Joshua Hammer’s Story of The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Abdel-Kader-Haidara Photo by Getty Images
Abdel-Kader-Haidara Photo by Getty Images

Abdel Kader Haidara was a son of a scholar who grew up in an intellectual environment in Timbuktu. He was not a wealthy person. After his father’s death in the early 1980s he inherited the family’s centuries-old manuscript collection.

In the 1980s Abdel Kader Haidara, at the request of the Ahmed Baba Institute, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. He was traveling on camels across the Sahara and on riverboats, going to small villages, to find and purchased these manuscripts. They represented a whole strain of Islam that was moderate; that celebrated culture, diversity, secular ideas, poetry, love, and human beauty.

Restored illustrated Koran from Mali
A detailed view on the illumination of a Koran bought in Fes in 1223.  (Photo by Xavier ROSSI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.)
12th century Koran from Abdel Kader Haidara's private collection Getty Images

12th century Koran from Abdel Kader Haidara’s private collection Getty Images

Gold illuminated Koran Photo by Getty Images
Gold illuminated Koran Photo by Getty Images
Detail of an ancient Arab manuscript from Timbuktu ca. 1223 owned by the Library of the Ahmed Baba Institute of Islamic advanced studies and research.
Detail of an ancient Arab manuscript from Timbuktu ca. 1223 owned by the Library of the Ahmed Baba Institute of Islamic advanced studies and research.

Stephanie Diakité (referred to as Emily Brady in The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer) was an unlikely ally for Timbuktu’s manuscripts. She grew up in Seattle, a deeply intelligent and highly educated woman with short blond hair. On a trip to Timbuktu 20 years ago, she met Haidara and his documents and found a calling: The texts, she says, “do something for me nothing else ever has.” Diakité apprenticed with master bookbinders and has spent her life shuttling back and forth between the United States and Africa, working on conservation projects. When Haidara realized he had to spirit the documents out of Timbuktu, Diakité was the first person he contacted. The two friends spent days in Bamako cafés, sipping tea and devising plans.

Stephanie Diakite, Abdel Kadel Haidara and an elder from one of Mali 's manuscript holding families Photo attributed to Stephanie Diakite
Stephanie Diakite, Abdel Kadel Haidara and an elder from one of Mali ‘s manuscript holding families Photo attributed to Stephanie Diakite

While the Islamists set about imposing their rules in Timbuktu, Haidara and the other librarians undertook one of the greatest cultural evacuations in history: The manuscript collections were secretly packed into metal trunks, loaded onto mule carts, and hidden in private houses and then in the Malian capital, Bamako. In January 2013, 15 jihadis made a bonfire of 4,000 manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute. But by that time many of the jewels of the collection were already in safekeeping.

Almost all of the manuscripts survived the Islamist occupation. About 377,000 of them have been collected under one roof in Bamako, Mali’s capital, where a Minnesota-based foundation run by a Benedictine monk and ancient manuscript expert, Columba Stewart is digitizing them and helping to restore those that are disintegrating. He is very much involved in this, traveling to Bamako on a regular basis.

As for Abdel Kader Haidara, he is hoping that he’ll be able to return these manuscripts to Timbuktu some day, but he’s waiting. Timbuktu is now a ghost town — tourists aren’t going there, flights aren’t going there. It’s very sad. The glory days of Timbuktu may never be recaptured, given the strength of the Islamists — the terrorists in that area, in that part of the world.

 

 

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