21 April 2016

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

Summary from Goodreads:
To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.

Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is a book that arrived at precisely the right time.  After watching footage of Palmyra being destroyed or reading about the looting of museums during the Iraq invasion, we needed a book about someone saving their history.  Joshua Hammer has delivered a riveting story about the massive undertaking to save more than 350,000 manuscripts in Mali spearheaded by one man: Abdel Kader Haidara.  But the eventual evacuation of the manuscripts from Al Qaeda-held Timbuktu comes late in the story - to get there we have to understand the regions history and that of Haidara himself.

Wrapped up in the story of Haidara and his race to save the manuscripts, first from the depredations of time and later from Islamic fundamentalists during the invasion of Timbuktu, is the history of the intellectual life and literary traditions of the Sahel region in Africa (and also a bit of the musical tradition, too). It is so amazing, not just in the description of the beauty of the manuscripts as physical objects but also in how readers annotated the works over hundreds of years (the little bits about marginalia are fascinating) and how families kept private libraries of thousands of works together for centuries.  Henry Louis Gates's visit to Timbuktu for his documentary series was briefly highlighted to really hammer home the point that, contrary to what we're taught in school, many parts of Africa had rich literature cultures. I thought Hammer also gave an excellent overview of the development of political and religious unrest in Western/Saharan Africa (which has received far less attention in the media than more high-profile regions) - it can't be separated from the story of the manuscripts and did help in understanding why certain events happened as they did.

Ignore the "heist worthy of Ocean's Eleven" hyperbole.  Haidara and his colleagues and family members weren't out to obtain millions of dollars for personal gain.  They protected their cultural history at the potential cost of their very lives.  Hair-raising stakes have no need of Hollywood glamour.

Dear FTC: I read a DRC of this book via Edelweiss.

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