Wednesday, April 25, 2018

What I Read: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Time for the Hercules gif.

Okay, so here's the cool part: Abdel Kader Haidara, after years of careful negotiations and curation, managed to assemble a peerless collection of ancient Malian manuscripts, both Islamic and secular. But when Al Qaeda took over Timbuktu, the manuscripts—works of art in themselves that also advocated for religious tolerance and scientific curiosity, even in the 13th century CE—became a target of Islamic extremists. Haidara and other archivists worked hard to smuggle these literary treasures to a safety.

And the book starts off with a satisfying and easy to follow history of Timbuktu and its cultural heritage in the larger Islamic world, as well as a brief history of Haidara's work hunting down and negotiating with families, convincing them to entrust these priceless artifacts with him so that they could be preserved and studied.

And of course you get snatches of Haidara and his helpers smuggling books out of Timbuktu and into safety.


In reality, the focus (at least in the middle and end of the book) is more on the sectarian violence in Mali in the early 2010s. An extraordinary amount of detail about developments and actors in the political situation is provided when a simple summary would have sufficed. I suspect that these lefthand turns are the reason that I kept falling out of the book and why it took me several months to finish. Maybe even years? I remember reading it in an airport on the way back from a wedding, but I can't say for sure if it was Aaron's wedding in 2017 or my brother's wedding in 2016. Either way: it doesn't usually take me that long to finish your stand popular journalism kind of book. (Reading an ebook version probably didn't help, either.)

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