Books

Joshua Hammer
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

“Not a single [Negro] was ever found,” Immanuel Kant declared in 1764, “who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality.”

According to The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Kant was just one Enlightenment philosopher whose views were cited as justification for the slave trade. Africa’s lack of books, the reasoning ran, only served to provide evidence for blacks’ subhuman position in the great chain of being.

Yet, as journalist Joshua Hammer explores in this gripping new history-cum-travelogue, the remote city of Timbuktu – a trade hub for Africans, Berbers, Arabs and Tuaregs – experienced a Golden Age in the 16th century. “Travellers, traders, and thinkers …” swarmed to the sub-Saharan centre “to trade gold, salt, slaves, spices, ivory – and knowledge”, he writes. The latter was taught in mosques and captured in exquisitely rendered manuscripts that covered everything from science to the ethics of slavery to how to increase sexual potency. 

This is not only the story of how these manuscripts were made but how, through the centuries, they have been saved. Hammer’s hero is Abdel Kader Haidara, a Timbuktu native who inherited his own private collection. Haidara near single-handedly spearheaded a revival in Timbuktu learning, encouraging the erection of numerous libraries designed to showcase the country’s rare heritage.

His real test came, however, in 2012 when Haidara had to find a way to get hundreds of thousands of manuscripts out of the city as radical Islamists including al-Qaeda invaded. Hammer’s chapters on the growth of terrorism in Mali and on life under the “Bearded Ones” are particularly harrowing: punishments for disobedience included amputation, flogging and death by stoning. Risking their lives were the “librarians” who smuggled the manuscripts out of Timbuktu.

Despite its silly title, at the heart of this book is nothing less than a battle over two kinds of Islam, “one open and tolerant, the other inflexible and violent”. As one resident tells Hammer: “We are a city that has had Islam for one thousand years. We had the greatest teachers and universities. And now these Bedouins, these illiterates, these ignoramuses, tell us how to wear our pants, and how to say our prayers, and how our wives should dress, as if they were the ones who invented the way.”  EA

Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 3, 2016 as "Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: EA