The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

by Joshua Hammer
Published on April 19th 2016
Pages: 288
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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.

Since the 1300s Timbuktu in central Mali has been a center of learning. The city sits at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert and on the banks of the Niger River.

This made it popular crossroads for people from many cultures to meet. There were many universities here and intellectual debate was popular. The city became known for its Islamic scholarship. Thousands of manuscripts were written and studied here. Some of them were elaborately decorated.

But there have been periods of invasion and anti-intellectualism too. During these times the manuscripts were hidden around the region. By the time of the European invasions, the existence of the manuscripts was not known to outsiders. That led to quotes like these:

“Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.”

— British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper 1963

After Mali won its independence efforts were made to start collecting the manuscripts in Timbuktu again.  Abdel Kader Haidara’s father spent his life collecting manuscripts.  In his will he chose Abdel to carry on his work but he wasn’t interested.  Ten years passed before a library in Timbuktu convinced him to start buying manuscripts again.  He was so successful that by the early 21st century there were 45 libraries in Timbuktu with manuscript collections.  Then Al Qaeda came.

The librarians knew that the manuscripts would be a target.  After all, they were written in a very progressive Islamic area.  There were manuscripts with sexual advice and rulings on how to treat women fairly.  They decided that it was time for the manuscripts to hide again.

It was a big job.  There were around 350,000 fragile manuscripts in city in 2012.  How do you get them somewhere safe when travel is restricted?

I really enjoyed the part of this book that was about the manuscripts. About half of it though was about the history of the Islamist uprising in Mali. That drug for me. There was kidnapping and crime and torture but I wanted to know about the manuscripts.

This book shows the importance of honoring the history of the a place. I like reading about Henry Louis Gates’ trip to Mali and his reaction to seeing the manuscripts. He had always been told that black people didn’t have a historical culture or anything to be proud of in their past. Seeing these works of scholarship and art made by black people touched him deeply.

A photo posted by @dvmheather on