REVIEW: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer
June 29, 2016
Synopsis: To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.
In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.
In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.
Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ / 2 conflicted stars.
Review: I'm conflicted, because while the book was interesting, it is definitely not all that it's promised to be or promoted. The majority of the book is consumed with the actions and movements of a constantly shifting war. And while, yes, this is important information and necessary to understanding the pressure and danger to these precious manuscripts, in the end, the books became a lesser thread in the story, only being mentioned sporadically.
The first third of the book was strong, the history and heritage of Mali, Timbuktu, and the wealth of knowledge preserved and dying within the crumbling books. We meet Haidara and his quest to find and compile the scattered manuscripts. His journey and the people he meets and the preservation effort are exactly what I was hoping and expecting from this book.
The rest of the book gives way to a very dry and factual account of Al Qaeda, politics, militants, and various news reports. It all becomes very journalistic and less like a story being told. And while we are updated at times to the librarians and books, they essentially fall behind and become nearly forgotten. It reads more like a nighttime news special. And all of this would be fine and interesting, except that the book is called The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts...and we lose sight of the librarians.
When we finally return to the saving and smuggling, it is over too soon. I in no way want to downplay what was and is a very real situation, especially for those involved in saving all these manuscripts, but the author didn't give us enough. I wanted more first hand accounts from Haidara's family and even anonymous librarians and those involved inside Timbuktu. I recognize that the author can only give us what he is able to attain but perhaps more time was needed in assembling this book. At the very least, more first hand accounts from Haidara's nephew and chief assistant was needed.
The story of these librarians, preservationists, and citizens is nothing short of amazing. For that alone I am glad that I read this book. But overall I felt that this wasn't a successful book. I think you can see my conflict in reviewing this book. I'll leave it for other readers to decide for themselves, though, because while it didn't work for me, I know that others will find better than I did.