Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu" by Joshua Hammer;
Simon & Schuster (288 pages, $26)
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
added, however, that it wasn’t an easy sell to
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
highlight of the story, however, is the tale of how
Haidara led the efforts to protect the manuscripts from
jihadists who seized Timbuktu.
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.
rescued an estimated 500,000 manuscripts over an
18-month period. His work was recognized with Germany’s
2014 Africa Prize.
book’s title isn’t overstated. Haidara, and those
who aided him, truly are "bad-ass."