Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

While some may describe the title of Joshua Hammer’s latest book as sophomoric and overwrought, as a librarian (once described by a former professor as “smart ass”) and with my background in art history specializing in medieval manuscripts, the title of the book had me at the get-go. I was further intrigued by the setting: Timbuktu – that faraway, forsaken place where my mom threatened to send me when I misbehaved. Was Timbuktu a real place?  

Once I opened the book, I learned that Timbuktu is indeed a very real place named for a woman called Bouctu, “one with the big belly button,” referring to the watering hole 20 km north of the Niger River in the country of Mali. In the 15th and 16th centuries during its Golden Age, Timbuktu flourished not only as an important commercial center, but also as the intellectual hub of the sub-Saharian world, where Islamic scribes copied surveys of mathematics, science, medicine, and astronomy as well as religion and philosophical texts. Africa traded slaves, spices and gold with Europeans for tea and cloth. The history of Timbuktu fluctuated between periods of prosperity and peace with those of intolerance and repression.

In the modern age, Timbuktu was making a comeback as a cultural center as one man, Abdul Kader Haidera, recovered nearly 377,000 manuscripts held mostly by private families and instituted a national library to secure them. The region also held international music festivals attracting famous musicians. Through Haidera’s unique vision and with the aid of a band of librarians, these precious manuscripts were smuggled out of Timbuktu - right under the noses of the jihadists who invaded northern Africa after the Libyan defeat of Qualdafi. 

While the book could have included visual illustrations, such as a detailed map and photographs of some of the manuscripts, the cloak and dagger operation, nonetheless, is packed full of palpable detail, also describing the region’s struggle to rid itself of rebels, colonialists, and extremists. For me, this journalistic account was an eye-opener. Why did the mainstream media not highlight the atrocities in Northern Africa? This vexing question resonates today as we are only beginning to be told about the occurrences in neighboring Niger.


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