The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by Joshua Hammer

How could I resist a book with this title? Even without the title, I would have been tempted by this book. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, by Joshua Hammer tells the story of Abdel Kader Haidara and the people of Timbuktu and the surrounding areas as they worked to rescue irreplaceable manuscripts when the region fell to Islamist terrorists.

The last golden age of Timbuktu ended in the nineteenth century, when explorers and soldiers from France and Britain entered the region. The French and British took manuscripts by the thousands back to Europe. To stop the thefts and requisitions, people began to hide their treasures. The new tradition of hiding manuscripts lasted through the next century, making it almost impossible to build libraries of manuscripts. This is where Hammer introduces Abdel Kader Haidara. Haidara was hired in the early 1980s by the newly founded Ahmed Baba Institute to gather manuscripts that had been buried (sometimes literally) around northern Mali. Haidara was so good at his job that by the 2000s, the Ahmed Baba Library and other libraries, including Haidara’s own Mamma Haidara Library, housed almost 400,000 manuscripts.

Hammer continues with a short(ish) history of Timbuktu and its reputation as a center of learning. For centuries, the remote city nurtured jurists, physicians, astronomers, mathematicians, historians, geographers, and other scholars. The arid climate was ideal for manuscript preservation, even with the vagaries of time and changing attitudes towards secular learning that occasionally endangered the manuscripts. Hammer lovingly describes the illumination and calligraphy and craftsmanship that went into the creation of hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and documents.

In the mid-2000s, militant Islamist terrorists under a number of banners (Al Qaeda, Ansar Dine, even Boko Haram) began to carve out territory in northern Mali. At their zenith, they controlled almost two-thirds of the country, including Timbuktu. Hammer discusses in detail the three men who controlled Timbuktu for over a year before they were driven out by French and Malian forces. Timbuktu citizens were forced to follow shariah law—no music, women in burqas, destruction of centuries-old shrines and the graves of saints, gruesome punishments for breaking laws.

In the shadows, Haidara, Timbuktu librarians, and volunteers secretly moved nearly all of the manuscripts from the city’s libraries before they could be destroyed. As I read, my bookish heart was in my mouth the whole time. So many things could have gone wrong. The volunteers could have been caught. Their vehicles could have broken down; the boats might have sunk in the Niger. Even offers of international help made problems for Haidara. Public assistance might have reminded the Islamists that they were sitting on treasure that could have been ransomed and manuscripts that offended their sensibilities.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is not a perfect book. Hammer has a habit of repeating short explanations of Arabic and Malian terms as if we would forget them across the chapters. He also doesn’t spend much time with Haidara or the people of Timbuktu. Though he interviewed people who participated in the evacuation and Haidara himself, this is still very much a top-level view of events.

That said, what I loved best about this book was the resilience and determination of Haidara and the people of Timbuktu. I loved the scenes of Timbuktu imams and scholars arguing with the terrorists about their misinterpretations of the Qu’ran and the Hadith. If it weren’t for the people of Timbuktu something amazing and incalculably valuable would have been lost forever.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 19 April 2016.


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