Thursday, May 05, 2016

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

What a fascinating account! The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer is a story of the past, and an account of present terrorism and destruction of the world's treasures. It's a story of courage, and the story of a people who treasure the written word. It's also the story of those who would destroy it.

Mali has a lengthy history, "a vibrant culture of manuscript writing and book collecting centered in Timbuktu". By 1509, Timbuktu was already a cultural crossroads with 180 scholastic institutions. But, over the centuries, it would also be the site of confrontations between different cultures. The worst was the continuing confrontations between two Islamic ideologies, "one open and tolerant, the other inflexible and violent."

When Abdel Kader Haidara inherited his father's manuscript collection at the age of seventeen, he was told, "You have no right to give the manuscripts away, and no right to sell them. You have the duty to preserve and protect them." Although it took several visits, he finally agreed, in 1984, to become a prospector for the Ahmed Baba Institute, collecting manuscripts from throughout the country. No one was more successful than Haidara as he spent years traveling to remote villages, negotiating with villagers, finding manuscripts that had been hidden and saved, buried in the sand to save them at times from marauders and people who would destroy them. But, once Haidara had collected the manuscripts, built libraries, and made Timbuktu a center of culture again, he faced a new disaster. Jihadists were taking over cities in Mali, destroying shrines, destroying the culture. In a city that now had 45 libraries, housing 377,000 manuscripts, there was a new crisis. "They're going to break into our libraries, and steal everything inside, and destroy the manuscripts. What do we have to do to save them?"

Hammer's book is heartbreaking at times. He combines the historical importance of Timbuktu and its culture with the importance in the '80s, showing Haidara's hard work to collect manuscripts. And, then he reveals the political history of the region and the rise of the jihadists, the power of Al Qaeda who deliberately set out to "turn the clock back 1400 years". He tells of the courage of Haidara, his nephew, Mohammed Toure, and villagers and family members throughout the region who risked everything to hide manuscripts and smuggle them away from the jihadists.

At times, it's a difficult book to read. The stories of the jihadists are not pretty, and their treatment of tourists, women, and the people of Timbuktu is as awful as the stories we read in the newspapers. At the same time, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring story. It's a story of courage, and a people who have valued and treasured the written word, the story of their culture, the stories of arts and science, for centuries.

The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer. Simon & Schuster. 2016. ISBN 9781476777405 (hardcover), 278p.

*****
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