If you’re anything like me, you’ll agree that a snappy or witty title goes a long way towards making a good book. This is particularly the case when the aforementioned book is of the non-fiction variety, and has the potential to contain dry subject matter at times. Full of historical dates, facts and figures, books like this tend to need a well-designed front cover and a catchy title to draw different readers from the usual audience, and thus make the book more successful.
Joshua Hammer is a non-fiction writer and journalist who clearly subscribes to this notion, having given his latest book a somewhat captivating title that is guaranteed to pique interest among people other than the usual set. In fact, if the name of the book hadn’t drawn my attention, I doubt I would have even picked it up. The Bad-Ass Librarians Of Timbuktu certainly fits the bill for an interesting read, and I found myself strangely engrossed in much of the content.
Like many people, I have always assumed that Europeans were the first people to create scholarly works and educate themselves in subjects such as the arts, science and mathematics. But according to Hammer, there was a similar educational institution running in Africa centuries ago, with Timbuktu at the epicentre. Thousands of manuscripts were carefully written and stored in family collections, covering poetry, music, science, humanity, astronomy and religion (both secular and Islamic), among many other subjects. Many of these manuscripts were passed down through the family as heirlooms, rarely recognised as historical artefacts.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s, when Abdel Kader Haidara was enlisted and employed by a government library, that he began to gather, track down and salvage the manuscripts, to be stored in a common place. All were centuries old, some had deteriorated through age, termites and environment, and Haidara found some of the owners difficult to persuade, but he eventually managed to collect 350,000 manuscripts and settle them all in the legendary city of Timbuktu. There, they were stored and (mostly) catalogued, until the threat of Al Qaeda militants in 2012 put the whole operation in danger. Imposing Sharia law, these terrorists chopped off the hands of accused thieves, gave public lashings, were responsible for hundreds of deaths by stoning and shooting, and practiced extremist views on religion and morality. They also posed a threat to the manuscripts, which promoted Islam very differently (peacefully and with acceptance of other religions) to how they did.
Haidara, fearing for the safety of these priceless manuscripts (and basically his life’s work), organised with other libraries and literary institutions around the world to raise funds and smuggle the works out of Timbuktu, and to the relative safety of southern Mali. Employing hundreds of couriers, smugglers, and family members, these people risked their lives to ensure the safety of their cultural and literary heritage.
Hammer’s account is both informative and enlightening. Having travelled to Timbuktu and met with Haidara countless times, he has provided an in-depth, information-drenched book that details the smuggling operations of one brave man and all those he employed. While the proliferation of names and dates sometimes made the reading dense, the story was overall one of inspiration and success. Hammer’s detailed accounts of the barbaric atrocities that Al Qaeda meted out on their victims also served to show just how ruthless they were, and showed just how much of a threat they were to these precious Arabic texts. This in turn only emphasised the bravery of these ‘bad-ass’ librarians, who put their lives on the line to protect the manuscripts of Timbuktu and smuggle them to safety.