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Posted on 3 Nov 2016 in Non-Fiction | 1 comment

JOSHUA HAMMER The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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bad-asslibrariansThis book reveals not only Africa’s significant literary heritage but also the courage of the librarians who endangered themselves to preserve it.

This is the story of Abdel Kader Haidara, one of the librarians of Timbuktu, and how he smuggled 350 000 ancient Islamic manuscripts away from the Al Qaeda militants who had taken control of most of northern Mali.

The prologue sets up the tension. It is 2012 and Haidara has been stopped by armed men at a checkpoint as he leaves Timbuktu.  His four-wheel-drive contains five padlocked steamer trunks filled with hundreds of illuminated manuscripts dating from the 15th and 16th centuries:

‘Where are you going?’

‘Bamako,’ he said, ‘the capital in the south.’

The men circled the car, and peered into the back.

Wordlessly they waved him onward.

He exhaled. But they still had another 600 miles to go.

In March 2006 Hammer, a journalist, travelled to Timbuktu to write an article about the resurfacing manuscripts and the literary salvage work being done in the Saharan region. He describes a Timbuktu where this literacy recovery coincides with a re-emerging Tuareg and the Festival in the Desert, three days of camel dancing and music, which has become so trendy that it makes for a 24-hour fly-in visit from Bono, giving the writer and the reader some wry pleasure. He meets Haidara for the first time, and the result is a powerful and fascinating geo-political history of Timbuktu and Mali, as well as of the Islamic politics and schisms of the broader Arab-African world, centred on one man, Haidara.

Timbuktu started to emerge as a centre for Islamic culture from the late 14th century. Due to the city’s broad ties to the Arab Muslim world, it was visited by many scholars, who brought with them books of classical Islamic scholarship. These manuscripts were copied and elaborate facsimiles made for the libraries of local scholars and their patrons. Scribes worked in ateliers copying works; they employed proofreaders who added a colophon recording start and finish dates, the place where the manuscript was written and the names of the proofreaders and the scribe. The patron was mentioned as well. The scribes also produced copies in local languages, including Hausa.

In this period the population was exposed to the secular ideas of the cosmopolitan scholars of Cairo. The scribes of Timbuktu began copying surveys of maths and science and translating the Greek philosophers. Scholars in Timbuktu – scientists, historians and philosophers – began writing.

Hammer describes how Timbuktu’s manuscripts were as prized for their beauty as for their subject matter. In the early chapters we are given a glimpse of the rich history of Timbuktu and its role as an intellectual hub and its liberal Sufi form of Islam. Timbuktu was a rich prize and we learn of the ebb and flow of regional politics, and the tensions between various strands of Islamic religious scholarship and the sterner Wahhabi influence in the region.

This Islamic collision of two distinct strands of thought, one open and tolerant, the other inflexible and violent, would bedevil Timbuktu over the following five centuries.

Abdel Kader Haidara learned about the hidden treasures of Timbuktu when he was a boy. His house was home to dozens of young boarders from across the Sahel region of Africa who were studying maths, science, astrology and jurisprudence at the traditional school his father ran.

His father, Mamma, had a rich history as a scholar and a collector of manuscripts. He had travelled widely in the region and had brought many illuminated Korans and other manuscripts from Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria and Chad to Timbuktu. He became a member of the town’s ‘qadi’ or Islamic judicial authority. At this time European scholars first became interested in the libraries of Timbuktu, inspired by the writings of Ibn Batuta, who had described a ‘vibrant culture’ of manuscripts and book collecting.

These European scholars began to question many assumptions about African culture and history.

European historians and philosophers had contended that black Africans were illiterates with no history, but Timbuktu’s manuscripts proved the opposite – that a sophisticated freethinking society had thrived south of the Sahara at time when much of Europe was still mired in the Middle Ages.

Hammer describes how that culture had gone underground during the Moroccan conquest of Timbuktu, had flourished again, and then was spirited away when the French became the city’s colonial masters for 70 years.

As a result of this turmoil, manuscripts were hidden in holes in the ground and in secret rooms and closets. UNESCO experts determined to recover the region’s scattered hidden heritage and set up a centre to restore Timbuktu’s reputation and to prove that sub-Saharan Africa had once produced remarkable works of scholarship.

In his 70s, Haidara’s father Mamma began work for the Ahmed Baba Institute. He lent volumes from his own collection to the institute and worked to encourage other collectors to do the same. This involved travelling from door to door and persuading people to donate their hidden manuscripts. However, his son recalls that this was greeted with suspicion.

Much as Haidara admired his father and was intrigued by his work, he did not see how this project had a future. He was surprised when, on his father’s death he, of all his siblings, was designated the custodian of Mamma Haidara’s library.

Some months later Haidara was approached by Mahmoud Zouber, the director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, and asked to come and work with them. As the inheritor of an intellectual tradition Haidara commanded huge respect and his authority was needed to continue the work of persuading the custodians of the manuscripts to give them up for restoration and preservation:

After decades of thievery by the French colonial army, the owners had become fiercely    protective of their manuscripts and deeply distrustful of government institutions. The appearance of Ahmed Baba prospectors raised alarms that they had come to steal their precious family heirlooms.

In 1984 Haidara began work as a prospector for the Ahmed Baba Institute.  He worked hard to coax collectors to give up their manuscripts. The processes of preserving and digitising the manuscripts are fascinating for librarians and archivists and are a feature of the book. It also covers the politics of institutional and international funding for this work, which continue today. Haidara, having had many complex and potentially dangerous assignations to secure collections, was building up his skills in subterfuge and bribery. At the same time he became interested in the contents of his family’s library.

Years later Libya, led by Qaddafi, becomes interested in Timbuktu and donates money to create several institutions destined to become ruins. Qaddafi also honours Haidara, now an international man of letters, and the librarians for their literary patrimony.

Against this background the politics of Wahhabism are becoming stronger and are beginning to have an impact on the Mali government. Islamists from other parts of the Muslim world, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are coming to Timbuktu and the tone of the imams is becoming sterner.  Hammer looks at the three leaders of Al Qaeda who together would enter Timbuktu and establish a caliphate in 2012.  He discusses their history and their modus operandi, and the politics of various outlaw groups who coalesced under Al Qaeda and then ISIS. The links between gangsterism and terrorism are well explored – bands of men hiding in the desert, smuggling contraband and kidnapping tourists.

The Al Qaeda leaders travel to Saudi Arabia and impose Wahhabism on all those within their territories. They begin to control large swathes of northern Mali ceded by the government and its impoverished army. The region had already been of interest to the USA in 2001 and now this attention becomes more focussed. The early tensions between the two most powerful American policy-makers in Mali are interesting, as are the descriptions of how US money earmarked for the training and the modernisation of Mali’s army wends its way into the pockets of politicians and generals.

Despite the American presence in Mali and improvements in the army, the Islamist groups in the desert and the Atlas mountains grow stronger. They merge with Al Qaeda and have earned US$116 million from kidnapping westerners.

In January 2011 the ‘Arab Spring’ began, overthrowing Tunisia’s dictator Ben Ali and then Egypt’s president Mubarak. By the end of the year, Mali’s President Toure had fled into exile, kidnappings were occurring within Timbuktu and the Festival of the Desert was under threat from militants. By March 2012 Al Qaeda was placed to march into Timbuktu and replace its secular regime with a fundamentalist Islamist state.

Initially Haidara was not concerned by the prospect of the extremists taking over Timbuktu. However, on his return from Burkina Faso, he becomes aware of the mass exodus of citizens heading south to Bamoko, the Malian capital:

They are going to break into our libraries, and steal everything inside, and destroy the manuscripts. What do we have to do to save them?

The entry of the jihadists and their secular Tuareg allies into Timbuktu brings changes to the city.  Jihadi spokesmen try to reassure the locals that their manuscripts will be safe with them, and that is the moment the locals realise they are in danger. Haidara and others judge that the militants, with their rigid view of Islam, regard the manuscripts and their intellectual inquiry as anathema.

After the secular Tuareg are expelled from the militants, there is a turn for the worse as Sharia law is introduced to the city. Haidara, after dispersing many collections into hiding, resolves to smuggle the remaining manuscripts out of Timbuktu.

The international community begins to intervene; there are discussions between French President Hollande and US Secretary of State Clinton. The French army gains control of southern Mali and begins to act against the jihadis ensconced in the north of the country.

The international community donates money Haidara can use for bribes. As the Caliphate shrinks, the Jihadists’ attention turns to the manuscripts. In one of their last acts, Islamist troops enter the Ahmed Baba Institute to destroy them.

Haidara’s reluctant acceptance of his destiny to preserve and protect the manuscripts and his resolve to save them from the militants make for an exciting and tense story that begs to be filmed. The book not only reveals Africa’s significant literary heritage but also the courage of the librarians who endangered themselves to preserve it.

Joshua Hammer The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts Allen & Unwin 2016 PB 336pp $32.99

Michael Jongen is a (bad-ass) librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen and microblogs at

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.



1 Comment

  1. I have been thinking of getting this book. It looks like such an interesting premise. I think I’ll definitely have to get it now.