When I was in middle school, I had a teacher who took it upon herself to teach us the practical things in life. While studying Africa in our world history class, she made sure that we learned where Timbuktu was located in western Africa. “Now,” she explained, “when you mother says she’s going to send you to Timbuktu, you know where it is.”
Last summer, I was getting ready to move to Edinburgh and start my masters program in Book History and Material Culture. Nobody was really sure of what that meant, not the least my family. The question “What do you plan on doing with that?” hung unasked in the air, everyone knowing I was going to go whether or not there were job prospects attached to that particular discipline. I was sitting on the couch one day, doing anything at all to avoid packing (I harbor a special dislike of packing that borders on hysteria). Trolling around the internet, I found a story from National Geographic about librarians in Timbuktu. That being right up my alley, I clicked on the link. The story told about a group of librarians in the Malian city of Timbuktu, who had smuggled hundreds of thousands of manuscripts out of the city when it was occupied by al-Qaeda forces in 2012. I remember showing it to my dad and saying, “This is what I want to do. I want to be Indiana Jones.”
I found The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures by Charlie English on my most recent trip to London. I wasn’t kidding when I told my dad I want to be Indiana Jones – it’s a very real ambition of mine, and I love adventure stories. When I saw that title sitting on the shelf in the bookstore, I didn’t want to buy it so much as I would have regretted it forever if I hadn’t bought it. I then lugged it all the way back to Edinburgh (I’d bought a hardcover copy, which took up too much space in my bag), and saved it for the flight I was taking back to the US a few weeks later. I wanted to be able to sit down and read it all in one go, which is pretty much what ended up happening.
Charlie English does something quite interesting with this book. He interweaves two stories: that of the white man’s quest to ‘discover’ Timbuktu, which had become a sort of African version of El Dorado, and that of Abdel Kader Haidara, a keeper of manuscripts in modern-day Timbuktu. The result is a mixture of a good, old-fashioned adventure story and that of a regular daredevil taking it upon himself to save the cultural heritage of his people.
While Europe was going through the ‘dark ages’ of the medieval period, Timbuktu was flourishing as a center of learning and education. It was a major trading town on the edge of the Sahara, and many caravans would come through Timbuktu on their routes. Along with these caravans came wealth and prosperity, which in turn heralded an academic golden age. Some of the best minds of the Arabic world found their way to Timbuktu, and those that didn’t make it there physically arrived in the forms of their writings. This wealth of both gold and intellect made Timbuktu an object of desire for colonization-happy Europeans, who organized expedition after expedition to ‘discover’ the city. It should be noted that Timbuktu was never really lost, and the people who lived and traded in that area all knew exactly where it was. As so often happens with these great exploration stories, it was only the Europeans who were having trouble getting there.
Those manuscripts (hand-written texts) which played such an important part of the intellectual and cultural life of Timbuktu were not housed in libraries per se, but rather with families, who would then pass their collections on to their children. This system remained in place until 2012, when al-Qaeda invaded Mali hoping to establish a strict Islamic theocracy in northern Africa. It’s fairly common knowledge that one of the first things that terrorists go after in a new place is the library, because that’s the spot where people learn to think for themselves and are first exposed to the benefits of diversity. The manuscripts of Timbuktu had some luck in that, while many were housed in libraries, many were also in family homes. Not only that, but most of the occupiers were illiterate, meaning they couldn’t read the texts to decided whether or not they were heretical (their illiteracy also led to the sending of one of the most haunting text messages, so far as the keepers of cultural heritage are concerned – you’ll have to read the book to find out about that one). The manuscripts also had the protection of the local librarians, who did whatever they could to keep them safe, including risking their lives smuggling them out of Timbuktu and into safer locales.
English does an excellent job pulling those two stories together and making them come alive. Perhaps even more impressive is his ability to remain grounded in fact. It would be easy to get caught up in the swashbuckling nature of this project, lauding Haidara and his compatriots without questioning a thing. However, as English points out toward the end of the book, there was a massive amount of controversy surrounding the evacuation of books from Timbuktu and how it was organized and executed. He makes sure to bring these points to light and to provide both sides of the discussion, and he doesn’t get carried away in either direction, leaving the reader to decide for themselves whether the mission was as important as Abdel Kader Haidara claims.