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The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts

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Joshua Hammer, THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS OF TIMBUKTU

Not only does this volume have the best title of any book I’ve read in the past year, but it will keep you on the edge of your chair until you finish this tale.

I read with amazement Joshua Hammer’s original piece in the Dec. 2006 Smithsonian, for which he writes frequently and well.  His 2006 piece introduced me to these amazing collections of Islamic manuscripts from the Golden Age of Timbuktu that were being carefully preserved in archives and libraries on the edge of the earth.

Timbuktu.  Its name is other-worldly but starting in the late 14th century and for several hundred years after, this dry grassy plain on the Niger River 150 miles south of the Sahara was the intellectual center for a version of Islam that was tolerant, outward looking and moderate. 

A university was started and Timbuktu’s place at the center of a vast web of trading routes guaranteed that manuscripts, letters, books and other documents came from the far corners of Africa and the Middle East.  The region’s dry climate, and a peculiar tradition of family responsibility for collecting and passing these materials from generation to generation, meant that tens of thousands of ancient documents came to be held in compounds, mosques, and homes through northern Mali.

Hammer now tells the riveting story of how the stewards of this vast treasure of irreplaceable documents was saved from destruction when Islamic terrorists swept out of the Sahara in 2011 and grabbed a vast swath of northern Mali.  Before ISIS established its caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014, there was Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa.

AQIM sought to destroy any vestige of Western culture, understanding the libraries of Timbuktu contained the intellectual sources of a different kind of Islam that revealed Al Qaeda as a fraud, a perverted version of Islam.  More powerful in some ways than an AK47, these ideas had to be wiped out for Al Qaeda to prevail.

THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS is a war story in which the resistance is a rag-tag, loosely organized group of self-made scholars – custodians of a rich heritage in danger of obliteration – led by one particularly clever and relentless protector, Abdel Kader Haidara.  How he and his allies deal with bloodthirsty killers, intent upon wiping out the ideas these collectors have preserved for generations, makes this a great summer read.

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