I became South African in 2000 when I settled in Cape Town, after having lived and studied in Spain, the USA and Morocco. While growing a family, I continued my studies at the University of Cape Town, where I completed an MPhil in African Studies, with a research thesis analysing the recent history of a West African Sufi group in Cape Town. Due to my growing interest in West Africa and language competence in French and Arabic, I joined the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project (TMP, www.tombouctoumanuscripts.org) at UCT, a project dedicated to the study of manuscript and book culture in Africa, with a particular emphasis on West Africa and the city of Timbuktu.

The TMP approaches the research into African manuscripts from the perspective of “the history of the book,” combining both textual analysis and the study of the book as a material object, and its conditions of production, circulation, reception and transmission in its local context. We are also interested in the histories of the archives and collections in Timbuktu, a widely unexplored field in our region. Seminal to our endeavours is close collaboration with colleagues from West Africa—manuscript researchers, librarians, collection owners, and locally trained Islamic scholars—whose expertise and contextual knowledge of the local manuscript culture is vital to our project.

Shamil Jeppie, Saarah Jaapie and Susana Molins Lliteras in Timbuktu, December 2009
Shamil Jeppie, Saarah Jaapie and Susana Molins Lliteras in Timbuktu, December 2009

Thus, after finishing my MPhil, I joined the TMP as a researcher, while organising conferences, workshops, seminars, and scholar exchanges with colleagues from Mali and elsewhere in West Africa (Niger, Senegal, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Morocco) and East Africa. We organised workshops and seminars in Mali—one on Ajami (other languages in the Arabic script) in Timbuktu, another on conservation methods in Djenne—and sponsored numerous research visits for African scholars to UCT who worked with us on different research projects, from the translation of manuscripts to their palaeography and codicology as well as giving both academic seminars and public talks.

Calligraphy lessons with Master Calligrapher Hamidi Belaid, Cape Town, August 2012
Calligraphy lessons with Master Calligrapher Hamidi Belaid, Cape Town, August 2012

In 2008 we collaborated with Iziko on a travelling exhibition of Manuscripts from Mali in South Africa, “Timbuktu: Script & Scholarship” and in 2009 we curated an international calligraphy exhibition and accompanying academic seminar and calligraphy workshops entitled “From Istanbul to Timbuktu; Ink Routes”. Additionally, we organised or co-hosted numerous academic workshops and conferences at UCT, always multilingual and with a large contingent of African scholars as participants: Notably “The Sahara Today” Workshop (September 2011), “The Arts and Crafts of Literacy: Manuscript Cultures in Sub-Saharan Africa” (September 2013), Zukunftsphilologie Winter Academy, “World Scripts: Concepts and Practices of Writing from a Comparative Perspective” (September 2015) and “Manuscript matters: (re)collections” (March 2016).

Manuscript matters: (re)collections workshop, Cape Town March 2016
Manuscript matters: (re)collections workshop, Cape Town March 2016

Thanks to this formative period with the TMP, I completed a PhD in Historical Studies at UCT under the supervision of Shamil Jeppie, with a dissertation entitled “ ‘Africa starts in the Pyrenees:’ The Fondo Kati, between al-Andalus and Timbuktu,” (2015). The thesis—inserting itself into the disciplines of book and archive history—presents a biography of the Fondo Kati archive, one of the many private family libraries that have surfaced in Timbuktu in recent years, and which has positioned itself apart from other libraries due to its claim to a unique historical heritage linked to al-Andalus, and by extension to modern-day Spain. Analysing both oral materials, but especially the notes written on the margins of the manuscripts of the collection, my study treats the Fondo Kati itself as a historical subject. I argue that this archive is built upon two cornerstones: the genealogical project—the claim to uninterrupted ‘originally’ Spanish ancestry for the Kati family—and the project of the marginalia—the archive as a family collection, built by generations of family members, each adding manuscripts and marginalia to the collection. Questions around the authenticity of the marginalia, in terms of their dates of production and authorship, point to a forgery in the Fondo Kati that is ultimately about historical evidence, about providing textual, written proofs of the past. Finally, I conclude that the very act of construction of the Kati archive is an active intervention in the production of history.

With Ismael Diadié Haidara of the Fondo Kati Library, Bamako, June 2013
With Ismael Diadié Haidara of the Fondo Kati Library, Bamako, June 2013

After completing the dissertation, I became a post-doctoral fellow in the Historical Studies department, convening a new survey course on African history before the colonial period (2016 & 2017) and thereafter, receiving a post-doctoral fellowship from the African Humanities Programme (AHP) of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) in 2017.

Post-Doctoral Project at the APC:

I formally joined the APC as Post-Doctoral fellow in 2018, although I had a previous association with the APC since the beginning of my doctoral journey, which marked the archival methodological direction of my dissertation and lead to a publication of a journal article in an APC publication project (2013 Special Focus on Archive, South African Historical Journal, 65/1).

My focus during the APC post-doctoral fellowship has been a book project, which while based on my PhD dissertation, is being framed by a completely different set of inter-disciplinary questions and is therefore quite a different research project. I am departing from a wider theoretical lens, looking at the co-production of archive and public discourse about the manuscripts of Timbuktu as a whole, ideas I developed in an essay presented at an APC research development workshop and recently published in an APC publication project, Babel Unbound. I argue in the book that Timbuktu has recently become known as ‘the iconic archive’ used to signify indigenous African writing and knowledge production before the advent of colonialism. Nevertheless, an older association of the city as an impossible-to-reach, almost mythical location still lingers in popular imagination. Today, Timbuktu’s fame as a site of learning in Africa known to both the Islamic world and the West is being ‘rediscovered’ through the popularisation of, and research on, its famed manuscript collections. However, one particular private, ‘family’ manuscript collection, the Fondo Kati, has deliberately positioned itself apart from other libraries in Timbuktu. In first place, it claims a unique genealogical heritage linked to medieval al-Andalus and by extension modern-day Spain. Secondly, it ascribes a central role, and importance, to the marginalia of the collection—as opposed to the main texts of the manuscripts themselves. The book contends that unless we understand the processes of the creation, reception and success of this archive in different contexts and by different publics, we will fail to appreciate how, despite apparent contradictions, the Fondo Kati reflects modalities of knowledge production in and about Timbuktu. Thus, the archival biography of the Fondo Kati presented in this work demonstrates how historical knowledge in and about Timbuktu is continuously produced, reproduced and refashioned. It privileges the imbrication of textual, written ‘evidence’ with the circulation of oral sources and stories, combining regimes of historicity and temporality.  This production of knowledge in and about Timbuktu similarly reveals a particular understanding of Africa, challenging notions of its ‘marginality’ and positionality in world history.

Susana Molins Lliteras presenting at the ASA 62nd Annual meeting, November 2019
Susana Molins Lliteras presenting at the ASA 62nd Annual meeting, November 2019

During my post-doctoral fellowship at the APC, besides working on my book project, I have co-organised the bi-annual APC Research Development Workshops, ad-hoc Research Labs, and two theme-based workshops, “Entangled Oralities” (April 2019) and “Histories: Commissioned, Authorised and Patrolled” (February 2020). I have continued to participate in manuscript-related workshops, such as an innovative training workshop focusing on “Working with African Arabic Script Manuscripts” in Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois USA) in August 2017, a symposium on “Digitisation and Cultural Heritage in West Africa: in Dakar" (June 2018), as well as bigger international conferences such as the ASAUK 27th biennial conference at the University of Birmingham in September 2018. As a previous AHP Fellow, I participated in a book manuscript development workshop in Dar es Salaam, organised by the African Humanities Programme (AHP) of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) in October 2018. Resulting from this same programme, I was also awarded the prestigious African Studies Association (ASA) Presidential Fellowship for 2019, whose objective is to invite outstanding Africa-based scholars to attend the ASA Annual Meeting and to spend time at African Studies Programmes in the US, in my case at three different universities where I presented papers and had meetings with local faculty.

List of publications:

“The making of a local historian in Timbuktu: The signed marginalia attributed to MaḥmÅ«d Ka‘ti in the Fondo Kati collection,” in Colophons and Scribal Cultures across the early modern world, eds. Christopher Bahl and Stefan Hanß (London: Palgrave Macmillan, in press).

“Iconic Archive: Timbuktu and its manuscripts in public discourse,” in Babel Unbound: Rage, Reason and Rethinking Public Life, eds. Carolyn Hamilton and Lesley Cowling (Wits University Press, 2020).

“The ‘Holy Circle’ of Kramats in Cape Town, South Africa,” in Islamic Sacred Natural Sites: Proceedings from the Delos Initiative’s Fourth Workshop, eds. Elisabeth Conrad, Thymio Papayannis and Josep Maria Mallarach (IUCN and the University of Malta, 2019).

“A preliminary appraisal of marginalia in West African manuscripts from the Mamma Haïdara collection (Timbuktu),” in The Arts and Crafts of Literacy: Islamic Manuscript Cultures in Sub-Saharan Africa, eds. Andrea Brigaglia and Mauro Nobili (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017): 143-77.

“Book Review: Muslims and new media in West Africa: Pathways to God, Dorothea E. Schulz” Islamic Africa 7/2 (2016): 283-86.

“Representations: Documents: West Africa,” in Encyclopaedia of Women & Islamic Cultures, General Editor Suad Joseph (Brill Online, 2016).

“The making of the Fondo Ka’ti: A family collection in Timbuktu,” Islamic Africa 6 (2015): 185-191.

“From Toledo to Timbuktu: The Case for a Biography of the Ka'ti archive, and its Sources,” South African Historical Journal 65/1 (2013): 105-124.

“A Path to Integration: Senegalese Tijanis in Cape Town,” African Studies 68/2 (2009): 215-233.

Editor, From Istanbul to Timbuktu: Ink Routes Catalogue (Cape Town: Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, 2009).

“Ahmad Baba of Timbuktu (1556-1627): Introduction to his life and works,” Translation and adaptation from French, in Timbuktu: Script & Scholarship, Prepared by the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project and Iziko Social History Collections Department (Cape Town, 2008).

“The Tijaniyya Tariqa in Cape Town,” Journal of Islamic Studies 26 (2006): 71-91.

“The Tijaniyya Tariqa in Cape Town,” Annual Review of Islam in South Africa 8 (2005): 50-52.

“Taking the Gender-Jihad to the Stage,” Annual Review of Islam in South Africa 5 (2002): 3-7.

“Book Review: Controlling Knowledge: Religion, Power and Schooling in a West African Muslim Society: L. Brenner,” Journal of Islamic Studies 21 (2001): 158-162.

Co-Editor of Annual Review of Islam in South Africa, Issue 8, 2005 & Issue 9, 2006-07