Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

258143513 out of 5 Stars

Okay, I honestly believe librarians are already some of the most kick-ass people in the world. So a book about how librarians secretly save thousands of hundred-year-old manuscripts from the hands of Al Qaeda?


The Blurb

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.

Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.

My Thoughts?

Overall I appreciate this book for what it is–the amazing story of a group of brave people peaceably fighting back against hatred and violence. But I’m certainly glad I listened to this in audio-book or else I don’t think I would have been able to finish it.

This book is interesting but very dense, spanning several decades of history.  Readers follow the life of Haidara, the care-taker of an impressive collection of ancient Islamic manuscripts. After he’s recruited by a government library, he travels around Africa, searching out priceless manuscripts that people have hidden away in personal libraries, storage boxes, or even buried. The stories of his journeys vary from drudging and disappointing to dangerously thrilling.

The descriptions of all of the ancients texts were beautiful in themselves. I would love to personally see some of the manuscripts mentioned in this book. From the gold leafed and illuminated pages, to the hand bound folios with handwritten notations squeezed into the margins. These books were all shapes, sizes, and topics–from religious and scientific texts to love poems and adventure stories. This book left me feeling like I had truly learned something about a little-known cultural gem.

When religious extremists seize control of Timbuktu, Haidara realizes these priceless manuscripts–that he’s spent all his life hunting down, restoring, and protecting–are at risk of being lost forever. With the help of an impressive network of friends, family, and financial supporters, he takes on the task of smuggling the books to safety.

This is one of books that left me close to tears with the knowledge that these were real events, real people, and real lives destroyed by Al Qaeda. I was floored by the extent of violence, not only the horrendous murders, but also the public lashings, amputations, and the burning of thousands of museums and librarians. This book is definitely not for the squeamish or faint of heart.

Overall I give this book 3 out of 5 stars. I loved the book, but some parts do get rather repetitive and dense. It’s worth the read if you can push through though!

Happy Reading!

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