Virtually every reviewer of this 2016 work about the race to save some of the world’s most precious ancient manuscripts calls out the “unfortunate” or “inappropriate” title. And they are right.
But then, in the comments section, reader after reader says something to the effect of “I wouldn’t have read this book (or your review) except for the title.” And they are right.
So there you have it. Don’t let the title turn you off of this marvelous little book. But also, don’t go into the work thinking that the librarians of Timbuktu are a modern-day version of Indiana Jones. The tale is good enough on its own, but I suspect the author (and his publishers) thought that “The Very Persistent and Dedicated Librarians of Timbuktu” simply wasn’t going to set books flying off the shelf.
Joshua Hammer, a former bureau chief for Newsweek who now serves as contributing editor to Smithsonian, is a talented writer who combines a strong journalism sense, travel writing sensibilities, a grasp of the culture and disputes of a far-away section of the world, and a story-teller’s skill. Over the years he has covered Mali in general and Timbuktu in particular from the perspectives of political journalist and travel writer, and those perspectives led him to this particular story while visiting the area on other assignments.
This is a true story that shows the swings in Mali, over the centuries, between an open, inclusive, and intellectually curious Islam and a fundamentalist strain that tries to eradicate the area of all vestiges of this history to take the country back to a dark age of repression. The enlightenment of the scholars and savants of Timbuktu, who created some of the world’s most amazing manuscripts about all manner of topics as seen through an Islamic and Arabic prism, is contrasted with the terrorism that comes from the fundamentalists. That terror was seen most recently through the takeover of the city and much of the country by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Throw in some French colonial history, a separatist movement that has been in place for centuries, and the recent French response to put down AQIM, and you have all the makings of disaster for the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that have been hidden by collectors in and around Timbuktu through the centuries.
The hero of the story is Abdel Kader Haidara, who as a young archivist in the 1980s began to track down tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts across the sub-Sahara desert and along the Niger River. He is successful in convincing families to give up their manuscripts so they can be cared for in professional facilities in Timbuktu. Hammer makes the long intellectual and cultural history of this fascinating city come to life as Haidara goes about his work.
The story shifts into high tension mode when AQIM arrives on the scene around 2011 and begins to threaten the stability (such as it is) and openness of Mali. The now middle-aged and successful Haidara realizes—with some reluctance—that he must orchestrate the movement of more than 350,000 manuscripts out of Timbuktu without AQIM discovering his mission. I won’t give away the story, but suffice it to say that he succeeds by calling on every contact he has both locally and internationally, and by putting together an analog response in a digital age. In the end there are many heroes to this wonderful story.
There is much to recommend this book, but one of the best comments came from Scott Anderson, who wrote the important Lawrence in Arabia work that I highlighted several years ago. Anderson’s take on The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu rings true to me when he said, “Hammer has pulled off the truly remarkable here—a book that is both important and a delight to read….A superb rendering of a story that needs to be told.”
There is also an unexplored story here about the corrosive and damaging impacts of fundamentalism, no matter the religious tradition, but that’s another post. So for now, take it from the son and brother of librarians: Joshua Hammer’s new book (bass-ass librarians and all) is recommended.
More to come…