The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

I got this book as a gift from colleagues earlier this year. All I can say is obviously my rantings about books and how much I love them hasn’t fallen on deaf ears: I knew as soon as I unwrapped this book that it was right up my alley. The cover is deceptively minimalist: the lettering of the title is just like stained glass windows and is beautifully embossed.

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As I obviously don’t have any ancient manuscripts hidden away in my own home (or do I?), the photo contains a miniature of the famous Rosetta Stone – the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

“The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” is a non-fiction work by Joshua Hammer. This book is about the African nation Mali and its historical city of Timbuktu, a word that in the West has become synonymous with the middle of nowhere. However, Timbuktu has a rich yet hidden history of scholarship. A man called Adbel Kader Haidara spent thirty years of his life travelling and convincing his countrymen to entrust manuscripts that had been saved and passed on through family for centuries to him for preservation and restoration in libraries in Timbuktu. However, when Timbuktu becomes occupied and subjected to Sharia law by Islam extremists, the librarians of Timbuktu fear that historical records of Timbuktu’s tolerant Islam and secular society will become Al Qaeda’s next target.

This book took me a while to get through for one reason and one reason only: I am extremely ignorant when it comes to Africa and African history. There is a point in the book where an African American man, Henry Louis Gates, travels to Timbuktu for a documentary and meets Haidara and sees the manuscripts. Gates is astonished that African people were writing books over 500 years ago, and tells Haidara that when he was in school, he was taught that Africans were illiterate and had no written language. It’s this kind of cultural myth that was used to support the idea that African people were subhuman and therefore justify colonial practices of slavery. I spent a lot of time while reading this book sticking my bookmark back in and researching things further. I was absolutely fascinated with the history of scholarship in Timbuktu and the beautiful manuscripts that Haidara discovered.

I loved the parts about Haidara applying for funding from international organisations. However although the first third of the book is about the manuscripts and setting the scene, the majority of the book is about the Islamist occupation of Timbuktu, the personal histories of the key players in the occupation and the brutalities Al Qaeda inflicted on the city’s people. All of this information is critically important, especially because I would imagine that most people (like myself) actually know nothing about these atrocities that have been happening in Western Africa. Nevertheless, I think I really would have liked more of a focus on the manuscripts and the librarians who saved them. Hammer has a clear, factual way of writing and is particularly good at giving you a real sense of the people he is writing about. However, what I really wanted to learn more about was the people of Timbuktu, their culture, their customs. Hammer talks a lot about their music (banned under Sharia law during the occupation), but I wanted to know more about their art and food and the lifestyle that was threatened by the extremists. Hammer talks about “Moorish-style” architecture, but I wanted to know more about what Moorish means and what Timbuktu is really like.

This is a really important book that sheds light on what could have been a cultural disaster. African people have for centuries been fighting the erasure of their history, and this book tells a story of protecting that heritage against the odds. This book is a great read for someone interested in learning about a country that is not often talked about, the damage that extremism can inflict and the ingenuity of ordinary people that prevails in the face of adversity.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction

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