Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries

Dar al-Makhtoutat: Sanaa, 17th March 2008
March 17, 2008, 6:50 pm
Filed under: Yemen

Over the past week or so, I have been attempting to dispel at least some of my ignorance of what the Sanaa collection of manuscripts contains. I haven’t been very successful.

On the off-chance that it might be open, on Sunday I walked down past the Great Mosque, past the beggars and the kids not at school, to the House of Manuscripts. The gates were solidly locked and closed, but after a few mumblings from the security I was admitted through a side door, and ushered into the entrance hall. There, a harassed-looking man surrounded by a group of people was counting a sheaf of 500-Riyal notes. He was obviously paying the staff of Dar al-Makhtoutat, who, it being nearly midday, were anxious to be off home with their gains. A small, even more harassed-looking man who had plainly not received his wage yet, spotted me and asked what I wanted.

At that point I thought that I should have thought up some sort of cover story. Dar al-Makhtoutat is not, after all, a museum that is accustomed to visitors. So I stammered, and said that I had a general interest in the manuscripts and would really like to have a look, please. He frowned. What else would I be doing here, I thought.

He brought me into a room crammed with disused furniture, dusty prayer mats and a sad-looking microfiche machine. He pointed to a large volume lying on a desk, and said “here is the catalogue. You can have a look at that first.” I thought that this might be progress, so I dutifully began to comb through the volume, which had, judging by that musty old-paper smell, been produced at the same time as the building itself in the mid-1970s, and had not been revised since. Or rather, it had: Next to the original index numbers for the manuscripts, new numbers had been entered in biro, several times. Things had obviously been moved around a bit. The subject index was encouraging, including: Qurans, Tafsir, Hadith, Linguistics, Political Science, Mathematics, Medicine and Literature, all from the original find in 1972.

Great. “So, can I have a look at the real thing?” I asked.
“The manuscripts?,” said the little man, worried.
“Yes, the manuscripts.”
“Um, no. Sorry. You need a letter. Write to the director.”

I went back out to find the director, and instead I found his deputy, the man still handing out the notes. Each employee was getting about 4000 Riyals – or $20. I don’t know if that was for the week or for the month. The deputy of the deputy now asked what I wanted. “I’d like to write a letter to the director, to ask to see the manuscripts,” I said. “Do you have a piece of paper?” he replied. Wasn’t expecting that.

What happened was that I wrote my own letter of introduction and passed it to the director’s deputy, who paused from the cash counting to write a long “approval” on the bottom, before going back to the more urgent task. Then an orderly asked me which manuscript I wanted to see. Again, I hadn’t thought of that. “One of the oldest Qurans please, I said, innocently.” That didn’t go down well. “He can’t see those!” shouted someone in the group still surrounding the deputy. Nope, can’t see the Qurans, another one confirmed. OK, then. I picked a number at random from the tafsir section of the catalogue.

Another orderly then told me to sit, and disappeared off behind a long sliding door. He came back a minute later with a thick, cloth-bound volume which he dumped on the desk in front of me, amongst the people waiting to be paid and the deputy.

The book turned out to be a volume of tafsir, which could have been from any time from the middle ages to the 19th century. It was hand-written, in a curious script on thick paper. The paragraphs were highly irregular, sometimes spiralling down the left side of the page and leaving yellow spaces in the middle. To me it was mostly illegible, but it was evident that it was a tafsir, but more than that, I could not decipher. No one else there knew what it was either. Another staff member introduced himself as being in the restoration department. He didn’t know what it was. Come back tomorrow. With a letter.

A bumbling amateur I am, but these chaps were hardly more qualified. In the seeming absence of qualified academics, who may or may not have an agenda, things are going quietly to seed at Dar al-Makhtoutat. On the way home I had visions of shelves upon shelves of valuable texts lying jumbled in a back room of the library, waiting to be dumped in front of any hopeful visitor.

By this point, I have become dimly aware of the boundaries of a debate about the origins of the Quran and what that might mean for modern Muslims. That debate will be the subject of another entry in the diary, but whatever it may be, it isn’t happening here, in the house of manuscripts.


1 Comment so far
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Yes. Well, it seems that the Yemenis – contrary to the spiteful claims of those meddling western Orientalists with their anti-Muslim agenda – have matters well in hand. For the love of Pete – whoever that is – let’s face this: western academics can preserve and organize the physical aspect old texts, and they can organize and treat the contents. The cost is that the shine and romance sometimes goes off some of the fantasy (though I gotta say, I reread some of that Grimm Brother’s stuff the other day and it just gets grimmer and grimmer!). Personally I think it’s a good thing we realized that the whole sun-doesn’t-move business was a Greek fantasy and managed to separate it off from the obviously infallible revealed word of Christ bits in the bible, but hey, satellites are a mixed blessing and I recognize that there’s room here for argument. Anyway. Western academics have a skill set and an implicit agenda. It’s balanced in the current debate against an amorphous gang whose aim is to preserve the mystique of infallibility and fell-from-the-skyness of their religious tracts. Understandeable. Fine. But do we have to relax all the muscles around our spines here and say that it’s all for the best that the religious nutbags be allowed to feather their nests with shredded history? I mean, this all has an unpleasant and familiar smell of it. Just ask any schoolchild about Galileo. Ok. Don’t ask a schoolchild. Ask some kid in a first year history course. The take you’ll get will of course be a simplified bullshit version of what happened, but that’s history innit?

Comment by MC

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