The tale of a devoted collector of manuscripts who outwitted militant jihadis.
Throughout Timbuktu’s tumultuous history, writes Hammer (Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire that Helped Forge the Path to World War II, 2006, etc.), the city “seemed to be in a constant state of flux, periods of openness and liberalism followed by waves of intolerance and repression” involving the killing of scholars in the 1300s, the banishment and imprisonment of Jews in the 1490s, and the implementation of Sharia law in the 1800s. In this vivid, fast-paced narrative, the author recounts another period of devastating repression when extremists took over the city in 2012, threatening both inhabitants and Mali’s cultural heritage. As a former bureau chief for Newsweek and current contributing editor to Smithsonian and Outside, Hammer draws on many—often dangerous—visits to the city and interviews with major players to chronicle the efforts of Abdel Kader Haidara to save priceless literary and historical manuscripts. Since the 1980s, working for Mali’s Ahmed Baba Institute, Haidara traveled by camel, canoe, and on foot, crossing perilous terrain, to acquire ancient manuscripts that had been hidden for safekeeping, sometimes in caves or holes in the ground. Some had decayed to dust or been eaten by termites, but in Mali’s dry climate, many thousands had been preserved. After nearly a decade at the institute, he had collected 16,500 manuscripts. Eventually, he amassed hundreds of thousands. As Hammer portrays him, Haidara was tireless, ingenious, and single-minded. Besides recounting Haidara’s efforts as collector, fundraiser, library builder, and publicist, Hammer conveys in palpable detail the rise and radicalization of al-Qaida militants. By 2006, Timbuktu had evolved into a modern city, with five hotels catering to growing tourism and three Internet cafes. Six years later, hundreds of extremists took over, arresting, executing, holding foreign hostages for exorbitant ransoms, and determined to purge the city of music, art, and literature.
A chilling portrait of a country under siege and one man’s defiance.