Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts by [Hammer, Joshua]

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: and their race to save the world's most precious manuscripts- Joshua Hammmer
Simon & Schuster
Release Date: April 19, 2016


Synopsis:  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 were crumbling in the trunks of desert shepherds. His goal: to preserve this crucial part of the world’s patrimony in a gorgeous library. But then Al Qaeda showed up at the door.

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, became one of the world's greatest and most brazen smugglers by saving texts from sure destruction.  With bravery and patience, he organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 377,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali. This real-life thriller is a reminder that ordinary citizens often do the most to protect the beauty and imagination of their culture.  It is also the story of a man who, through extreme circumstances discovered his higher calling and was changed forever by it.

The diverse and beautiful history of Western Africa- Timbuktu in particular- and its influential role in science, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and music is little known to the Western world. But the role of Timbuktu both past and present is celebrated here in Joshua Hammer's outstanding The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.  This is the story of Abdel Kader Haidara, who becomes obsessed with the manuscript legacy of Mali and Timbuktu in particular.  From the 1980s on he worked to convince local families who had, for generations, guarded treasured, fragile manuscripts that it is time for the manuscripts to be protected in modern ways. 45 libraries were built in Timbuktu to house and conserve over 377,000 manuscripts written on goat, sheep, even fish skin.  Some are loose pages while others are bound and decorated with gold and illustrated in vividly colored geometric designs. From the twelfth century onwards, these manuscripts contain generations of writings on Sufism, music, law, astronomy, and history.  Haidara works with professionals from across the globe to perfect conservation methods for these texts and almost single handedly helps revitalize the cultural and scholarly importance of Timbuktu.

But then in 2012 came Al Qaeda: Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Iyad Ag Ghali and their jihadi extremists. Timbuktu is taken and becomes a center for their push to control all of Mali and develop a modern day caliphate.  Everyone knows what Al Qaeda does to art, manuscripts, and the beauty of past ages that does not line up with their view of the world.  It was only a matter of time, Haidara knew, before the treasured texts were destroyed.

And so begins the story of how Haidara, his co-workers, and everyday citizens of Mali worked to smuggle over 377,000 texts out of the libraries they had built in Timbuktu and to the safety of Bamako in Southern Mali.  Perhaps one of the most dangerous and large-scale modern day smuggling operations used cars, donkey carts, boats, and anything else they could find to rescue this incredible cultural treasure.  Part history, part modern journalism, this book is a brilliant, true-life adventure story celebrating the bravery of ordinary citizens who believe passionately in doing the right thing- and that protecting beauty and history is worth overcoming all odds.  It is a triumph of good over evil,  while reminding us that these dangers are still very much present.

Hammer's familiarity with the region through multiple trips helps him bring to life Timbuktu's colorful story.  This brilliantly written, fast-paced page turner lives up to its name and will keep readers on the edge of their seats from start to finish, leaving them both thrilled and inspired by this group of devoted librarians, who are truly bad-ass in the best sense fo the word.      

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