Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer
242 pages
Genre: Non-fiction, world news, politics, religion, cultural history
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2016
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Re-readability: I’m already planning to re-read this one.


Reviewed by Indiana

Imagine losing thousands of years of historical documents. Imagine losing thousands of years of medical discoveries, lyrical poems, astronomical observations, and governmental records.

Thanks to Abdel Kader Haidara the people of Timbuktu only had to imagine the loss.

In the 1980s, Haidara was thrown into document recovery and restoration. It wasn’t a job he particularly wanted, but he became passionate about it when he discovered how dangerous and rewarding it could be.

Unbeknownst to many in the Western world, Timbuktu is a place of prolific scholarship. During the 1500s and earlier, many students went to the city for its schools and many scientists, philosophers, and writers made their home there. But over the years, religious fanatics have invaded the city, making residents hide their beautiful books and manuscripts away, should they be destroyed.

During the 1980s and into the 1990s, it was Haidara’s job to travel all along the Niger River and across the Sahara Desert, find people with these ancient texts, bargain with them, get the texts, and bring them back to the city to create a library funded by the government. It was a surprisingly dangerous job, one in which many before him had been severely injured (or killed) and many manuscripts lost on the way back to the library. Haidara, however, was extremely successful and was able to safely recover thousands of manuscripts.

A beautiful library was eventually built and the manuscripts were finally well-cared for. Some previous owners had unknowingly stuck the hundreds-of-years-old manuscripts in trunks or buried them in the sand and many fell prey to termites or water.

But a few years ago, a more dangerous foe found them: Al Qaeda.

The extremist group took over the city, enforcing a curfew, forcing the women to wear hijabs, pushing out all music that wasn’t right out of the quran, and instating sharia law.

At first, Haidara wanted to believe that the library he had worked so hard to build was safe. But after several disturbing incidents, he realized that his cherished manuscripts were far from safe.

Instead of wallowing in desperation, Haidara and his team of librarians came up with a way to save the library: sneak all 350,000 manuscripts out of the city and into Southern Mali.

It sounds like an impossible task (keep in mind there’s a river they would have to cross, not to mention Al Qaeda soldiers to sneak by) and in many ways it was.

Author Joshua Hammer manages to take a very complicated story and really map it out in a way that doesn’t assume the reader knows anything. Which is good, because I really knew nothing about Timbuktu before picking this one up.

It’s a fascinating read, with a mild-mannered yet super-hero brave protagonist leading this clever and stealthy intellectual rebellion. A modern-day Indiana Jones, with a lot more social commentary. Haidara makes you want to look around at the things in your community and find the treasures being overlooked. The way he’s able to build this network of other people who are willing to risk their lives to save these manuscripts not only speaks to his character, but about how far people will go to preserve their cultural heritage and identities.

So go and thank your local librarians or local historians. Right now. Of course, they probably haven’t gone through even a smidgen of what Haidara went through to preserve the books in the library of the documents in your local museum, they’re preserving a cultural compendium that we should be honored to have.

 

**Note: I listened, rather than read, a lot of this book. While the audio was great because I feel confident in my pronunciation of all the names/places, I wish I had read the bulk of it instead of listened. It’s an intricate book and one where you really want to have a handle on every detail, which is difficult to do if you’re just listening while driving.

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