Book review: The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English

by Linda Herrick / 15 June, 2017

A book about the history of Timbuktu is full of extreme derring-do tales.

By the early 1800s, rumours of a fabulous sub-Saharan city called Timbuktu had circulated in Europe for centuries, but all efforts to find it had failed.

But in 1825, a “death or glory” British army major, Alexander Laing, formed a small party and rode from Tripoli into the heat of the Sahara. He had no doubt about his abilities, describing himself as “a man of enterprise and genius”.

He made good progress, but then he was betrayed by his guide and attacked by Tuareg tribesmen. Amazingly, Laing survived, despite sustaining deep sabre cuts all over his body, and staggered on, reaching Timbuktu in August 1826. Then, Charlie English writes, “Laing went quiet”. He sent one short letter saying he had searched “the records in the town”, before vanishing.

English was working as the international news editor at the Guardian when Al Qaeda overtook Timbuktu and began burning its ancient monuments, including tombs and a library filled with medieval books.

Then the news broke: thousands of manuscripts had been smuggled to safety under the noses of the jihadists by the city’s librarians.

What a story! English quit his job, and set out to write a book that would explore the history of Timbuktu and the efforts of Europeans to find it, paralleled by the contemporary story of the manuscripts.

Both storylines are equally enthralling and, at times, murky.

English’s book follows 2016’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by American journalist Joshua Hammer, a gung-ho account of the rescue of the manuscripts.

English points out, “Timbuktu’s story is in perpetual motion, swinging back and forth between competing poles of myth and reality.”

With a journalist’s gift for snappy chapter headings like “Hell Is Not Far Away”, “A Headless Horseman” and “An Indiana Jones Moment In Real Life!”, English charges through the dual narrative with alacrity, marshalling an astounding array of characters and events.

The derring-do historic tales are extreme, involving slavery, racism, colonial rivalries, mass murder, disease and starvation.

Many explorers’ fates are signed off as “never seen again”, “jumped into the river, where they all drowned” or “then, like so many before, he disappeared”.

The contemporary story of the manuscripts is also deftly handled, centring around librarian Abdel Kader Haidara, who led the efforts to spirit the documents away to the more stable south of Mali.

It didn’t come cheap. Haidara and his colleagues received millions of dollars from Unesco and supportive governments (of the Netherlands, France, Germany and South Africa), all the while begging for media secrecy.

English made every effort to fact-check Haidara’s claims about the numbers of documents saved, which ranged up to 400,000. In 2015, as he pressed Haidara face-to-face on the figures, including the number of boats, taxis and couriers used in the operation, English notes that the librarian’s answers slipped from an assertive “yes” to more of a “hmmm”.

Eventually, English’s questioning proved too much for the learned librarian. “You have to have trust,” he said, his voice rising. “You are accusing me of being a thief!”

Whatever happened, English concludes, “this modern-day folk tale … was all the more powerful for being built around a kernel of truth, just as the more glorious legends of the city’s past were.”Al Qaeda is still active in Mali to this day.

THE BOOK SMUGGLERS OF TIMBUKTU, by Charlie English (William Collins $36.99)

This article was first published in the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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