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Saturday, 16 April 2016

'The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu' by Joshua Hammer

Here's another fascinating new release for 2016 - The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscript. Written by Joshua Hammer and published by Simon & Schuster, it focuses on a band of librarians in Timbuktu who pull off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean's Eleven to save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda.

Ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu. Photo taken in 2006 by Sebastien Cailleux. Image via The Guardian
I remember first reading about these group of librarians, and particularly Abdel Kader Haidara - who controls the largest privately held library of documents in the city- in 2014 in a piece featured on The Guardian about a dangerous operation to smuggle Mali's ancient manuscripts to safety:
Abdel Kader Haidara is a tall, 50-year-old librarian who wears a moustache and a pillbox kufi prayer cap. Over sweet mint tea in his office ... Haidara tells me the story of how he masterminded the smuggling of the manuscripts to safety from under the noses of the jihadists. 
As the rebels approached, Haidara knew the libraries would be vulnerable to looters: they were relatively large, prestigious buildings. So he began contacting families and told them to work out how to move their manuscripts into their homes. He bought steel lockers and, in the quiet of the afternoons when the jihadis were resting, the librarians and their assistants took the boxes to the libraries and began carefully transferring the manuscripts. 'We brought them back to the family homes little by little, ' he says.
Abdel Haidara with his manuscripts in 2009. Image via New Republic.
There's been so much destruction of cultural heritage as a result of violence and armed conflict that I was so impressed and inspired by the risks they were taking to preserve the cultural history contained in the libraries. And in my true fashion, I scoured the internet reading more about the 'manuscript smugglers' in Timbuktu - including The Brave Savage of Timbuktu and Brazen Bibliophiles of Timbuktu - as well as anything I could find about preserving cultural heritages in times of conflict. 

Some of the estimated 4,000 ancient manuscripts that were burned. Photo by Marco Dormino. Image via PBS.org
So this morning when I woke up and did my usual 'Let's see what's happened in the world while I've been asleep' thing, I noticed an article posted on Facebook about The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, that was featured on The Washington Post and became the first of my morning reads. There I read about Joshua Hammer's new book - with the same title as the article - which focused on Mali, but not from the point of view of the 'growing radical Islamist movement [that] came perilously close to seizing the entire country' but from books:
Mali ... offered Hammer a most unusual way in, and he took it. Here the centrepiece is not bombs ... but books: centuries-old manuscripts. There is a marvellous, if bloody, cast in these pages, including Moammar Gaddafi, al-Qaeda in the Islmaic Maghreb leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar and the wonderfully named French Legion Captain Raphael Oudot de Dainville. But the main characters are not fighters or politicians, but scholars, book hunters, librarians.
Above all, there is the book's hero, Abdel Kader Haidara, and the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts he helped collect and then save. 
A book about books! Now you're speaking my language WP!!! After reading that article, my thoughts went to many different places all at once, but the main one really being - 'There's a book about the "manuscript smugglers" I read about a couple years ago', 'Wait! there's a book!!!', 'Bad-ass Librarians! That's a pretty bad-ass title'. So I googled the book to find out more about it and if like me you are intrigued by a book about literature, and the cultural preservation of it, particularly in the time of conflict - the book is published April 19. Here's some more detail:

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 ... and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organised a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali. 

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells 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. 

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