I just finished reading The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, by Joshua Hammer. Hammer is an accomplished journalist who has written for the likes of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and the New York Review of Books, among others. At the time this book was published, he was a contributing editor at Smithsonian magazine. So the man knows his stuff, and this book is based on at least a decade of deep research and personal experiences in Timbuktu and other parts of Mali and Saharan North Africa. This is a major strength of the book, but it also can be a weakness. Hammer goes into so much depth and discusses so many details that it is sometimes difficult to keep track of who is who and what is going on. To compound the matter, Hammer tends to move forward and back in time, so that just when you think you understand what has happened, he reveals something from a time past that changes your perception. So that’s the biggest negative I have to share in what will, overall, be a very positive review.
However, I would like to challenge the assumptions made in the book’s title and subtitle. For one thing, while the manuscripts that were in danger are indeed precious and rare, I’m not sure they would qualify as MORE rare than, say, the Dead Sea Scrolls or a fifth-century copy of Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana or even one of the six surviving Shakespeare signatures. And I’m sure there are equally rare and precious Asian manuscripts that deserve careful preservation. So my first quarrel is only with the term “Most Precious” in referencing the manuscripts in question. I might also challenge the term “Librarians.” Technically speaking, the people who were involved in saving the manuscripts were either the owners of the documents, or their relatives. These people had never done the kind of work we associate with traditional librarianship: the manuscripts had not been listed, categorized, or even counted until the rescue operation was under way. The man whose story begins and ends the book, Abdel Kader Haidara, obtained and collected manuscripts for the Ahmed Baba collection, and raised the funds to house and restore them. He also built a library containing his family’s personal collection of manuscripts, the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu. None of these documents have ever been catalogued in the common sense of the term. Some of them were on public display until their evacuation, and restoration work had been started. So, in my opinion, Haidara and his colleagues were collectors and curators, but not really librarians, unless your definition of a librarian is anyone who owns books. Many of the people who actually rescued the manuscripts were concerned friends and neighbors, and in some cases, simply unemployed young men who needed cash and were willing to put themselves at risk for it. Were these people courageous and daring? Yes, so they could definitely be called “bad-ass” in my opinion. But were they really librarians? No. It makes a great book title, though.
Now to address the actual contents of the book. The author, Joshua Hammer,begins by teasing the story of Haidara’s dilemma and how he resolved it. Priceless manuscripts were in danger of destruction when Islamic jihadists and Tuareg rebels combined forces with Saharan smugglers and drug-runners to overthrow the government of Mali. The Tuaregs wanted to establish their own homeland nation; the jihadists wanted to establish a caliphate based on strict Shariah law; and the criminals just wanted to destabilize the region to facilitate their own nefarious activities. Timbuktu sits at the edge of the Sahara, at the northern end of Mali, and was a logical entry point for their invasion.
But before going on with that story, Hammer provides background, surveying and summarizing the social and political history of the regions of north-central Africa containing Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Libya, and Burkina-Faso, primarily. I found this portion of the book extremely interesting. Like most Westerners, especially Americans, I had no idea of the high level of scholarship that flourished in that region during the early Middle Ages and again during the later Renaissance. Some of the manuscripts in Timbuktu’s collections were a thousand years old or even older. They contained treatises on mathematics, astronomy, physics, and medicine, as well as copies of the Quran and commentaries on Koranic passages, Islamic law, and the life of the Prophet Mohammad.
Hammer also spends a good deal of time explaining the various factions in the region, their histories of conflict and conquest, and the complex political realities of that part of the world. These passages were often difficult to follow and, to me, quite mind-boggling. He references the effects of French colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as Muammar al-Qaddafi’s revolution and rule in Libya in the recent 20th century. (I say “recent” because I remember it!) One thing that has become increasingly clear to me over the last several years is that periodic American, European, and Russian interference in places like northern Africa and Afghanistan have done nothing except serve to arm and expedite the goals of terrorists and rebels in those regions. The attackers in this case were able to gain access to abandoned armaments and military supplies left behind by Western intervention in previous conflicts.
Another fact that became frighteningly clear to me from reading this account is the absolute mayhem and devastation intentionally caused by jihadist militants. Once they gained control in Timbuktu and other towns, successful businesses closed their doors, people lost their incomes and means of support, and even basic utilities were stopped. Unmarried men and women caught together, even if they were just holding hands or talking, were executed on the spot, sometimes by stoning. People accused of resisting were shot, and those accused of thievery had various limbs chopped off, without benefit of trial or defense. Westerners were frequently taken hostage, and many were killed, while the fates of others remain unknown. After reading about the horrors of Timbuktu’s occupation, I have a new sympathy for the people of Syria and other places where ISIS remains in control.
So as you can see, it takes the author a long time to get back to the story of the manuscript rescue operation. Those who were involved in the actual packing and removal of the documents were tireless in their efforts to preserve these precious artifacts. They had to work under the cover of darkness and with the constant threat of exposure and capture. Discovery would almost certainly have meant death. The extent of the operation was much larger than I would have expected. The manuscripts had to be packed into footlockers and other large containers, then transported almost 600 miles south, through rough and often unpaved terrain, to the capital city of Bamako, which was still safely in the hands of the Malian government. Thousands of crates were transported via trucks over land, but that became more difficult to achieve as the invaders flooded the region. A final operation was devised which involved transporting thousands of footlockers via donkey carts to the Niger River, where they would then be placed on boats and floated downstream for over 220 miles to government-held territory, where they were then off-loaded into trucks, cars, and taxis for the remaining 330 miles to Bamako. This part of the book is thrilling, although the author’s style of storytelling sometimes left me confused.
I think this book could be the basis for a great movie, but a lot of re-working and compressing of the story would have to take place in order for it to work. A similar project was accomplished with the story of the Monuments Men. I read the original book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Dallasite Robert M. Edsel. The book was well-researched and fun to read, but because it was based on real-life events, the narrative was fractured and contained too many different people and incidents to make a successful film. So George Clooney’s cinematic version of the book takes liberties with the truth, combining individuals and events into a more cohesive story line that captures the essence of the recovery effort in a way that could be realized theatrically. The same kind of process could be taken with the story of the “Bad-Ass Librarians,” and I think it would make a compelling and dramatic movie in the same vein as The Monuments Men and Argo.
I would recommend this book to those who enjoy non-fiction, history, and geopolitics.