The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer
Timbuktu is a Western metaphor for the back of beyond, a place so far beyond the pale that no one wants to go there, and nothing of interest ever happens there. While that has never been the reality of one of the leading cities of Mali in West Africa, Joshua Hammer’s engrossing new book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, reveals a totally unexpected view of this legendary city.
In the 16th Century Timbuktu was the center of Muslim learning. Books dating to the 12th Century were studied, bought, and sold. But then, as now, learning was subject to periods of repression followed by openness. It was no different in the late 20th Century, and then came Al Qaeda, bent on excising (No, “excising” is a kind word; it is more accurate to say “ripping out.”) any form of Islamic teaching and practice that did not meet its stringent guidelines.
Abdel Kader Haidera was “just” a librarian until he was called on to change the course of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts. When he was 17 in 1980, his father, Mohammed “Mamma” Haidera, died. A scholar and collector of irreplaceable manuscripts, he left all of them to his son who wanted to go into business, but became a reluctant librarian at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu.
The French came in the 1890s and absconded with whatever they could find and forced generations to learn only French in schools. People hid their precious manuscripts by placing them in leather bags and burying them in the drying, preserving sands of the desert. This is what Abdel’s father knew and passed along to his son. Abdel spent his first years traveling by dugout canoe, donkey, or camel. Dressed conservatively, he gradually won the trust of the villagers who held thousands of manuscripts. The resources of the Institute grew as he collected more than 16,500 manuscripts between 1984 and 1993.
Then the specter of Islamic fundamentalist rose. The rise of internal splinter groups with ties to radical Islamic culture led eventually to the appearance of Al Qaeda. Add the sheer ineptitude of the Malian army, a ragtag accumulation of the dregs of society, and the likelihood of destruction of a thousand years of cultural history seemed assured.
Hammer’s story of how irreplaceable Korans, the Hadith (collections of the prophet’s sayings), and works of religious scholarship, legal pronouncements, mathematics, science, Ptolemy, Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, astronomy and poetry, even sexual guides — all in beautiful calligraphy and colophons that even indicated when they were copied, by whom, and for whom — were saved is a testament to the enduring reach of literature and the empowering example of one person’s resistance to the inhumanity of religious extremism.
Joshua Hammer is the author of three nonfiction books. He is a contributing editor to Smithsonian and is a regular contributor to a number of magazines. He continues to travel the world from his base in Berlin, Germany.