There is an extraordinary and uncomfortably beautiful scene in Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu, in which a camel-herder kills a fisherman, both of them silhouetted at the end of a spit of land in a great inland lake. It is the seminal moment of the film, the moment when one man’s fate spins out of his control and places him at the mercy of the capricious ‘justice’ system of the jihadi-salafi terrorists from the north who have taken over his city with brutal disregard for its culture, history and people. Eventually the camel-herder will die, gunned down in a graveyard by the same foreign thugs, as his wife struggles to reach him, a symbol of lost innocence, goodwill and of the music he loved to play.
I had imagined him to be an emblematic, imaginary figure, and no doubt in many ways he is, but in Joshua Hammer’s new book, called (with a rather silly gonzo vulgarity) The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu, the author picks out a number of vignettes from the barbarian occupation that also appear in the film, including the fisherman’s murder, the fierce regulation of men’s beards and trousers and the spirited resistance of the market’s fishwives to being made to wear gloves and burkas to handle fish at their stalls. The emblematic figure whom Hammer himself chooses is a librarian, Abdel Kader Haidara, a man whose extraordinary story frames the book and provides a fine counterpoint of high civilisation to the barbarism of the semi-literate bandits who take over the town in the name of jihad and sharia.
Haidara was a reluctant bookman, almost dragooned into the book business as a boy and only slowly becoming hooked, until manuscripts became an all-consuming obsession. Deployed at first by the nascent Ahmed Baba Library, he spent years patiently travelling around northern Mali, persuading the owners of countless mediaeval manuscripts to lodge them in the safekeeping of the library. Later he founded another library – the Mamma Haidara Library – for his own family’s great collection, and encouraged the establishment of many other family libraries. He collected grants, built networks, studied and became expert, lecturing across Europe and the US on Timbuktu’s manuscript heritage. And in the city itself, hundreds of thousands of often decaying manuscripts emerged from wooden chests, sackcloth bags and holes in the sand to be restored and protected in climate-controlled environments. Timbuktu became again what it had once been – a City of Books.
When the jihadis seized Timbuktu in November 2011 there was an assumption that the rich heritage of Timbuktu’s manuscripts would be put to the torch, and indeed there were press reports that this had happened. This kind of cultural nihilism was typical of the sub-Wahhabi iconoclasts who bulldozed shrines, chopped off musicians’ fingers, banned the celebration of Mawlid an-Nabi and the famous Festival in the Desert. This was – or would have been – a tragedy of global proportions. Timbuktu had a quite extraordinary manuscript culture. An intellectual centre of huge importance, a pivot in the world of Islam, its scholars and universities had since the middle ages (though with an interruption caused by the annexation of Timbuktu, Gao and the ‘Soudan’ of the Songhay empire by the Moroccan Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in 1591) been a humming motor of international scholarship. To the ignorant modern European, for whom Timbuktu signifies simply the back of beyond, this can come as a surprise. But re-imagining the geography of North Africa encourages us to see the Sahara not as an obstacle but as a thoroughfare – a sea to be navigated in pre-modern times (until very recently) with swaying cargoes of salt, gold, ostrich-feathers, slaves – and manuscripts. Timbuktu, like Gao, Walata and Agades were ports on the southern shore of this ocean of sand, where it met the Niger river; and in our century the Tuareg and Islamist fighters in their 4WD pick-ups are simply desert-pirates who sail the sand-sea, with cargoes of cigarettes, weapons, migrants and drugs.
Hammer tells two stories. Haidara’s is the first, a tale of immense personal bravery and obstinate determination in the service of history and culture. The second is that of Timbuktu, seized by barbarians, terrorized by whimsical Islamic courts, and saved by a French expeditionary force which arrived in January 2013 to prevent the invaders capturing Bamako, the capital, in the south of Mali. Hammer’s account of the final battle between French foreign legionnaires and Chadian troops, together attacking the terrorists’ last, remote, hiding place in the Adrar des Ifoghas hills is splendidly dramatic. However, the first story is the beating heart of the whole drama. As the jihadi invasion became inevitable Haidara instigated and supervised the removal of many of the manuscripts from the libraries to safer hiding-places in private homes. Later, when – after a surprising lull – it seemed clear that the city’s rulers would turn at last to destruction in preparation for their own retreat, Haidara ran an even more daring evacuation by land and by river, smuggling vast numbers of manuscripts to safety (in mysterious containers called ‘footlockers’) under the noses of the jihadis, organising armies of men and boys in trucks and pirogues and spending hour after hour himself on his red-hot telephones pleading, threatening, negotiating and paying for safe passage.
He saved 377,000 manuscript books and unbound bundles – and only 4,202 (just over one percent) were destroyed, burned in the courtyard of the Ahmed Baba library by the departing barbarians in a fit of spite. The silent librarians watched in horror, but all too aware of the climate-controlled store-room in the basement where the library’s greatest treasures were stored. The store was never found, and all its contents survived. Haidara has a claim to be the saviour of a large slice of civilisation.
It’s a very good story, and told with pace and enthusiasm; but it could have been much better. Couched in the laborious but careless cadences of middle-brow journalism, it elides and it patronises. To be told – to take only one example – that “Major General Horatio Herbert Kitchener” commanded the relief force at Omdurman, simply because Omdurman is one of many cities that Haidara visited, is irritating: we don’t need to know what Kitchener’s full name and rank were (since this information, like what he did at Omdurman, is the irrelevant accretion of nugatory research); nor the college and NFL football history of “General Charles F ‘Chuck’ Wald, the deputy head of the United States European Command, based in Vaihingen, Germany, on the eastern outskirts of Stuttgart,” (so what?) nor the completely unmoored and irrelevant fact of one Malian character, Manny Ansar having a “family name that means ‘defenders.’” (Again, so what?) Sometimes, you find yourself wanting to shout that an author is allowed find something out without necessarily having to shoe-horn it into his book.
Perhaps more important is the journalistic sourcing – almost every reference is to an interview. This of course lends immediacy and in dealing with the immediate past of a still largely oral culture is vital; but there is a sense of much (particularly French) written source material having been unconsulted, and much vital background, like the history of Tuareg revolt and the role of the Algerian intelligence services, having been explored only very lightly, if at all. The same is presumably true of local languages and of Arabic – the first few pages offer the bizarre transliterations of tariq for history and fikh for a legal ruling, which suggests that either author or editor doesn’t know the Arabic alphabet and, worse, didn’t care enought to check.
But hey, it’s a good read and I enjoyed it. Though I still don’t know what was so bad about the librarians’ backsides.