Title: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu; Author: Joshua Hammer; Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Pages: 280; Price: Rs 399

After nature, what some sections of humans get most satisfaction in seeking to destroy is knowledge, in its physical manifestations, irrespective of whether it opposes their view of "truth" or merely presents an alternative. Fortunately, offering hope to us are those who devote all their lives in safeguarding this heritage — despite daunting risks.

Say, a man who devoted virtually all his adult life to painstakingly collect hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts, persistently arranged funds for their preservation and protected them from rabid fundamentalists when they overran the ancient African city of Timbuktu where they were located in 2012.

Behind the successful translocation of this invaluable cache of human experience and wisdom was Abdel Kader Haidara, the son of a renowned scholar and a reluctant archivist initially till he not only grew into the role, but flourished in it.

"In a low-tech operation that seemed quaintly anomalous in the second decade of the twentieth century, he (Haidara) and his team had transported to safety, by river and by road, past hostile jihadi guards and suspicious Malian soldiers, past bandits, attack helicopters and other potentially lethal obstacles, almost all of Timbuktu's 377,000 manuscripts. Not one had been lost en route," journalist and author Joshua Hammer tells us in this thrilling — and inspiring — book.

And these Islamic manuscripts did not only comprise elaborate copies for the Koran or its exegeses, works on religious jurisprudence or biographies of the Prophet, but also works on astronomy, history, health (including sexual advice — for both men and women), ethics, fortune-telling, poetry and even on conflict resolution, anti-slavery polemics and on religious tolerance.

In his audacious enterprise, Haidara was aided by his nephew who made several hair-raising trips with trunks of the manuscripts, many of Timbuktu's residents who were ready to hide them in their house, and thousands of "smugglers" pressed into service on this high-risk task — made more dangerous when the French sent their troops in.

Though Haidara did not actually participate in the mission, he raised the funds from all around the world that made it possible and otherwise used his influence when and where needed.

But Hammer's work is not only about Haidara's prodigious efforts in collecting these manuscripts, for it also goes on to inform us how Timbuktu, where all these manuscripts were composed or amassed, was once a crossroads of civilisations and a fountainhead of intellectual accomplishment — not the remote, backward and outlandish place it is in common language. 

"Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, silver from the country of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuctoo," said a Sudanese proverb when the city was at the height of its glory in the 15th and 16th centuries.

It is thus also a lucid and compelling demolition of the long-lasting beliefs, partly inspired by ignorance and partly by political considerations, of sub-Saharan Africa as an impoverished and inconsequential area with no cultural contributions, until the Europeans powers stepped in. 

Hammer also gives us an absorbing but disturbing account of the process of radicalisation, with the case of a key antagonist in this story, who underwent a metamorphosis from Tuareg nationalist to co-opted government man to Islamist terrorist — and the stultifying but menacing impact of fanatic religiosity on a cosmopolitan society — in this case, the Al Qaeda in Maghrib's depredations in Mali.

And finally for those who will deem this tale a singular case of an impoverished backward African country, he provides an alarming example of how secessionist and terrorist forces, and even criminal elements, can enter an alliance of convenience, how wrecking authoritarian but fairly stable states (in this case, Qaddafi's Libya) can have a major regional effect and how resolute action by Western powers can be decisive.

But, this episode should not only be thought as a particularly Islamic case, for history is witness that even the most advanced and free stories have the stain of crimes against knowledge on their conscience — while there are some who pride themselves on their long cultural ethos but are seeking to embark on this path.

This makes it a must-read for many Indians.