Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

By Georgia Edwards | Contributor

the-bad-ass-librarians-of-timbuktu-9781476777405_hrWe have all heard the expression, “from here to Timbuktu.” The city’s idiom is well earned. Distant, remote and landlocked, it lies at the edge of the Sahara desert in central Mali, accessible only by four-wheel drive or boat.

Timbuktu was founded in the 11th century on a tributary of the Niger River. By the 14th century, it had become a thriving metropolis and trading center. During the 15th to 16th centuries, it emerged as a center for culture and learning. Highly skilled scribes created a wide range of texts on science, astronomy, medicine, poetry, history and philosophy. Extraordinary documents were produced using elegant script, bright colors and gold leaf. Goatskin covers were often embedded with jewels. The manuscripts were evidence that Islam was practiced in a tolerant and liberal manner throughout the region.

Because the history of Timbuktu has been divided between periods of peace and war, some of the scripts were suppressed or destroyed during times of conflict. In 1984, in an effort to consolidate them for safekeeping, the Ahmed Baba Institute appointed a librarian named Abdel Kadir Haidara as a manuscript procurer. For nine years, Haidara traveled the deserts of Mali by jeep, camel or foot, purchasing thousands of scripts. These literary treasures were most often found in the homes of Mali citizens—in trunks, beneath floors or buried in the desert sand.

A serious threat to the manuscripts occurred in March 2012. Militant Islamists, backed by Al Qaeda, joined forces with Nigerian and Toureg rebels and seized control of the city. Strict Sharia law was enforced. Barbaric punishments were implemented for small crimes, women were severely suppressed in dress and conduct, and Sufi religious shrines destroyed. Because the city’s collection of manuscripts contradicted Al-Qaeda’s extremist interpretation of Islam, it was only a matter of time before they were destroyed.

Haidara, along with other librarians, relatives and ordinary citizens, took action. He planned and implemented a silent movement to hide 377,000 manuscripts throughout homes in the region. When Al-Qaeda hostilities intensified after France launched Operation Serval, the decision was made to remove the documents from hiding and transport them to safety in Bamako, Mali’s capital to the south.

This would become an extremely dangerous and Herculean undertaking. The scripts were hidden in trunks and driven across desert roads in private vehicles. There were tense moments when some of the drivers were halted at jihadi police checkpoints, but remarkably, the scripts remained safe. When roads became sealed from civilian traffic, Haidara resorted to shipment on the Niger River. The evacuation was extraordinarily successful—not one of the 377,000 manuscripts was confiscated or destroyed.

In January 2013, jihadi extremists entered the Ahmed Baba Institute and burned 4,200 manuscripts before fleeing the French. They missed 10,600 that were hidden in the basement.

In the end, the bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu saved nearly all of the city’s manuscripts through ingenuity, stealth, devotion to heritage and unwavering courage. An epic feat accomplished on a miniscule scale, this was a heist worthy of a Hollywood movie.