Timbuktu, a city in arid northern Mali, once stood as a great center of learning, culture, and scholarship. From the 13th century to the 17th century, Timbuktu attracted students, writers, poets, scientists, and theologians from across the Islamic world. Manuscripts were collected in the city and were treasured possessions passed down in families across generations and centuries. These manuscripts explored every imaginable topic including astronomy, medicine, jurisprudence, and romantic poetry. Most of this literature was written in ornate Arabic script but also in the local and regional African dialects and languages.
Joshua Hammer, a veteran journalist, beautifully describes this Timbuktu and its culture, the attempts to develop the city into a contemporary center of learning, and then the city’s violent assault by Islamic forces in The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Admittedly, the title sounds juvenile and will surely become dated in a few years, but I imagine that an editor or a marketing executive imposed the title on Hammer’s book. Title choices aside, Hammer constructs a wonderful narrative and builds a great sense of drama. This is non-fiction writing at its best.