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I got to know a small but lovely independent bookstore this summer, Belmont Books, and one Saturday I spied on their staff picks display Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts. I had heard about the book when it first came out — although clearly I didn’t remember much, as you’ll soon see — and who doesn’t love that title? Not this librarian.

Only it turns out, it’s only partly about the librarians and a good bit about extremist jihadis and their takeover of Mali. I’ll grant that a good bit of the beginning of the book explores Mali’s history and the personal story of the incredible librarian, scholar and conservationist Abdel Kader Haidara. His story and that of the manuscripts of Timbuktu weave throughout the book. But Joshua Hammer also writes in great detail about why the manuscripts needed saving.

Haidara, son of a scholar whose family treasures included a very large collection of medieval manuscripts, was only seventeen when his father died and he was named the heir of the family library. The director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, established by UNESCO and the Malian government in the 70’s, sought Haidara out and asked him to come work for them. At the time, they had only about 2,500 manuscripts in their collection. Nine years later, thanks almost entirely to Haidara’s personal efforts, the collection had grown by 16,500, “one of the largest public collections of Arabic handwritten books in the world.”

Haidara wasn’t done. He went on to establish a private library to house his family’s collection, and he also established Savama-DCI, an organization of other families in Timbuktu with manuscripts. With his own library housing around 50,000 manuscripts, and the growing number of private libraries he had influenced, Haidara had been a huge force in re-establishing Timbuktu as a cultural center, and in reminding the world of the city’s long heritage of scholarship.

All of that is very inspiring. What is amazing is that as Hammer tells readers, Haidara’s hard work had only just begun. Despite these accomplishments and his successful fundraising (many prominent foundations from around the world supported his work and that of his colleagues), the most challenging tasks were still to come.

And this is where I had a harder time reading The Bad-Ass Librarians of  Timbuktu. Hammer spares no grisly details as he describes the rise of radical Islam in the Sahara and the Sahel. I admit part of my discomfort came from realizing that even though I try to pay attention to news from around the world, I don’t recall hearing much about the civil war in Mali and the jihadist takeover of the northern part of the country. And part of my discomfort is because I don’t usually read accounts of brutality as detailed as Hammer’s.

Faced with a growing fear that the jihadis would destroy Timbuktu’s manuscripts, as they had smashed Sufi shrines, broken and burned musical instruments and threatened Mali’s other cultural treasure — musicians — with disfigurement if they continued to play or sing, Haidara, knew he had to do something. So together with an American woman in Mali, known in the book as Emily Brady, he once again raised funds and worked to evacuate the manuscripts. Like the gripping story of his collecting them in the first place, the story of Haidara’s rescue is uplifting and mind-boggling.

They gathered trunks, recruited donkey carts, trucks, and boats, recruited families to hide manuscripts in Timbuktu and then recruited them again, to evacuate the trunks. Despite the dangers and expense, they succeeded. Around 377,000 manuscripts survived. Hammer tells the story well. Just be prepared for a fair bit of geopolitics and out and out horror if you read this book — well written, but hard to stomach.

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I’m off this week, and I am enjoying extra reading time. First, I finished a book the former “Teen the Elder” (longtime bookconscious readers may be surprised to learn he is now in his twenties; take the links to see what he’s up to now) recommended, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. An extended version of a piece Junger wrote for Vanity Fair, this book explores the ways in which human nature is best suited to tribal life. In other words, life in a close knit community where members are committed to looking after each other’s basic needs — food and safety. It’s an interesting book.

Junger isn’t the first to argue that the deep malaise of modern life is caused by the lack of opportunity for most people to be a part of something bigger than themselves. His focus is on the way warfare and disasters bring people together and reduce crime, mental illness, and even suicide in the immediate aftermath.  He also argues that PTSD, which is diagnosed (as well as misdiagnosed) at higher rates in the US than anywhere else, is not necessarily  caused by trauma, but re-entry into society.

“Studies from around the world show that recovery from war — from any trauma — is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to, and there are societies that make that process relatively easy.” A few pages on, Junger continues, ” A modern soldier returning from combat . . . goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society — and they’re nearly miraculous — the individualizes lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”

I couldn’t help but think of something I read recently about pharmaceutical companies pathologizing normal if unpleasant aspects of human existence in order to profit from “curing” them with prescriptions. Junger found that we treat the response to trauma or violence that way too, which “creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.” I don’t think people should just “get over it” and neither does Junger, but I wonder if by making a lot of things our ancestors treated as unfortunate but natural parts of life as maladies that need treatment, we are possibly making things worse?

Junger doesn’t really have a solution in mind; he points out that the current conflict between liberal and conservative views on poverty and social well being in the U.S. are actually not at odds according to our evolutionary instincts (abhorrence of freeloaders who were a threat to overall wellbeing and a communal caring for the genuinely needy). If these theories were considered as equally important (as he argues they were in traditional societies) and applied together, we’d be in good shape, but he (and most people) doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. When he asked a doctor at Mt. Sinai Hospital how we could unify our society she says something very simple: ” . . . underscore your shared humanity.”

I feel as if there are many opportunities on a local level to do that  — volunteering, belonging to a church or temple or mosque, joining a club, having lunch with a new coworker, taking cookies to a new neighbor, etc. — and while we may be appear to be failing on a macro level, there is hope in the fact that many people are trying to make their own communities more caring, close-knit places. For example, these neighbors, honored by the Boston Globe in their annual roundup of Bostonians making a difference. Everyone benefits when we act altruistically — research seems to indicate that helping others makes people happier. So maybe there’s hope? Even if you think our society is entirely self-interested, sometimes that self-interest can lead to greater good.

The novel The Association of Small Bombs deals with the same questions and issues  as Tribe (or at least I saw it that way, reading them right after each other – the bookconscious theory of interconnectedness at work). It’s a novel set primarily in Delhi, and it’s about the lives impacted by a terrorist bombing in a market. We meet two of the Kashmiri Muslim separatists, one an ideas man and the other a bomb maker, and also the parents of two boys who died in the blast. Their friend, Mansoor, who is Muslim himself, survives, but his young life is deeply impacted. He gets involved with an NGO working to bring attention to the accused bombers who languish in jail for years while the corrupt police and justice system often miss the real terrorists. Through the NGO he comes to meet Ayub, another Muslim, who ends up being drawn into an extremist group, and meets the very bomb maker whose blast injured Mansoor and killed his friends.

That these people would be drawn together in an interlocking set of storylines in one of the most populous cities in the world seems slightly improbable, but Mahajan makes it relatively believable. On the surface, all of the main characters lead relatively purposeless lives; even those who think they are acting out of conviction turn out to be making very little difference. Ayub thinks, “In the end, his role was so small, he felt foolish about the buildup, the training, the wating . . . . Some people will die, he thought, that’s true. But they’ll expand the market’s security after the blast. . . . No — I’m only doing the inevitable . . . . I’m pointing out the flaws in the system. Terror is a form of urban planning.”

I’m still processing that. It’s an interesting way to consider terror. The cooperative society Junger refers to exists in this novel among the terrorists and among the young people in the NGO but doesn’t appear sustainable in either case. The other adults who are not in either group lead the kinds of alienated lives that Junger describes; even their families don’t provide a sustained sense of shared humanity. It’s an eye-opening novel with a bleak view of humankind. I admired it, I think it’s an important book that deals with vital questions, but I can’t say I enjoyed reading it very much.

 

 

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