Last review of the year, here we go.
Not counting the epilogue, this book runs 227 pages. The first and last 50 pages contain some genuine bad-ass librarianism. The middle 100 pages are the political history of the region, which is relevant and good info to know, but seems to be a separate narrative (non-fictional, but still a different story). If you title a book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, most of the book should be about that. This is the problem with the book. The history of the terrorism and varieties of Islam in the middle is good relevant information to have in this day and age, but it’s almost never tied to the librarians until the last 50 pages; they’re 2 distinct pieces that relate to each other but need to be more directly connected if they’re going to successfully combine into a single book.
The middle half of the book follows the rise of 3 key men who are now known mostly as leaders of terrorist organizations with connections to groups like Al Qaeda: Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Iyad Ag Ghali. If you don’t know the history of Islam and how the areas in north Africa where the book focuses were taken over then taken back from extremist groups, then this section is really interesting. The problem is, that it has very little to do with the manuscript libraries until near the end of the middle of the book.
The frame, 50 or so pages on either side tells the titular story of the manuscript libraries being created, maintained, guarded, and then smuggled out of the Timbuktu area. This area (and I didn’t know this beforehand) was home to a lot of medieval manuscripts of most any subject you can think of, many kept by families. They were eventually collected into libraries. These libraries were largely the work of Ahmed Baba Institute and Abdel Kader Haidara mostly in the 1980s and 1990s; this is librarian-ing part 1 The secular content and some of the religion in the manuscripts was not in accordance with the Islam that men like Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Iyad Ag Ghali promoted, so when their groups started taking over areas closer and closer to the libraries, Haidara along with friends and family had to try and smuggle the books to a safe location, so they (both books and people) wouldn’t get destroyed; that’s the bad-ass librarian-ing (part 2). The smuggling was largely successful, and also required the first real cataloging of the collections. It would have been nice to have more detail about the cataloging because there’s a reference to how amazed Haidara was to know exactly what all he had.
Overall, the opening and ending meet the expectations you might have about a book with this title. The middle is interesting, but disconnected. This really should have 2 books, so that other details and information about their respective subjects could have been filled in.