LEIGH FORBES: Books of all Sorts

The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu

5-star

by Joshua Hammer.

The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells two stories: one about thousands of ancient manuscripts – on such subjects as history, science, Islamic law, conflict resolution, and poetry – and the librarians who sought to first preserve, then rescue, them; the other about the leaders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb who wanted to burn them.

Abdel Kader Haidara never set out to be a librarian. Given responsibility for the family’s hoard of precious manuscripts at the age of seventeen, he went on to spend fifteen years brokering “exchanges” between the fledgling libraries of Timbuktu and the desert farmers and herders who held the region’s heritage in hoards of ancient texts that were often threatened by mould and termites. But with over 350,000 documents eventually gathered in one city, they became vulnerable to a new menace approaching from the north: despite promising not to touch the manuscripts, Al Qaeda and its imposition of Shariah law left no place for secular writings. Joshua Hammer details how Haidara, together with a huge team of smugglers, first delivered the manuscripts back into the care of private individuals, and subsequently down the Niger river to safety.

Some reviewers seem unhappy with the attention Hammer gives to Al Qaeda and its Tuareg-rebel partners, but I feel this vital backdrop to the political situation in the region throws Haidara’s actions into sharp relief, and allows the reader to fully appreciate both the value of the manuscripts themselves (many of which are described in beautiful detail) and the risk and effort involved in their rescue. My only niggle was, Hammer often refers back to introductory details about any given character; this does help the reader keep tabs on who’s who (it gets complicated), but it also gives the book as disjointed feel, as though it was first written as a series of independent articles; I feel it would have benefited from a list of dramatis personae instead.

I found this book riveting, and while some sections diverted well away from the manuscripts and bad-ass librarians, I have a new understanding of Timbuktu’s astonishing cultural heritage, as well as its political history and current situation, and am sure I’ll be reading this book again.

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