I’m going to be honest: I was initially drawn to this book because of the title. Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu had me at “bad-ass librarians” and from the first page to the last, I was thrust in a world of unearthed manuscripts dating back to the 1500s, Al Qaeda commanders and a certain Abdel Kader Haidara who dedicated his life to preserving the written word.
I empathized with Haidara, fast. I thought about my modest collection of books, as opposed to life-threatening feats that he often endured to acquire and preserve original texts. Not knowing when I could make a trip to the bookstore or fearing being stranded somewhere or having to wait for a long time without a book suddenly seemed frivolous. Haidara’s pursuits across the Sahara desert and along the Niger River to find manuscripts as he growing up, and then having to run a smuggling operation to save them from Al Qaeda in recent years were no small feats.
I never really thought about the history of the written word but Haidara’s story prompted me to dig a little deeper. A Google search reveals that the first book ever made was the Epic of Gilgamesh prior to the eighteenth century B.C. in Sumer, the southernmost point of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait) which was an epic poem engraved on clay tablets. This made immediate sense to me. It wasn’t surprising then that literature was already rampant in areas of the Middle East and in Africa, contrary to Eurocentric history.
The book begins with a young Haidara’s search for manuscripts throughout the Sahara desert and along the Niger River, sometimes going on week-long journeys. Hired by the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, he would visit the homes of people known to keep manuscripts and traded them with money, livestock or anything that he can barter with. In about a year, he was able to recover some thousand manuscripts and placed them at the institute.
I’ve barely heard of Timbuktu — probably in cartoons I’ve watched as a kid — a magical, exotic place but other than that, I had nary an idea on its geographical nor political significance. But to understand Haidara is to also understand the capital of Mali.
People hid manuscripts all over Mali. They placed them inside leather bags and buried them in holes in their courtyards and grades, stashed them in abandoned caves in the desert, and sealed the doors of their libraries with mud to hide the treasures inside. Under the new colonial rulers, French became the primary language taught in Mali’s schools. As a result, several generations in Timbuktu and other towns in the region grew up without learning to speak Arabic, which doomed the works to irrelevance.