The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

When this wacky titled book, turned up – some new age novel I thought.

Not so. This is a true story about the jihadist takeover of the real Timbuktu and the remarkable story of one man’s finding, collecting and then saving hundreds of thousands of priceless manuscripts in Timbuktu.

It’s easy to think of stoic Tuaregs wrapped in indigo blue, battling Mali’s sand storms and soaring dunes. Others thought so too. In the years leading up to 2012, USA and Europe closed their eyes to the action fermenting in these dunes.

But in the sands a toxic mixture brewed.  Secular, disaffected Tuareg rebels rode in pickup trucks and wielding Kalashnikovs they clashed for power with hard line jihadists, who were well loaded with stacks of cash from drug running and ransoms from kidnapping foreigners – USA paid out $6.4m for one of their nationals, Spain, $12m.

In 2012 Mali came to the boil. In March the Mali militia staged a coup and briefly controlled Timbuktu, but in July the jihadists drove into town, took over Timbuktu and imposed sharia law.

Joshua Hammer then writes of the explicit horror and suspense when the French mercenaries took on the jihadists.  Then an extraordinary tale comes into play.  Under the threat of jihadist guns, one Malian, Abdel Kader Haidara, achieved a logistical feat and snuck 350,000 manuscripts out of Timbuktu.

We’d met Haidara early on in chapter one and read of his family’s collection of precious Islamic manuscripts – some jewelled and dating back to twelfth century. So his later obsessive dedication to his country’s priceless manuscripts isn’t surprising.

Much has been written about the sophisticated level of civilisation and treasures of Timbuktu and the historical power of Mali. Hammer writes that in the fourteenth century, as well as a vibrant culture of manuscript writing and book collecting in Timbuktu, Mansa Musa, ruler of the then vast Malian Empire travelled to Mecca with several thousand silk clad slaves and distributed big handfuls of gold as gifts en route.

Contrasts constantly spring to mind. Eight million dollars was donated from around the world, to house Mali’s manuscripts – the project was kick-started by $100,000 from USA. Yet according to Wikipedia, Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world – half the population of Mali live below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day. And Hammer describes the tranquillity of the farmlands alongside the River Niger, the beauty of Mali and the extreme brutality that has torn, and continues to tear, the country apart.

Joshua Hammer writes for Newsweek, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker,  and is the author of three non-fiction books as well as being an award- winning journalist.   His style is elegant and leisurely when he captures the beauty of Islamic art but when The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu turns into a horror story, about terrorism, with descriptions of modern methods of brutal killings, Hammer moves fast,  for as the subtitle says, it was a ‘race’ to save the world’s most precious manuscripts.

However it’s not just the written words of the manuscripts that claim cultural fame in Mali. Mali’s music is the supremo. Hammer touches on the part it played in historical times and in more recent years at the famous four day Festivals in the Desert. Here in 2008, 8,000 people came, but in other years terrorism has sometimes intervened.  But that’s another story waiting to be told, or better, filmed in this lawless but culturally fascinating land.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts

Joshua Hammer

Allen & Unwin


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Janet Hart

Janet Hart lives in Nelson, where she taught English in secondary schools for nearly 30 years, before dabbling in a little historical New Zealand Art. In 2012 she took up Magazine Journalism, which now consumes her.