The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

by Joshua Hammer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016. 278pp. $26.00 (hardback). ISBN 978-1-4724-0937-9.

World history is loaded with examples of intolerance, fanaticism, and war. These dark specters have claimed much of humanity’s creative and artistic memory. The dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001 and the destruction of antiquities in Palmyra by ISIS from 2014-2016 are just a few of the most recent atrocities highlighting the continued vulnerability of historic and cultural treasures. While many current conflicts have taken a heavy toll on civilizations most precious artifacts, the American journalist Joshua Hammer in his book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells a counter story of triumph in the West African nation of Mali. Hammer describes the effort to save over 300,000 medieval Islamic manuscripts in the famed city of Timbuktu under the nose of a 2012 occupation by al-Qaeda jihadists.

Hammer ties these manuscripts to a remarkable literary flowering that occurred in the valley of the Niger River spanning from the 13th through the 16th centuries. Under the patronage of the Mali and Shonghay empires, learning thrived and took particular hold in the city of Timbuktu. Timbuktu stood at one of the terminal points for the trans-Sahara trade providing a vital economic link between Mediterranean North Africa and the sub-Saharan south. The city was a cosmopolitan blend of Berbers, Arabs, Tuaregs, Fulani, Shonghai, and Mandinkas that interacted in an environment of openness and tolerance. A dynamic book culture took root informing learned discussions in philosophy, theology, astronomy, and jurisprudence placing the city as one of the intellectual centers of the medieval Islamic world.

Hammer places the contemporary stewardship of this heritage in the hands of the librarian Abdel Kader Haidara, who is clearly the central figure of the book. Haidara’s connection to the literary tradition of Timbuktu is deeply rooted in his family history. His father ran a small in- home school in the city and students from across Mali came to study Arabic and the Koran in the vestibule of their house. A family manuscript collection exposed Haidara at an early age to the wonders of the medieval West African world. His father was an astute collector, and the young Haidara developed a deep appreciation of the problems involved with acquiring and preserving manuscripts.

When his father died in 1981, he was approached by the director of the Ahmed Baba Institute to join their staff as a manuscript collector. In accepting this position, Haidara become linked with a major effort to locate and centralize much of the area’s rich manuscript heritage. As a collector, he revolutionized the acquisition of material for the Institute. What had been a trickle turned into a torrent, and many thousands of items were added into the collection. Haidara become actively involved in the description, cataloging, and electronic copying of these rare volumes freeing them from obscurity and making them accessible to a worldwide audience. On the eve of the jihadist occupation, the Institute was one the most unique archival repositories in the world.

The future of these manuscripts became increasingly uncertain as Mali drifted into civil war. With the eye of a reporter, Hammer describes the origins of a rebellion of Tuareg nationalists and al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic radicals. The alliance of these two groups created a powerful guerilla army with a vision to create a caliphate in northern Mali that would draw radicals from across North and West Africa. In the early part of 2012, the rebel army launched an offensive that succeeded in occupying Timbuktu in April of that year.

For Abdel Kader Haidara and his colleagues, the intentions of the rebel occupiers were quickly made clear. Hammer describes the imposition of sharia law that included women being veiled, stonings, amputations, and the banning of music. The rebels also engaged in the systemic destruction of the town’s mausoleums that were an important symbol of the cities religious heritage. It could not be long before this war against idolatry would engulf the manuscripts in the city.

Early in the occupation the rebels used the Ahmed Baba institute as a barracks, and fighters soon tossed over 4,000 books from the collection into a bonfire. Fearing that all the texts might be destroyed for being idolatrous, Haidara was completely convinced that the manuscripts had to be moved to the capital of Bamako. Hammer describes Institute librarians packing items into metal footlockers and using canoes and land rovers for the journey south into government held territory. Using a cell phone, Haidara largely coordinated this vast movement successfully getting all the books and manuscripts to the safety of the capital without loss.

While Haidara and his colleagues were carrying out this operation, the Malian government was launching a counter attack hoping to drive the rebels out of Mali. With the aid of French troops and airpower they liberated Timbuktu in January 2013 and scattered the rebels into the deserts north of the city. Hammer’s account of the battle is riveting particularly showing the helplessness of rebel fighters in the face of French bombers and helicopter gunships. He also gets into some of the political motivations of the French in intervening in their former African colony, and even suggests that their involvement might hold lessons for American policymakers in their efforts to contain ISIS in the region.

Abdel Kader Haidara saved over 300,000 manuscripts from potential destruction in Timbuktu. The annihilation of these documents would have been an incalculable loss, forever denying humanity the ability to reconstruct one of the great ages of its collective history. Hammer’s book is written with considerable insight and readers at all levels could benefit from this inspiring tale. This book would be a welcome addition to any library, and may be a particularly good choice for collections strong in medieval or African history.

Joseph E. Straw, Marietta College, Ohio