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Sammlung arabischer Handschriften aus Mauretanien: Kurzbeschreibungen von 2239 Handschrifteneinheiten mit Indices.

The progress in developing finding aids for Arabic- and Arabic-script manuscripts from West Africa has long been quixotic, and the existence, much less accessibility, of Mauritanian material within that region has been one of the best kept secrets in studies of African Arabic literatures. Despite numerous efforts that date from the late 1960s to tackle a half-dozen manuscript collections in Nigeria, and descriptions of national repositories in Ghana and Senegal, the first major finding aid to list systematically and index a substantial body of West African materials appeared only in 1985. That project, which the work under review took as its model, listed over 4,000 items now at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris that were confiscated at Segou, in today's Mali, when the French moved into the western Sudan at the end of the nineteenth century.(1) The current work adds substantially to the Segou materials with another 2,239 notices drawn from libraries throughout Mauritania and provides access for the first time to a cross-section of manuscripts representative of the rich literary tradition in that country.

Rebstock's project began in 1980, a joint venture between Tubingen University and the Institut Mauritanien de Recherche Scientifique (IMRS) that led to microfilming and annotation of the 2,239 works with the collaboration of Ahmad ould Abd al-Qadir. Copies of the film are now accessible at Tubingen, the University of Amman and IMRS, Nouakchott; most of the manuscripts remain in private hands, apart from 600-odd works that originated from the national collection at IMRS (which now numbers roughly 3,500 items). The criteria used for selecting the 260 private libraries from which items were filmed, much less the particular items that were filmed in each library, are not entirely clear. One of the largest private libraries, for instance, at Boutilimit, seems to have escaped the notice of the project. But assuming a degree of random selection, the value of this collection is that it is drawn from a broad cross-section of private libraries, from the Senegal valley to Shinqit and from Nouakchott to Wadan. Indices identify the specific libraries by location and owners (although the original owners of the materials filmed from the IMRS collection seem to have been missed); other indices list subject matter, titles, and authors (combining nisba, laqab, and kunya with authors as they appeared in the manuscripts).

Rebstock's microfilm finding aid demonstrates with authority what had long been known by students of the Mauritanian past but has largely escaped the attention of West Africanists as well as specialists in Arabic literature in the Maghrib and beyond: there has flourished a vibrant and sustained literary tradition in the western Sahara during the past three centuries. It is a tradition that defies most received wisdom, dating at least from Ibn Khaldun, that assumes an incompatibility between bedouin life and a high, literary culture. But however contradictory, the presence of such a tradition in the area of Mauritania during the past 300 years can no longer be ignored.

What we need now is to bring together these finding aids, generate union indices--preferably in Arabic as well as roman characters--so that the intellectual integrity of the West African Arabic literary tradition as a whole can be examined. Such a bilingual data base is now being developed at the University of Illinois where notices from the IMRS collection and a recent microfilming project at the Ahl Shaykh Sidiyya libraries in Boutilimit, have brought together indices for the greater part of the roughly 8,000 publicly accessible manuscripts from Mauritania. This is being joined with the Rebstock finding aid, Segou holdings at the Bibliotheque Nationale, the collection at the Centre Ahmad Baba in Timbuctu and Nigerian manuscripts at the Northwestern University Library in a data base that will finally include at least 25,000 notices. Thanks to the Tubingen project, we are provided with more than an introduction to the manuscript resources in Mauritania; we have a cross-section of manuscripts that will move such a data base a step closer to realization.

1 Noureddine Ghali, Sidi Mohamed Mahibou, Louis Brenner, Inventaire de la Bibliotheque Umarienne de Segou (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1985).
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Author:Stewart, Charles
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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