The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu

by Charlie English

Hardcover, 2017






The story of how a team of librarians and archivists joined forces to spirit tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts into hiding when al-Qaeda-linked jihadists surged across Mali in 2012, threatening the existence of these precious documents. Relying on extensive research and firsthand reporting, Charlie English expertly twines a fraught and fascinating account of one of the planet's extraordinary places, and the myths from which it has become inseparable. --

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LibraryThing member Opinionated
In 2013, the forces of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb) take Timbuktu and immediately begin to impose their Salafist vision of Islam - one that is at odds with the spiritual, Sufi version that has been the norm in West Africa. The scholars of Timbuktu immediately worry for their vast and unique collection of Islamic and historic manuscripts from Medieval times, one of the few primary sources of West African history. Those worries increase as the jihardists start to smash the mausoleums of Sufi saints

And so begins a remarkable story as brave officials, families and holders of private collections of manuscripts start the dangerous (both to the smugglers and the manuscripts) and time consuming business of hiding some manuscripts and moving others to the relative safety of Bamako, many hundreds of miles away

Interspersed with this Charlie English presents a very knowledgeable but readable history of the exploration of West Africa, with a particular focus on the histiography of the region (ie the history of its history). This is fascinating enough on its own, particularly the chapters on the undoubtedly brave, but equally undoubtedly somewhat foolish, early British explorers, many of whom came to a premature end

So a very entertaining and informative read, which ends on a slightly sour note, as the author starts to doubt his own story and his own conclusions and has the intellectual honesty to present those doubts. Doubts that are very much in line with the vague, swirling, illusory history of Timbuktu itself
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