Endpaper Literary Review

Haidara and his band of librarians

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer  

If you can look past its silly, sophomoric title, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is a thrilling account of how a middle-aged collector, librarian, archivist and book restorer named Abdel Kader Haidara rescued thousands of precious, beautiful Arabic manuscripts from being destroyed by militants in Timbuktu. It had all happened quietly just a few years ago, between 2012-2013, and journalist Joshua Hammer, who reported frequently from Mali, now uncovers the story of Haidara and his band of dedicated librarians and their daring smuggling operation, sneaking out ancient illuminated manuscripts from the 11th to the 16th century, past checkpoints and under the very noses of fundamentalist groups and invading jihadists.

Just as interesting is Haidara’s back story as a collector of manuscripts, which began many decades before this audacious rescue, as he set about on another salvaging mission: to unearth lost, hidden and obscure manuscripts across the land. He went looking along River Niger and across the Sahara Desert by foot, canoe and camel for manuscripts buried in caves, lying in neglect, eaten by termites. Years later, when he sensed invaders would seek to destroy these fabled manuscripts he enlisted the help of librarians and volunteers (composed of trusted friends and family) to cart them out of the city using whatever means he could, from cars to boats to donkeys, until such time as the danger was past and they could be safely brought back to their respective holdings.

The volume and number of manuscripts they managed to smuggle is staggering: about 3,70,000; some they could not get out in time, and a few thousand were destroyed. In the collection were also several secular manuscripts on various subjects, from medicine to astronomy to literature. The Arabic manuscripts too covered a wide range, from works on mathematics, government and poetry, and many of these texts were sensual. Hammer also delves deep into Timbuktu’s intellectual history, its long tradition of manuscript culture and learning; the archivist tells the author once, “We are a city that has had Islam for one thousand years. We had the greatest teachers and universities.” Hammer notes that over the centuries this city “seemed to be in a constant state of flux, periods of openness and liberalism followed by waves of intolerance and repression.”

Haidara’s private collection itself contained a Quran from the 12th century with lettering illuminated in blue and gold. So much has been made of print culture and so little of manuscript culture (it’s no wonder that manuscript scholar Nicolas Barker once quipped: “When people talk of ‘print culture’ I wish I had a revolver to reach for”) that we forget the manuscript is a book too. Not printed but written. Manuscripts, especially illuminated manuscripts, have taken on a new fascination for me ever since I saw first hand some examples of gorgeously decorated Italian vellum leaves with blue and gold illumination from the 13th century. And just as dazzling to behold are the gold leaves from the Ottoman and Persian schools of illumination and calligraphy. Haidara’s enchantment with them resonated with me, and I could see why he would travel perilous terrain and risk his life at gunpoint to keep these priceless manuscripts safe.

The prologue sets the tone for the book, part intellectual thriller, part political thriller, as a vehicle with a rich cargo of hidden manuscripts approaches an armed checkpoint. The rear compartment of the car held steamer trunks filled with the most exquisite manuscripts, many studded with semi precious stones. They were all from the golden age of manuscript making in Timbuktu, the work of their finest scribes, illuminators and calligraphers. What, though, would happen to them now? Waiting to check the car were the gunmen at the post. And predictably enough after they are briefly interrogated (“Where are you going?” “Bamako,” the capital in the south), “the men circled the car, and peered into the back.” And this would be a good place for me to stop and let you discover what happens next in the book.

Pradeep Sebastian is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 11:50:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/pradeep-sebastian-on-the-book-the-badass-librarians-of-timbuktu/article8540991.ece

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