as still a significant problem.

COVITT: There is corruption in every country in the world, including Mali. It's pretty prevalent in that part of the world actually.

GRILLOT: So how does that square with the peaceful resolution of conflict and forgiveness to be corrupt?

COVITT: You know I think when it becomes a way of life, it almost becomes OK. Not OK with me, but they figured that it's no big thing.

GRILLOT: They forgive the corruption and the bribing.

COVITT: They forgive the corruption. They forgive killing. It's an amazing group of people. We don't know what's going to happen with NMLA because they and this Ansar Dine are the unknowns. And when I say the unknowns, NMLA had an accord with the government. They signed an accord. And the new president, after he took office, which was last week he got sworn in, he has 60 days to meet with them. And there was a skirmish between some soldiers and NMLA.

NMLA is a little different than the rest of the Malians in that area because they worked for Gaddafi, and they learned how to drive, shoot and kill, so it makes them a different set of people. Once you cross that border and you start killing people, all of sudden you have a different spirit.

GRILLOT: Well and the crossing of borders is a lot of what we're seeing in the region now.

COVITT: Yes.

GRILLOT: Well Michael Covitt, thank you so much for joining us and telling us this very interesting story and really enlightening us as to a different vision or different view of Mali of what many of us see in the daily newspapers.

COVITT: Thank you.

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