Review: Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu
A rich literary tradition once flourished in Timbuktu, a crossroads where for centuries the imams as well as the general population were receptive to ideas that passed through the city. Visiting scholars brought religious as well as secular volumes, and an industry grew up around the copying, transliteration and translation of a wide range of texts.
Wealthy patrons kept manuscripts in family collections, bequeathing them to subsequent generations. In the twenty-first century, families still have trunks filled with these books. At seventeen years old, Abdel Kader Haidara inherited an extensive library from his father, Mohammed “Mamma” Haidara. It consisted of gems such as “a treatise about Islamic jurisprudence from the early twelfth century; a thirteenth-century Koran written on vellum made from the hide of an antelope; another holy book from the twelfth century, no larger than the palm of a hand, inscribed on a fish skin, its intricate Maghrebi script illuminated with droplets of gold leaf.”
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is journalist Joshua Hammer’s detailed account of Abdel Kader Haidara’s achievement in amassing and protecting an extraordinary library of these manuscripts. In the 1980s, Haidara undertook expeditions, sometimes by boat or camel, far and wide across Northern Africa to persuade families part with their heirlooms.
Haidara curated the collection with care: “He was particularly interested in manuscripts that contradicted Western stereotypes of Islam as a religion of intolerance – pointing with pride to Ahmeda Baba’s denunciations of slavery, and to the strident correspondence between the jihadi sultan of Massina and Sheikh Ahmed Al Bakkay Al Kounti, a mid-nineteenth-century Islamic scholar in Timbuktu known for his moderation and acceptance of Jews and Christians. As time passed he became something of a scholar himself, revered by many peers in Timbuktu for his knowledge of the region’s history and religion, sought after by parents to offer their children guidance.”
Polite and discreet, Haidara was a deft negotiator in multiple languages. In return for the manuscripts, Haidara compensated the families handsomely, be that in currency or with livestock, grains or camels—or once, with a commitment to build a mosque and school. Meanwhile, funding poured in from a long list of sources as diverse as the Ford Foundation, the Princess of Luxembourg, and Muammar Qaddafi.
Haidara housed the collection at the Ahmed Baba Institute, where it could be conserved and digitally archived. But in 2012, Timbuktu fell to the Al Qaeda-supported Islamists, Ansar Dine, and the collection was no longer safe. So, in an extremely delicate and high-risk operation, Haidara masterminded the smuggling of 350,000 volumes out of Timbuktu to safe houses to Bamako, a government territory.
The rescue entailed quietly gathering the manuscripts into 2,500 metal trunks, and then spiriting them away under the rebels’ noses, primarily using teenage sons and nephews of Timbuktu’s librarians as couriers. Haidara monitored the operation from a control room in Bamako, eight phones ringing every fifteen minutes with updates. Incredibly, every single manuscript was evacuated to safekeeping, though some received rough treatment by soldiers at roadblocks. Ansar Dine was overthrown by French forces in 2013, but the manuscripts remain in hiding.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is rich with historical and military detail, to the extent that at some points maps would have been welcome, giving more breathing space in the text. Joshua Hammer follows two distinct narrative strands: the literary history of Timbuktu and its librarians, and the changing political landscape (and resulting war tactics) within the Maghreb. The result is a fascinating, if at times dense, account to read.