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Public Lecture Series with Josh Hammer

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu:
On the Road in Mali

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is about a team of bibliophiles who pulled off one of the great smuggling operations of all time - moving 377,000 medieval Arabic manuscripts to safety from under the noses of Al Qaeda occupiers.

Beginning with a freelance Smithsonian magazine assignment in 2006, Hammer went to Timbuktu to investigate reports about an effort underway to collect and restore works from Timbuktu’s Golden Age – the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – that had been dispersed over the centuries and allowed to disintegrate through neglect. In a sandy alley near the Sankoré Mosque, he met Abdel Kader Haidara, the charismatic, forty-two year old librarian who had initiated the operation. Spending five days with Haidara and other collectors, poring through crumbling manuscripts in storage rooms, bouncing over the Saharan sands to tiny libraries in Tuareg villages, marveling at the intricate calligraphy, gold leaf, and colorful designs that had somehow survived through the centuries.

Over the next decade, he made half a dozen more trips to northern Mali—riding camels through the Sahara, attending “The Festival in the Desert,” a three-day concert held in an oasis thirty miles from Timbuktu, floating down the Niger River, and watching Timbuktu’s rebirth as a cultural and literary center. In 2012, when jihadi forces swept across Mali and captured 2/3 of the country, he followed the events closely, and, nine months later joined French forces during Operation Serval—their lightning campaign that destroyed the jihadist army and liberated Timbuktu and the rest of the north.

It was during that period that he learned that the manuscripts had survived the upheaval and were safely ensconced in storage rooms in the capital, Bamako – thanks to the remarkable efforts of Haidara and his team of smugglers. A magazine article for Smithsonian soon followed, which led to the book project – sending him back to Mali two more times to piece together the story of the jihadist occupation and the role played by the “Bad-Ass Librarians.” With commercial air traffic shut down and the desert still populated by jihadist stragglers, he was forced to travel to Timbuktu by road and river, risky journeys that could easily have resulted in kidnapping. (At the time, about a dozen Western hostages were still languishing in jihadist camps in the desert.) Poorly disguised both times as a Tuareg nomad, he traveled as a passenger in a Land Rover over deserted bush tracks and then ferried across the river to Timbuktu. These journeys were fraught with danger but necessary to write his book.



Born and raised in New York, Hammer is a graduate of Princeton University. As the son of a reporter, journalism and a taste for adventure have always been in his blood. He taught and freelanced in Asia, landed at Newsweek as a business/media reporter, and in 1992 became the magazine’s Nairobi Bureau Chief. He spent four years roaming Africa covering the genocide in Rwanda, the first democratic elections in South Africa, and other epochal events, and continued his career as Newsweek Bureau Chief in Buenos Aires, Berlin, Jerusalem, and Cape Town.

In 2006 he became a freelance writer, based in Berlin, writing books and contributing narratives to a long list of publications. He was a finalist for the National Magazine Award for reporting in 2003 for a series of Newsweek pieces about the Second Intifada, and won the award in 2016 for a piece about the life and death of a Sierra Leonian epidemiologist on the front lines of the Ebola contagion. He is currently working on his fifth book of non-fiction, titled “The Falcon Thief,” about one of the world’s most daring and prolific wildlife smugglers and the canny British detective who brought him down. The reporting is taking him around the world, from Abdu Dhabi to Zimbabwe to Tierra Del Fuego; the book is scheduled to be published in 2019.

Date: Monday, March 26

Time: 6:00 pm Reception, 7:00 pm Lecture

Location: Club Headquarters, 46 E 70th Street, New York, NY, 10021

Member Ticket Price: $10

Guest Ticket Price: $25

Student Ticket Price: $5 with a valid ID

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