Author tells of jihad, conquest and priceless manuscripts at Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society gathering

In 2012, under the radar of many Western countries, armed jihadis - some affiliated with Al Qaeda - took over a large swath of Mali, which borders Algeria and Mauritania in northern Africa.

Along with its toll on the country’s residents, the terrorist occupation of Mali also put at risk a valuable historical resource - hundreds of thousands of precious, handwritten and illuminated manuscripts, containing ancient wisdom on all manner of subjects, from religion to science to art. The jihadis, who were known to destroy ancient temples and artifacts, threatened at one point in the occupation to burn the manuscripts.

Determined to protect the manuscripts of Timbuktu, one of Mali’s major cities, a group of librarians and literature lovers risked their lives to protect the hand-written tomes, smuggling them out of the repositories where they resided and secreting them in trunks and foot-lockers in a series of safe-houses. In one particularly hazardous operation, the rescuers transported the trunks in small boats on the Niger River.

The story of how the manuscripts were saved from destruction at the hands of terrorists is detailed in “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu,” by Joshua Hammer, who was the featured speaker at the January meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar.

The book was published by Simon & Schuster in 2016.

In the book’s prologue, Hammer describes how a young librarian was accosted by armed jihadis at a checkpoint, his four-wheel drive filled with precious cargo: “He cast a glance at the rear compartment. There, covered with blankets, lay five padlocked steamer trunks, each one filled with treasure: hundreds of illuminated manuscripts, including some from the 15th and 16th centuries, the Golden Age of Timbuktu. 

Encased in goatskin covers with inlaid semiprecious stones, they were gorgeous works composed by the most skillful scribes of the era, fragile pages covered with dense calligraphy and complex geometrical designs in a multitude of colors. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist group that had seized the north of the country four months earlier, had several times vowed on television and radio to respect them, but few in the city believed their promises.

The extremists had declared jihad against anyone and anything that challenged their vision of a pure Islamic society, and these artifacts - treatises about logic, astrology, and medicine, paeans to music, poems idealizing romantic love - represented 500 years of human joy. They celebrated the sensual and the secular, and they bore the explicit message that humanity, as well as God, was capable of creating beauty. They were monumentally subversive. And there were thousands of manuscripts just like these hidden in safe houses in Timbuktu.”

Hammer, a former Newsweek bureau chief for Africa, who now writes as a freelancer for Smithsonian and Outside magazines, said he first learned of the manuscripts of Timbuktu while researching an article in the mid-2000s. Over the years, he kept in touch with Abdel Kader Haidara, the architect of the manuscript rescue effort, and he returned to Mali in 2013 as the French Army drove out the terrorists.

The book, along with providing fascinating details about the manuscripts and the rescue operation, also provides a portrait of three central jihadist leaders.

“I felt people would want to know a bit about these guys,” said Hammer in an interview before his talk at the literary society.

While many of the terrorists met with violent ends, some survived to go on and fight with ISIS, Hammer said.

“After they were driven out by the French, they made it to the next jihad hot spot,” he said.

The manuscripts remain in Bamako, in southern Mali, the country’s capital, said Hammer, while Mali’s once thriving tourist trade has dried up to “zero.”

In the book, Hammer also conveyed his appreciation for the local culture, including desert blues music festivals that once drew such rock luminaries as Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and U2’s Bono.

“Mali, of all those countries in the Sahel (region of Africa) does seem to be this hotbed of art and music and literature, and it’s been that way for 600 years or longer,” he said.

Hammer, who lives in Berlin with his family, is now thinking about his next book, which may be set in America, and has also been approached by a London-based film producer who wants to make a docu-drama about “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.”

“I think it’s doable,” he said of the film project.

Hammer’s book, “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu,” is available on amazon.com.

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