Protecting cultural heritage from al-Qaeda
In his 2016 book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, journalist Joshua Hammer reveals that hundreds of thousands of these historic manuscripts have survived to the present day, mostly hidden in the homes of private citizens and passed down within families for generations. Hammer explains how in the last few decades cultural heritage organizations, and one dedicated librarian in particular, began collecting these manuscripts and transferring them to newly built libraries so they could be restored and preserved, thus making centuries-old texts newly accessible to contemporary scholars.
In this book, Hammer provides a revealing glimpse into Timbuktu’s centuries-old history as a center of learning, but he also gives the reader a vivid view of life in contemporary Mali. He meticulously charts the 21st-century rise of Islamic jihadism in North Africa, which poses a severe threat to the existence of these priceless artifacts. When a combined force of al-Qaeda militants and Tuareg rebels invaded northern Mali, Timbuktu was occupied by a jihadist government that instituted a brutally draconian form of Sharia law. Under this ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, the manuscripts were seen as immoral and targeted for destruction. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible and inspiring story of how a few brave Malian librarians, with the help of many local volunteers and international donors, managed to save hundreds of thousands of these medieval manuscripts by smuggling them out from under al-Qaeda’s nose.
If you are approaching this book as a bibliophile or lover of libraries, be forewarned that the majority of the story is about politics, terrorism, and military activity. The manuscripts themselves only feature prominently in the first few chapters of the book. Nevertheless, even though I’m not one to buy books on current political events, I found Hammer’s telling of this story captivating from beginning to end. He delves into a great deal of detail on Islamic terrorists and the formation of their various factions, but he does so in an articulate style that makes the history accessible and memorable even to news-challenged general readers. I learned quite a bit about Islam from this book, not just the negative aspects we see on the news, such as terrorism and war, but also the positive aspects of Islamic culture and the intellectual tradition of Islamic science, arts, and letters in African history. Hammer’s skillfully penned account delivers an eye-opening education amid a political thriller that will have you rooting for these unsung book-saving heroes.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.