Earlier this summer, my friend, Charlotte, mentioned that her copy of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu had recently come up at the library. “The bad-ass what?” I asked, both slightly shocked and amused by the title of this mystery book. She proceeded to describe journalist Joshua Hammer’s account of the massive plan to save Mali’s most precious historical manuscripts from the destructive forces of Al-Qaeda from the early 2000’s to just a few years ago. I was immediately hooked by her description and knew I had to read it.
In The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, Hammer tells the story of Abdel Kader Haidara, a young man hired by Timbuktu’s government to carry on the work of his father, traveling the length and breadth of the Sahara unearthing thousands of ancient and historic Islamic texts for preservation. These texts ran the gamut from tiny, hand-bound and hand-decorated Qurans to secular texts describing the importance of music, art, and culture to early Islamic society. There was even a sex guide. When Haidara began his quest in the 1980’s, it was a leisurely race against time and the elements to preserve documents that had been hidden in local centers of learning and family homes, cellars, and trunks for years. Hammer also traces the rise of Al-Qaeda in Northern Africa, and with 9/11 and the increasing occupation of the Sahara by Al-Qaeda’s forces in the 2000’s, the race became one against the destructive forces of humanity, oppression, and fear. As a result, Haidara began a massive undertaking to evacuate hundreds of thousands of documents promoting a history and understanding of Islam antithetical to the extremist’s beliefs out of Timbuktu to Bamako, Mali’s capital, right under the noses of the Al-Qaeda soldiers and their leaders.
The book both benefits and suffers from Hammer’s experience as a journalist. Hammer took multiple trips and spent significant time to report on the region and then again to research and write this story. As such, it benefits from his thorough research and skill in drawing out the unexpected from his interviews with tens of people involved in Haidara’s plan. Hammer is able to explain fully and accessibly the hugely complicated politics of a volatile region and the effects these events and horrors had on the people who lived there through the humanity and gumption of one person. Additionally, Hammer does not shy away from the atrocities committed by leaders of Al-Qaeda in North Africa. It makes for some truly difficult and even sickening reading, but it provides key context, without which we cannot appreciate the monumental nature of the risks taken by Haidara and his friends and family. The fact that Hammer knows Haidara and so many involved adds a vital personal touch. Because keep in mind: this is not an adventure novel, despite the title. This is a real story about real people, what they really experienced, and what they really did despite incredible danger.
That being said, there are some journalistic structural choices that cause the book to suffer somewhat. Hammer jumps from topic to topic and back again without much signal to the reader, which would make sense in a multi-article report or even a long-form article such as would be found in National Geographic. However, in such formats, there are usually visual cues (a page-break, a small icon to indicate the end of a section, etc.) which Hammer (or his editor) choose to eschew in this book-length format, creating some muddiness around who Hammer is talking about at a given time. Several times I found myself going back a few paragraphs to see where the transition might have been so I could be clear about which key character we were learning about at that moment. Additionally, multiple times throughout the book, Hammer repeated the exact same phrase or sentence only a page apart. While this can be done for effect, it often seemed more like he had forgotten he had just used the phrase in question. To me, that smacks of sloppy editing, but if it was deliberate, it needed to be more so. Overall, though, these are small quibbles regarding a writing style that can become a bit loose when extended to book length. (Please know that I think it is probably just as challenging for a novelist or non-fiction book writer to learn how to write journalism effectively as well.)
Overall, I think this is an incredible story of a man who risked all to save his country and religion’s history in the face of immediate danger, which was reported with integrity, humility, and openness. I also think it is a very valuable entry for beginning to understand not just the complexities of our world as a whole but particularly the rise of religious extremism both at home and abroad. We, as individuals and as a country, could do well to educate ourselves about others’ experiences, beliefs, and lives before making blanket judgments, and The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is a perfect place to start.