Book review: Joshua Hammer’s ‘The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu’

May 2, 2016 

"The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu" by Joshua Hammer; Simon & Schuster (288 pages, $26)


Joshua Hammer’s narrative of Abdel Kader Haidara’s effort to save thousands of priceless manuscripts dating back centuries is so much more than a story of a rescue effort.

There’s an urgency to the story that unfolded in modern times, reaching its climax in 2012 when the collection was threatened after al-Qaida seized Timbuktu. Contacted by email while traveling in Afghanistan, Hammer wrote that the immediacy of the story was a help and a hindrance when it came to conducting interviews.

"The contemporary aspect of the tale gave it an immediacy and also allowed me to weave scenes of firsthand, first-person reportage into the narrative, capturing the sights, sounds and feel of the places I was writing about," he wrote. "On the downside, yes, some of my sources were reluctant.

"It was very difficult to get Abdel Haidara’s nephew, Mohammed Touré, to be forthcoming, for instance, in large part because al-Qaida is still active in the region and I sensed that he feared retaliation."

Haidara, the central character in "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu," may be familiar to some. His efforts to collect, restore and, in the end, protect ancient, handwritten texts have been told in National Geographic, The Economist and, of course, by Hammer in Smithsonian.

Haidara is an everyman who plunged into the world of ancient scripts when, at 17, his father bequeathed him the family’s collection. He begins the tale as a bewildered teen, not quite sure why he was chosen from among his 11 siblings as the keeper of the texts.

His story is irresistible. "A single individual organizing a clandestine resistance against a violent, extremist group struck me from the start as something that could have widespread appeal," Hammer wrote.

He added, however, that it wasn’t an easy sell to publishers.

"I’m grateful that Priscilla Painton of S&S [Simon & Schuster] — a former foreign editor at Time magazine — looked beyond the remoteness of the story and instantly saw its potential," he wrote.

A former Newsweek bureau chief and foreign correspondent, Hammer’s holistic knowledge of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Islam and jihadists, gives the book a voice of authority and authenticity.

Hammer explains that these texts are cherished heirlooms, not only in Haidara’s family, but in families throughout the region. Many were buried or hidden in trunks left to deteriorate from time and termites.

As a young man, Haidara is recruited into helping collect and preserve the texts. His reluctance is quickly replaced by a passion that is unmatched. In his email, Hammer wrote that this is one of his favorite parts of the story.

"I like it because it defines Abdel Kader’s character — his courage, his resourcefulness, his persistence, his willing to undergo all sorts of hardships in the service of his country’s culture, in recovering Mali’s largely lost national patrimony," he explained.

"I think that once you see Abdel Kader riding camels through the desert and trekking for weeks on the hunt for a rumored trove of manuscripts, you begin to understand what drives the man, you come to admire him, and so you can’t help rooting for him once the trouble starts a few chapters later," he said.

Hammer crafts a thoughtful history of the Middle East and Africa in a narrative that goes beyond the one- and two-dimensional views that are popular today. He writes matter of factly about the intellectual depth and integrity of ancient civilizations that have long been dismissed or disputed by Western scholars.

He also provides a geopolitical explainer that gives context to the development of radical Islam. Much of the conversation about radical Islam often seems centered around Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. But Hammer broadens this viewpoint and details how Mali and Haidara’s hometown of Timbuktu have been swept into the maelstrom of violence.

The strictures of radical Islam not only endanger the citizens of Timbuktu, but also the manuscripts. As Hammer explains, the writings represent an enlightened and sometimes secular view of the world that is in direct opposition to that of the extremists.

He goes a long way to explain how the various policies and decisions, not only by the U.S., but other Western governments, helped fuel the jihadists. For example, he illustrates how the taking of Western hostages — the U.S. and Britain were in the minority in their refusal to pay ransom — was a lucrative scheme that netted millions over time.

He also explains how the State Department and the military, with their distinct missions, have also unwittingly created a vacuum that allowed jihadists to thrive. He does this not as a political indictment of an administration but rather to show how the vagaries of trust between various departments can undermine overarching goals.

The highlight of the story, however, is the tale of how Haidara led the efforts to protect the manuscripts from jihadists who seized Timbuktu.

Hammer’s narrative of the rescue of the texts is so much more critical because of his details on their meaning to Mali and the world at large.

Haidara rescued an estimated 500,000 manuscripts over an 18-month period. His work was recognized with Germany’s 2014 Africa Prize.

The book’s title isn’t overstated. Haidara, and those who aided him, truly are "bad-ass."



McClatchy-Tribune Information Services