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Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts
Narrated by: Paul Boehmer
Length: 9 hrs and 2 mins
4 out of 5 stars (301 ratings)
Regular price: $24.95
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Publisher's Summary

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, 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. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world's greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.

Over the past 20 years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara's heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali's - and the world's - literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city's manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants' march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.

©2016 Joshua Hammer. Recorded by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc. (P)2016 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books

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  • Jan
  • MKE
  • 05-09-16

Extraordinary archivist

I missed this book on a Goodreads Giveaway, but I caught up with it as Whispersync on the cheap courtesy of BookGorilla. It combines histories of North Africa (especially Mali), Islam, religious scrolls and the people who have been protecting them, and so much more. The title's catchy, but it ought to be Bad-a$$ Archivists, I think. One man made it his life's work to gather and protect scrolls from everywhere he could, despite extremists and other crazies. It is a very involved and often tense tale, but also written with a detail and sensitivity that makes it riveting. There is much to be learned here, and we all hope for positive change.
Paul Boehmer is a fine audio performer and brings so much to life with his talents.

11 of 11 people found this review helpful

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It seemed like a good idea at the time

I couldn't stand the narrator. He put a strong emphasis on vowel sounds that quickly became grating. The book itself might have been good, I can't say. I really struggled to keep listening, but realized that my brain was only paying attention to the pronunciation, and gave up.

9 of 9 people found this review helpful

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Great Story told laboriously.

I was familiar with the events surrounding this story and eager to learn more. Even as a fan of nonfiction and history, I almost abandoned this book several times. This story is better suited to a long magazine feature. The writing is dry and fails to capture the nuanced characters who collaborated to save the manuscripts of Timbuktu.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Narration is monotonous - like Google navigation

Would you try another book from Joshua Hammer and/or Paul Boehmer?

I am only on Chapter 2, but I will have to listen to it again because I have no idea what I just heard. The staccato narration makes it hard to focus on the meaning of the words spoken. This could be the most fascinating book...but I'll probably not be able to stick through it long enough to know!

How would you have changed the story to make it more enjoyable?

different narrator

Who would you have cast as narrator instead of Paul Boehmer?

anyone

If you could play editor, what scene or scenes would you have cut from Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu?

idk

Any additional comments?

not so far

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Chaotic explosion of story lines and characters

Any additional comments?

You can tell that the author put an incredible amount of research into the book but in the process lost sight of the real story. I had an incredibly hard time following the characters and story line because it was all over the place and I wasn't clear on how it all tied together. Overall, the narration and story line were a mess making it pretty unbearable.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Good book - bad speaker

I think this is an important book to read because it gives a preview of what it would be like to live under Sharia law...my main criticism of this audio version is the speaker. He has an energetic voice but it is maddening to hear him put the wrong emphasis on certain syllables or hear him pause in the wrong places. It does not sound professional and is very maddening.
I also criticize the writers simplistic sentence structure. The subject matter of the book is very informative and should be read widely in spite of the simplistic writing style.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating

A wonderful Rick weaving of the cultural history of the Timbuktu region, a chilling view of the rise and subsiding of Al Qaeda in the area, and the courageous work of saving the ancient folios containing Timbuktu's history.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Henry
  • EUGENE, OREGON, United States
  • 08-02-18

Bad-Ass Librarians Do Exist

Some time ago a friend of mine shared her upcoming reading list for her book club with me. As I looked through the list, one title jumped out at me from the page: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer. The title intrigued me. I’ve been shushed by more than one librarian as I made my way through school. However, I cannot think of any silent stair or waggling of the finger that would’ve led me to think of them as bad-ass librarians. The next thing that intrigued me was Timbuktu. I knew that it was in Mali in West Africa and I that it had been linked with the salt trade throughout West Africa for millennia. However, I would never in a million years have associated it with a library. Perhaps this was something new. Maybe a bold plan to create a lending library using camel caravans to circulate the bestselling books in Lagos or Cairo to senior living villages deep in the Saharan desert. In any event, I needed to read this book. The second part of the title was: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts. I clearly didn’t know anything about the manuscripts, precious or not. However I’ve been in the desert and it’s hard to imagine racing to do anything. When it’s hot you slow down and take it easy. So, what would cause a librarian to race? Now let’s think about precious. When I think of the world’s most precious manuscripts I think of Johann Gutenberg’s Bible or John James Audubon's Birds of America. I do not think of West African manuscripts. If we were talking Egypt or Nubia that would be different. Over time we have discovered troves of early Egyptian and Christian writings hidden away in the desert. Such findings are rare, and the manuscripts are often in danger of becoming dust before they could even be digitized. What sort of manuscripts could one find if one traveled halfway across the world to Timbuktu? The book starts with the passing of the duties of the family librarian from Mamma Haidara to his son Abdel Kader Haidara. That’s fascinating, a family library. Perhaps they were a family of scholars and they had collected some manuscripts over time. While that turns out to be true, the even more amazing truth is that they were just one family out of thousands who had amassed a sizeable library. Where did the manuscripts come from? The book reveals that they were often the creation of West African scholars, poets, and philosophers. Some were copies of prized works like the Koran. Some were 500 years old. Now let that origin and the age of these manuscript sink in. I can remember reading books about Africa that depicted most of the continent outside of Egypt as backward, ignorant, without sophistication, and of little to show for millennia of existence. Abdel Kader Haidara’s family library alone shatters this myth with in your face evidence of nuanced, imaginative, critical thinking set down on manuscripts that in many cases were equal parts art and scholarly thought. The existence of even a few of these works is cause for literary joy, the reality that there are hundreds of thousands of such manuscripts shatters the European myth of African inferiority. Conceding that the manuscripts are precious, it’s clear that Haidara’s efforts to preserve them is laudable. But with a change in the political winds in Mali these manuscripts were about to need protection not from termites but from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The MNLA took control of Timbuktu in 2012 and immediately imposed a very strict version of Sharia law. Now the very presence of the manuscripts placed Haidara and every other family librarian in grave personal danger. The MNLA leadership had beheaded tourists simply because their governments hadn’t paid their ransom. The manuscripts were far more dangerous. What makes a manuscript dangerous? Certainly, age and rarity can make any book valuable, but only its content can make it dangerous. Consider Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. Not long after it was published in 1988 he had to go into hiding to save his life. Why, because some Muslims accused Rushdie of blasphemy or unbelief. Then in 1989 the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. As we learn from the book, the MNLA had their own Imams and could issue similarly fatal fatwas. Therefore, content matters, and religious manuscripts that contained wrong thinking could get you killed. The book tells how this became a life and death matter to Abdel Kader Haidara who publicly displays his families works and is entrusted with the safe keeping of thousands of other family’s treasures. If the danger doesn’t jump right out at you consider the events in Palmyra Syria in 2015. After the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) occupied Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they set about destroying priceless antiquities with brazen hostility for worldwide condemnation of their actions. When they summoned Khaled al-Asaad the Syrian archaeologist and the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra and demanded that he reveal the hiding place of the antiquities he was protecting he refused their demands. For his bravery and service to the world ISIS publicly beheaded him. While these horrid events were still a few years into the future at the time of the Jihadi occupation of Timbuktu, this book reveals that Haidara and those who helped him move and hide the manuscripts were hyper aware that they could each suffer the same fate. So, let’s wrap up this review with the race. The MNLA occupation of Northern Mali was settling in on Timbuktu like a heavy wooden yoke. With each passing day the Jihadi occupiers imposed ever greater controls and extracted ever more sever punishments from their captive population. Then after a falling out with their Tuareg allies the Jihadi quickly removed all constraints on their imposition of sharia law as they defined it. The manuscripts would certainly not pass critical review with this brand of Jihadi. Haidara and those like him who were committed to their preservation had to act fast, had to race against death itself to preserve these precious manuscripts. It’s a race worth reading about. I recommend this book.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • JR
  • 04-16-18

Read it with a map and Google satellite imagery.

The French and Arabic names were well narrated in the audiobook. I needed the context of the geographic relationships, so read the book with a map of Africa and Google satellite maps at hand. An amazing story of people committed to their history and legacy.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Truly bad-ass librarians, and a great adventure

Timbuktu is a city with a storied history, and one lesser-known piece of that history is that twice during the Middle Ages it was the center of a flowering of education and scholarship. In the 1980s, a young man named Abdel Kader Haidara, a collector for a government library, traveled the Sahara Desert and the Niger River, collecting ancient Arabic manuscripts, both religious and secular, rescuing them from decay and destruction, and bringing them back for preservation. This part of the story include some amazing adventures in itself. But there's more.

Haidara over the years matured into a mild-mannered archivist and historian, along with marrying and raising a family. Then in 2012, Al Qaeda militants seized control of Mali, including Timbuktu, and the marvelous collection and the scholarship around it was in danger of being destroyed.

At first Al Qaeda leaders were outwardly respectful of the collection and its value, but as their grip tightened, that didn't last. Priceless manuscripts representing an important part of Mali and the world's literary heritage, was in danger of being destroyed.

Haidara, thirty years after his original adventures, organized a massive smuggling operation, to get that amazing collection of priceless manuscripts out of the country, right under the noses of the Al Qaeda occupiers. No short review can capture how thrilling this story is, or how well Hammer recounts it. Haidara and his crew of scholarly librarians risked their lives and smuggled crates of manuscripts downriver to safety at risk of horrible punishments Al Qaeda imposed on those who violated their version of Sharia law. It's an exciting, amazing, thrilling story, and an exceptional example of the devotion of dedicated librarians to preservation of and access to knowledge.

Highly recommended.

I bought this book.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful