Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer

Published April 19th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

Hardcover, 288 pages

Source: e-ARC from Edelweiss

25814351

To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.

Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.

Clearly with a title like Bad-Ass Librarians I had to request this book right away right?  Bad-Ass is definitely an apt descriptor for Abdel Kader Haidara and his band of merry men in Mali.  I had no idea of the scholarly history of Timbuktu over the ages and it was fascinating.  Hammer describes how manuscripts were once dispersed among families and Haidara crossed Mali back and forth as a young man buying them back to be placed into a library.  That Haidara was able to rescue the manuscripts he found just once was phenomenal.  Parchments thousands of years old originally buried in the sand for protection then saved to be restored and cataloged with international funds…    

And then came the terrorists.  Haidara realized that the manuscripts he had saved once were under a new threat of imminent destruction and they had to be removed from the ostensibly safe libraries they had been placed in.  So he had to arrange for the movement of priceless artifacts under the noses of uneducated and armed militants! Hammer made me feel like I was right there a few times watching boxes of priceless papers going under the nose of the militants by donkey, then car and then boat.  Miraculous really.  

There was more detail than I expected about the terrorists but it was all important and flowed with the story of the manuscripts.  The context was necessary to understand the threat Mali was under and the real victory Haidara and those working with him had in saving thousands of manuscripts.  This ended up being a really interesting read not just for the librarians but the events in Mali and the importance with global terrorism. 

Thank you Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

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9 Comments

  1. Cool! I was reading about this in the New York Times Book Review last week, and I thought it sounded really interesting. I’m not wild about the title in fact — but I always love hearing about pieces of history being saved for posterity. Hopefully someone scanned them? To have electronic backups?

  2. This book sounds really fascinating. I haven’t read the book (only saw the movie) but it sounds like it might even be a good one to hand to people looking for something similar to The Monuments Men. Thanks for the review Amanda!

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