What would you do if one of al-Qaeda’s most feared, fanatical, and unpredictable leaders stops you in the street and accuses you of stealing? He has just seen you leave a building with a box containing ancient manuscripts that you legally own and are attempting to illegally smuggle away from al-Qaeda to safety. The al-Qaeda leader knows none of this, but, convinced you are stealing, he decides to arrest you.
There are many ways to react to this situation. But upon being released only hours before you were due to be punished, you might not feel the need to go back again the very next night to save even more manuscripts.
So riveting that it often reads like a Hollywood heist movie, Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu delivers a fascinating reallife tale of heroism in the face of evil.
Abdel Kader Haidara, the central focus of Hammer’s book, was a mildmannered librarian who just wanted to protect Timbuktu’s heritage.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu was the intellectual capital of the Arabic world, at the forefront of literature, medicine, poetry, astronomy, and culture. However, this was followed by long periods of war and, when the wars stopped, French occupation. The manuscripts created by calligraphers during Timbuktu’s golden era left the libraries and entered private collections, hidden away in crates, boxes or even holes in the ground— anything to conceal the manuscripts from those who would steal them.
The knowledge, the history, and the culture were forgotten. Until Haidara.
After his father’s passing and his inheritance of his family’s collection of manuscripts, Haidara decided to protect and restore Timbuktu’s most precious documents. He would go around Timbuktu and small villages across Northern Mali attempting to purchase any manuscripts he could find from the families that owned them.
Many had tried this before Haidara, but none were as successful. Manuscripts had become family heirlooms passed from generation to generation, and the owners were protective of them. Haidara’s gift was his honesty. Once he refused to purchase a particularly precious collection of manuscripts from a farmer in a small village because the farmer’s asking price was too low, finally haggling the farmer up to an acceptable sum. His honesty was rewarded that night when the entire village visited Haidara to sell their own manuscripts.
For years, Haidara’s only enemies were the initially distrustful owners of the manuscripts, and termites attempting to eat the centuries-old relics. Then al-Qaeda took over Timbuktu.
Haidara knew what this meant. His library’s manuscript collection— which at that time contained 350,000 volumes—included works on chemistry, astronomy, poetry, and physics. The study of any of these topics were strictly forbidden by al- Qaeda, in particular the faction of al- Qaeda ruling Timbuktu that were so cruel senior al-Qaeda members were forced to step in to reign them back.
So began one of the great heists of the modern era. Haidara and his team of librarians first moved the manuscripts under the cover of darkness from their place at Haidara’s library and into the homes of people he could trust to keep them safe. All while avoiding the attention of their cruel overlords. Then, when not even these homes were safe from the al-Qaeda soldiers, the manuscripts were smuggled south to government-controlled areas of Mali.
The librarians transported these manuscripts across highways, and when that became too risky, across sand, and when even that became too risky, by boat along the Niger River. These librarians were arrested, threatened and intimidated by both al-Qaeda and the Malian army. But they were held together by one belief—history and culture could never be allowed to die.
Joshua Hammer tells this story with precision and energy. The story is rich enough that any writer could weave a decent tale out of it, but in the assured hands of Hammer the story ascends to a higher level. Hammer clearly possesses a rich knowledge of Mali, and his access to all the major players in Haidara’s plight gives the book depth and resonance.
While the heist itself is the engine of the book, Hammer takes detours to some fascinating places. The reader learns what life is like under al-Qaeda rule, with Hammer retelling in full detail the complete destruction of all forms of culture and individuality. Al-Qaeda soldiers would travel across the city beating women not covered up sufficiently, men for smoking or owning musical instruments, and young boys and girls for just spending time together out of wedlock.
These stories are harrowing and truly illuminate the bravery of Haidara and his librarians to undertake such a task when they knew what the punishments would be if they were caught.
Hammer also takes us to the conversations of Westerners watching the rise of al-Qaeda in Africa with increasing concern. Unable to secure the necessary support from governments to remove al-Qaeda in its infancy, these people can only watch as their insidious influence spreads. Then, when al-Qaeda take over Northern Mali, we are taken behind the scenes of what is now understood to be a shining example of how to remove radical Islamic influence from a vulnerable nation.
The world needs heroes for inspiration as the international struggle against radical Islamic terrorism rages on. Abdel Kader Haidara is a hero of whom we can all be proud.