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The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu

I saw this today on the NPR Books section, and as one great admirer of librarians, I wanted to share it with you. These librarians are my kind of badass! They are providing a service to humanity.

Timbuktu’s ‘Badass Librarians’: Checking Out Books Under Al-Qaida’s Nose

 
Handout picture dated 1997 and released in 2012 by the UN shows ancient manuscripts displayed at the library in the city of Timbuktu. Al-Qaeda has destroyed ancient texts it considers idolatrous.

Handout picture dated 1997 and released in 2012 by the UN shows ancient manuscripts displayed at the library in the city of Timbuktu. Al-Qaeda has destroyed ancient texts it considers idolatrous.

Evan Schneider/AFP/Getty Images

For hundreds of years, Timbuktu has had a place in the world’s imagination. Located on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, the city flourished as a center of Islamic culture and scholarship in the 13th through 16th centuries. It was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988, recognized for the University of Sankore, which had as many as 25,000 students who studied the Quran, as well as the historic Djingareyber and Sidi Yahia mosques.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

by Joshua Hammer

Timbuktu was a center of the manuscript trade, with traders bringing Islamic texts from all over the Muslim world. Despite occupations and invasions of all kinds since then, scholars managed to preserve and even restore hundreds of thousands of manuscripts dating from the 13th century.

But that changed when militant Islamists backed by al-Qaida arrived in 2012. The hardline Islamists didn’t see these texts as part of their Islamic heritage, but as idolatry, contradicting their interpretation of Islam. They set about destroying important cultural icons, including 15th-century mausoleums of Sufi Muslim saints. Librarians feared the city’s prized medieval collections of manuscripts would be next.

Librarian Abdel Kader Haidara organized and oversaw a secret plot to smuggle 350,000 medieval manuscripts out of Timbuktu. Joshua Hammer chronicled Haidara’s story in the book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Hammer spoke with NPR’s Michel Martin about how a librarian became an “operator.”

 


Interview Highlights

Why these manuscripts were so important

These volumes — and we’re talking hundreds of thousands of them — at the point at which al-Qaida invaded Timbuktu, there were something like 370,000 manuscripts amassed in libraries in Timbuktu. And they portrayed Islam as practiced in this corner of the world as a blend of the secular and the religious — or they showed that the two could coexist beautifully. And they did in this city.

So it was tremendously important for Haidara and those who supported him to protect and preserve these manuscripts as evidence of both Mali’s former greatness and the tolerance that that form of Islam encouraged.

On Abdel Kader Haidara’s background

Abdel Kader Haidara was a son of a scholar and he 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.

So in 1984 the head of the Ahmed Baba Institute, the government-owned library in Timbuktu, called on Haidara and said, “Hey, we’re having trouble getting off the ground, we need to find manuscripts. We know they’re out there, they’re hidden away in the desert, in river towns. Can you undertake this job of traveling around northern Mali, tracking down these manuscripts that have been lost — buried, disappeared — over generations? Gather them up, we’ll give you money. And we want this library to be splendid. We want this to be something that people from all around the world will come to visit. So go out, do your best, find books for us.”

He was reluctant at first, but the call of duty and the curator’s constant pressure prevailed. And in 1984 he began this what turned into a 12-year really amazing quest to ferret out these manuscripts all across Mali.

How Libya changed Mali

In 2011, the Arab Spring breaks out. Gadhafi’s downfall, the arsenals of Libya — in the chaos of Gadhafi’s murder and the disintegration of the Libyan state — are opened for the taking. Then you’ve got these various rebel groups in Mali. You’ve got Islamic radicals all descending on Libya — on these arsenals. Walking in, loading up their pickup trucks with heavy weaponry, driving through the dust across the desert back to Mali. And so these heavily armed rebels sweep across the desert and in three months have captured two-thirds of the country.

Why he decided to do what he did

The first thing that Abdel Kader was worried about, frankly, was looting. In the first few days after the rebels took over Timbuktu and the army and the police had fled, there was total disorder. That’s when he kind of began to scheme — “Hey, the great treasures of Timbuktu are being held in these very ostentatious libraries.” He said, “These are going to be targets.”

The looting subsided pretty quickly. But as it subsided, you had this growing radicalism, you had Islamic police roaring through the streets, stopping people, throwing them in jail, grabbing cigarettes out of their mouths, whipping them in public. He just foresaw that this was going to get worse, and that the manuscripts, which as we already said expressed values that were anathema to fundamentalist Islam — to Wahhabi Islam — were in danger. That sooner or later, these manuscripts are going to be held hostage. They’re going to become political tools, they could be destroyed in an act of vengeance, caught up in military action. We’ve got to protect them.

So that’s when Abdel Kader and a small group of his supporters, friends, relatives got together and began what ended up being a three-stage effort to protect, and essentially smuggle to safety, all of these manuscripts.

Becoming a ‘badass’

Let’s remember that Abdel Kader was more than a librarian, this guy had spent 12 years as a badass explorer, as an adventurer. He was traveling on camels across the Sahara, on riverboats, going to small villages, finding these manuscripts. So he was an operator. So when the time came, he just knew what to do.

He said, “The first thing we’re going to do is get them out of these big libraries. We’re going to take trunks, we’re going to pack them into trunks at night when the rebels are asleep. And then we’re going to move them in the dead of night by mule cart to these various houses — safe houses, scattered around the city. We’re going to stick them in there and hopefully they’ll be safe for the duration of this occupation.” Which of course, nobody knew when that was going to end.

Why it’s important

One of the things that I think is important to draw from it is to realize that there is this whole strain of Islam that is moderate, that celebrates intellectuality, that celebrates culture, that celebrates diversity, secular ideas, poetry, love, human beauty. I think that is lost in this debate that’s going on. We tend to really kind of turn against Islam because of the actions of this particularly violent group.

But I think in fact that the Islam represented by those in Timbuktu and the badass librarians is in fact more representative of what Islam is. And these people [who] were the real victims of extremism in this part of the world are fellow Muslims. They were the ones who really suffered. They were the ones who had their hands and feet chopped off, who had to live through the horror of daily occupation.

For the most part, we see this from afar, but these people are on the front lines and they are living through the horror of radicalism every day and every minute.

Where the manuscripts are now

He hopes that he’ll be able to return them to Timbuktu. They are in about a dozen climate-controlled storage rooms in Bamako, the capital of Mali. And as far as moving them back, he’s waiting. I mean, these are very hard people to root out. But Timbuktu is a ghost town — tourists aren’t going there, flights aren’t going there. It’s very sad. And I don’t know and he doesn’t know if those glory days can ever be recaptured, given the strength of the Islamists — the terrorists in that area, in that part of the world.

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April 28, 2016 Posted by | Adventure, Africa, Arts & Handicrafts, Beauty, Books, Bureaucracy, Character, Community, Counter-terrorism, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Customer Service, Education, ExPat Life, Faith, Free Speech, Living Conditions, Quality of Life Issues, Work Related Issues | , , | Leave a comment

“You Shall Love the Alien as Yourself”

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One of the disciplines available to those of the Episcopal faith is the reading of the Lectionary. Every day of the year are short readings from the Psalms, Old Testament, New Testament and Gospels. Every three year the cycle repeats itself. There are also additional readings on the “Saints” or remarkable people who have served God and his church.

Leviticus is not my favorite chapter, but today, I love Leviticus. As if the words were freshly spoken, I read Leviticus 19: 33-34:

33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

There are many references to the alien in the Bible, one of the earliest being Father Abraham, who is told to leave (what is now the current Iraq) and head for Canaan. When he arrives, peacefully, the local tribes are kind to him. They are good neighbors. Later, when Moses kills an Egyptian and flees to the desert tribes, he describes himself as “a stranger in a strange land.”

It’s who we are. It’s what our book tells us. We are to welcome the stranger. We are to leave wheat in the edges of our fields (yesterday’s reading) that he might not starve. We are not to oppress the alien, nor put up walls to fence them out. We are all aliens on this earth; waiting for the glory of the heavenly kingdom where we belong.

April 28, 2016 Posted by | Civility, Community, Cross Cultural, Cultural, ExPat Life, Faith, Interconnected, Lectionary Readings, Living Conditions, Political Issues, Quality of Life Issues, Relationships, Social Issues, Work Related Issues | , , | Leave a comment

Sunset Cruise, Dolphin Cruise and Moonlight Cruise in Destin

It was our house guests’ last night in our area, and we wanted to do something special and memorable with them, so we booked on Olin Marler’s Sunset Cruise out of Destin. We found this trip several years ago, and while our guests enjoy it, we do, too!

 

It is mid-season in Destin. The Spring Break craziness has just ended, and the Summer Madness has not yet begun. A boat for forty holds ten of us tonight, plus the crew, and the crew knock themselves out to show us a good time.

 

We had a gorgeous sunset, with dolphins

SunsetDolphins

We had a whole bunch of dolphins, grown ones and little ones, and they were having a great time. They stuck around, and we watched for about half an hour, no other boats in sight.

DolphinsPlaying

As we were leaving, the full moon rose and gave us a glorious ride home:

MoonightOverDestin

We can’t promise future house guests this experience. We’ve never had it this good. Maybe our guests brought this good luck?

April 23, 2016 Posted by | Adventure, Beauty, Cultural, Customer Service, Entertainment, Florida, Friends & Friendship, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Photos, Qatar, Quality of Life Issues, Wildlife | | 2 Comments

The Carolina Wrens

Several months ago, we noticed a wren flying close to our house, flying out, flying back, flying out, flying back, and she was always carrying something.

 

“I think she might be building a nest in our watering can,” I told AdventureMan. He checked the can, and sure enough, it was full of little straw and twigs and pieces of string. Her mate showed up, also bringing strings and twigs and grass clippings.

 

Weeks went by, and we enjoyed their company. We gave the plenty of space.

 

CarolinaWrenBabies

 

We had houseguests, and as we were about to leave one day,  AdventureMan spotted four tiny little wrens, trying their wings for the first time. He quickly snapped a shot with his iPhone of the two not yet flying. It is a good thing; by the next day, they were gone. We were just so thankful we got to see them, and our house guests got to see them, too!

 

What fun! We hope they will come back and nest with us again next year!

April 23, 2016 Posted by | Birds, Circle of Life and Death, Environment, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Florida, Gardens, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Pensacola, Qatar, Quality of Life Issues | , | Leave a comment