Joshua Hammer’s “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” tells the story of how dedicated librarians in northern Mali and Timbuktu risked their lives to smuggle hundreds of thousands of manuscripts to safety. Hammer discusses his book Wednesday, April 27, at Town Hall Seattle.
It has all the elements of a classic adventure novel. An intrepid librarian ventures across deserts and through jungles to unearth ancient manuscripts, building a great library in a legendary city, only to be forced to smuggle it book by book out from under the noses of brutal pillagers bent on destruction.
Yet despite its sensational title, Joshua Hammer’s “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” (Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $26) provides a sobering look at an ongoing human and cultural tragedy across the Arab world.
Hammer’s reportage highlights a lesser-known front in the ongoing struggle within Islam between the tolerant majority and fundamentalist jihadis, a situation too often framed as a contest between Islam and the West. It is a story that couldn’t be more timely, and yet the tumultuous history of Timbuktu shows just how far this cyclical struggle predates the Arab Spring.
The author of “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” will appear in conversation with Jeremy Paley of the Gates Foundation at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.
In a golden era from the 14th to the 16th centuries, Timbuktu developed from a wealthy trading hub between north and sub-Saharan Africa into a cosmopolitan city renowned for its scholarly culture, preserved and celebrated in thousands of beautifully delineated manuscripts.
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These intellectual treasures have been repeatedly suppressed and destroyed over the years, by repressive warlords and anti-Semitic purges in the 15th century, Moroccan invaders in the 16th century and a Sufi “jihad of the sword” in the 19th century. The colonizing French in 1894 administered the coup de grace, exporting precious manuscripts to European collections, but by that time Timbuktu’s cultural patrimony had largely — and often literally — gone underground.
Starting in 1984, librarian Abdel Kader Haidara devoted himself to restoring his city’s heritage. Prospecting for books for the Ahmed Baba Institute, Haidara managed to recover a staggering number of manuscripts that had been scattered across the region in private collections, cached away in trunks, and buried in pits and caves. Haidara’s intrepid adventures call to mind the medieval book hunters whose efforts to ferret out the forgotten writings of ancient Greece and Rome helped fuel the Renaissance across Europe, as described in Stephen Greenblatt’s 2011 award-winning book “The Swerve: How the Ancient World Became Modern.” Just as then, clouds of intolerance were gathering on the horizon, and now a new Savonarola was kindling bonfires of the vanities under the banners of al-Qaida.
Hammer does a fairly good job of disentangling the complex factors that led up to the jihadi takeover of Northern Mali and Timbuktu in 2012, a chaotic mix of hostage taking, uneasy alliances between Tuareg rebels and Wahhabi extremists, and the law of unintended consequences of the Arab Spring, when al-Qaida militants plundered Qaddafi’s abandoned armories.
What is made vividly clear to readers who may be apt to view terrorism as something that happens on U.S. or European soil is the pervasive terror experienced across the Islamic world when “the bearded ones” roll into town to “turn the clocks back fourteen hundred years.” It is against this horrifying backdrop of menacing oppression and summary brutality that Haidara and his associates decide to risk life and limb to save Timbuktu’s libraries from the flames.
There’s no need to reveal here just how these brave librarians and citizens managed to smuggle 377,000 intact manuscripts out of harm’s way past a brutal totalitarian regime, through lawless wilderness and war zones to Mali’s capital city of Bamako far to the south. Suffice it to say that they earn their “bad ass” sobriquet several times over. Riveting skulduggery, revealing history and current affairs combine in a compelling narrative with a rare happy ending. So far.