The Timbuktu manuscripts, which went on show in Johannesburg this week, would be the last place you'd expect to find humour, pathos and sweeping tales of forbidden love.
Academics and historians have expressed joy that the rare collection of 25 000 books, dating back as early as the 13th century, "reflects how we deal with existential issues of the human condition, issues that we face even today".
Aslam Farouk-Alli of the UCT-Timbuktu Manuscript Project has spent the past two years studying and translating 120 of the ancient books written in Arabic. He remembers well a particular text that dealt with the issue of divorce, "but obviously constrained within the culture and the religious practices of the time".
In a village about 50km outside Timbuktu, a young couple wanted to get married. "But," says Farouk-Alli, "both had been breastfed by the same wet nurse and, according to Islamic law, if you share the same wet nurse you become foster brother and sister and you are not allowed to marry. They finally did so by collusion, by getting the whole village to support them. What happened [next] is that the chief justice annulled the marriage. It was a kind of Romeo and Juliet set in the desert - quite an abiding problem."
Another text, copied from an ancient book in 1820, collates business laws with regard to the sale of a variety of merchandise moving through Timbuktu: gold, iron, kauri wood, slaves, tobacco, ostrich feathers, salt, fabric, animals, grain, manuscripts and weapons. It includes a section that deals with relations between Muslims and Jewish settlers who once moved to the thriving town.
One tale is of a Jewish merchant from Morocco who was bad-mouthed by jealous Arab traders and reported to the governor of Timbuktu. According to the accompanying caption of the display: "The governor retorted that the trader would not be expelled solely on the basis of religious beliefs and he was allowed to continue trading in Timbuktu."
South African involvement in the restoration of the antique library began on Africa Day in 2003 when President Thabo Mbeki officially launched the project. The focus of the effort is the Ahmed Baba Institute, which began collecting manuscripts in 1973. The institute is named after the historical figure who is considered Timbuktu's most famous scholar. When he was about 35, Baba was exiled to Morocco and, legend has it, left Timbuktu with a 1 600-book library. He eventually returned to his hometown where he taught law and wrote more than 50 books.
Collecting the books, often family heirlooms, has been arduous. Many have been lost. At a conference held in Cape Town in August, Minister of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan spoke about the sometimes sad history of the books, "how the Malians hid their manuscripts in the sand during colonial times after widespread reports of theft and manuscripts landing up in prestigious national collections in Europe".
Centuries later, Timbuktu is no longer the bastion of wealth it once was. Now funds are needed to drive the modernisation of the Ahmed Baba Institute so that its library of ancient treasures will not succumb to the harsh conditions of the Sahara desert.
Project director Riason Naidoo says the exhibition of 16 manuscripts in Johannesburg this week forms part of a funding drive to involve the local private sector in new developments at the institute. Last Saturday, a state banquet was held at which corporations purchased tables for the astronomical amount of R500 000 - about R13,5-million was raised that night.
Naidoo says the project, the first New Partnership for Africa's Develop-ment cultural initiative, goes beyond religious concerns.
"Arabic has been used to document thoughts in the local languages. Some of the manuscripts - like the one on literature, for example - instruct the reader in detail on how to play an Andulusian guitar. There are copies of the Qur'an and a beautiful 17-century biography of the Prophet [Muhammad] inlaid with gold leaf. Others talk about astronomy, mathematics and traditional medicine. So it's about the history of that time."
Farouk-Alli, who had to learn the Arabic of West Africa in order to decipher the texts, says the project forms a part of the revision of African history.
"The whole issue of a written record for African history in the precolonial period is being redressed. The common wisdom of the time was that written history in Africa only began with the arrival of Europeans.
"What this legacy is proving is exactly the opposite, that Africans wrote their own history from as early as the 13th century onwards. Obviously, this is phenomenal. What these manuscripts represent is a retrieval of our authentic past."
The Timbuktu manuscripts are on show at the Standard Bank Gallery, Simmonds Street, Jo'burg, until 1pm on October 8