There is a port on the Niger River, in the western Sahara Desert, called Timbuktu. I first got wind of this fabled city in my twenties, when I was traveling through Mali.
People there said that, in centuries past, Timbuktu had been the capital and literary heart of a thriving medieval empire. Generations of scholars and students had flocked to its universities from as far away as Cairo. Even today, hundreds of thousands of precious manuscripts were said to be stored in its famous libraries, where dry desert air and the city’s love of wisdom kept them safe.
“And,” (almost everyone added), “back in the day, a book was worth its weight in gold in Timbuktu.”
I had to see it.
When I finally did, Timbuktu was a faded shadow of its former glory. I rode into town in a sandstorm, bouncing around in an overcrowded truck filled with goats and chickens. I wasn’t on a site-seeing tour. I was traveling Last Class. It was the third year of a very bad drought. People stood by the roadside begging water.
The precious manuscripts were still around, however, passed down over many generations, stored in private homes, in some cases buried in troves beneath the sand to protect them from robbers and from book sharks too, wholesalers intent on buying them up in lots, to re-sell to collectors in Europe.
My stay in Timbuktu was brief, but the spirit of the place and its time-honored love of literature stayed with me. When I returned to the USA a few years later, I started a book company In Bolinas, California named for this fabled place.
Then in April, 2016, the journalist Joshua Hammer wrote his bestselling nonfiction account, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. It tells the true story of how, a few years before, all those manuscripts had miraculously been saved from terrorists and religious fundamentalists — without a single item lost. An inspiring tale, it might have ended very differently except for the efforts of a single Timbuktu resident, a man named Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, and his dedicated network of supporters.
Bibliophiles have never had a better, more daring friend. If you love literature and enjoy a well-reported adventure, you’ll want to read it.
Even before I had finished the book, it moved me to write a poem in Dr. Haidara’s voice—a dramatic monologue, called “The Librarian of Timbuktu.”
In the short video I’ve illustrated a reading of the poem with photos of the manuscripts and the place, to help their story come to life. Please enjoy it and share it.