Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

I picked up this book for two reasons. First, I heard an interview with the author, Joshua Hammer, on NPR, and I’ve never disliked a book that I read based on an interview from that source. But second, and maybe most important, is that I absolutely love the title. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu makes me want to know more.

I’ve known more than one bad-ass librarian in my time, but never one from Timbuktu. In my opinion, librarians, as the keepers of truth and knowledge, are the coolest people ever. And this is a non-fiction book, so I was eager to learn the whole bad-ass story. I’ve got to say, the book doesn’t disappoint.

First of all, it taught me a lot about the Republic of Mali, and about the city of Timbuktu. Before this, all I basically knew was that Timbuktu is in the middle of nowhere. What I didn’t know was that it was at one point a major epicenter of education, civilization, and enlightenment.

Because of that, scattered all over the country are hundreds of thousands of centuries-old manuscripts, sometimes bound in leather, sometimes illuminated in gold leaf and gorgeous geometric patterns, that treat subjects including mathematics, medicine, astronomy, poetry, diversity, philosophy, religion, and history. These manuscripts are hand-written, one of a kind, priceless works of art that are irreplaceable  pieces of our human heritage.

In this book we meet Abdel Kader Haidara, a lifelong lover of books, who makes a career of traveling throughout the country to convince people to bring their books out of their dusty trunks and give them to libraries in Timbuktu, where they can be restored, preserved, archived, and made available to the public. He would spend weeks on end on camels and donkeys or floating down rivers and trekking through the desert, building up trust, to achieve this goal. In the end, Timbuktu became the repository for 377,000 ancient volumes. That’s pretty darned impressive.

And then, unfortunately, the country was torn by war. Al-Qaida took over Northern Mali, including Timbuktu, and began employing measures ever more violent, destructive, and austere. If they were to discover that there were ancient, secular, and scientific books lying around, they’d surely destroy them. And it was a very near thing.

The book also discusses how Al-Qaida happened to be there in the first place, and the battles and bloodshed resulting therefrom. It familiarizes you with several brutal leaders and their wrong-headed thought processes. It also makes you realize what a risk Haidara was making to protect these manuscripts.

In the end, Haidara, with the help of a large group of people who were literally risking their lives, smuggled in hundreds and hundreds of trunks, loaded these trunks up at night, and then carried them, a few at a time, to safehouses throughout the region.

As the war heated up, it became clear that even these safehouses weren’t going to be safe. So they decided that they’d have to smuggle all 377,000 books to southern Mali, where Al-Qaida wasn’t in control. To do this, they had to drive past check points. Many drivers were arrested. Ultimately, they put many of the trunks on boats and nervously floated them down the river. But in the end, all the books were saved.

We owe Haidara and his team a debt of gratitude. And I’d also like to thank Joshua Hammer for sharing this amazing story with the world. Score one for the good guys!

Check out this book. It’s bad-ass.

Bad-Ass book

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Djenné’s Great Mud Mosque

I’ve learned a great deal about the Republic of Mali in recent weeks, because I’ve been reading a book that takes place in that fascinating country. (More about that book in an upcoming post.) As much as I love to travel and learn about different cultures, I must admit with embarrassment that until this time, I couldn’t have found Mali on a map.

I think a certain level of Afro-ignorance is the case for most Americans, and I have no idea why. The entire continent of Africa seems to be this big blank spot in our education. I mean, most of us might be able to find South Africa and Egypt with its pyramids, and maybe the Nile River, and we’ve at least heard of Morocco, and we know that someone once said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume…” but yeah, that’s about it.

So imagine my shock to discover that Mali is home to one of the most famous landmarks in Africa. I’m dismayed that I’d never heard of this majestic structure, let alone seen a picture of it. I’m talking about the Great Mosque in the city of Djenné.

This edifice was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, but was built in its current form in 1907. The original mosque in this location may have been around since the year 1200, but no one is for certain.

I am so impressed with the architecture. It looks as though it was carved from one gigantic block of adobe, but it is, in fact, made of sun-baked earth bricks, mortar, and plaster, with palm sticks sticking out of it to allow for changes due to moisture and heat. It also happens to be the largest mud brick building in the world. I’ve never seen anything that looked both permanent and fragile at the same time. It’s as if it could be washed away in a hard rain, but it’s so heavy and substantial that it’s amazing it doesn’t sink into the ground. In fact, the whole town comes together every year for a big festival in which they effect repairs. I like that too. It’s a community gathering place, and the community takes ownership and pride in its maintenance.

I think it’s stunningly beautiful, but I was amused to read in this Wikipedia article that one man described it as “a cross between a hedgehog and a church organ.” I’m also delighted to hear that at the top of each minaret stands an ostrich egg. You can’t get more African than that.

The only disappointing thing about this mosque is that even if I do have the privilege of visiting Mali someday, I’ll never get to glimpse its grand interior. Vogue magazine messed it up for all of us non-Muslims by taking pictures of scantily clad women inside, thus outraging the public and barring our entry forevermore because of their blatant disrespect. This, to me, is heartbreaking.

Great Mosque of Djenné

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The Mines on Tiger Mountain

My strange work schedule as a bridgetender for the City of Seattle means that I miss out on a lot of interesting events. Recently, my husband had the opportunity to experience some unique Pacific Northwest history, and I felt that it was worth blogging about. As I didn’t share the experience, and because, frankly, I need a day off from this blog every once in a while, he offered to write about it for me. So what follows comes from my husband, Cris.

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Hopefully, most kids get a back yard to play in as they grow up, whether it’s the confines of their fenced yard at home, a park in the neighborhood, or the hundred-acre wood where Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh played. From the time I was ten until I moved out to a college dorm, my back yard was a forest owned by the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. It extended for miles across Tiger Mountain, just south of Issaquah, Washington. There was plenty of room for discovery, and since it was mostly enjoyed by me, or in the company of a few friends, it became whatever we wanted to call it.  Each clearing, trail or landmark was given a name, and family and friends always knew what and where we were talking about.

The years continue to zip past. The land is now the 13,745 acre Tiger Mountain State Forest, enjoyed by countless people. My network of friends and associates has far surpassed what it was when I spent the day in a classroom, tree fort, or fishing at Fifteen Mile Creek.

Recently I discovered the Issaquah History Museum was hosting a mine tour, and I recognized the photo as one of those landmarks in my back yard. The photo that caught my eye was an old mine shaft into the side of the hill, with a stream of water the color of burnt orange flowing out. That water has poured from the hillside in a ceaseless flow for as long as I can remember, although the cave now has a lattice of timbers in place to prevent reckless people from entering.

So, almost forty-nine years after moving into the forest, I attended a tour in the backyard of where my mom still lives, in the house we built with our bare hands, using the lumber milled from trees on our property. My goal was to listen and learn and discover some of the truth as told by others, as much of early Issaquah history includes coal mining. And what I learned was indeed fascinating.

After Weyerhaeuser did a land swap with the Department of Natural Resources, and the land became a state forest, the DNR and the US Department of the Interior, Office of Surface Mining did their best to seal off the mines to prevent access and accidents. One that I had once walked about fifty feet into was filled with liquid Styrofoam, a particularly non-ecological method that is no longer used. (Think of the expanding foam known as “great-stuff”.)

But the USDI only wanted to seal legitimate mines, and the one I recognized in the photo was also part of a stock scam, so they found a loophole in their guidelines and chose to exclude that one from being decommissioned. However, it’s still a state forest with lots of public access, so it fell upon the DNR to seal up the mine entrance.

On the tour, I learned about the stock scam. An investor named Raymond Carr claimed to have purchased the rights on Tiger Mountain and named the mine after his wife Caroline. It produced enough coal to provide the appearance of production, and in 1932 Mr. Carr sold $200,000 worth of stock in the mine to people on the east coast of the United States. To his downfall, he also sold $200 worth to a Dr. Malcolm Wise on nearby Mercer Island. The Doctor was excited to own a portion of a coal mine that was less than twenty miles from his home, so he visited the mine. That’s how he discovered that Mr. Carr had no rights to sell stock. The State Securities Department got involved, and the local lawsuit opened the flood gates to the lawsuits from the east coast.

The mine did actually produce coal for several years, but another nearby coal mine a half mile further up the trail was operated to greater success by a company from Montana and was called the Bear Creek Yards Mine.  As a kid I knew that mine because the steel rails for the coal cars still came out of the mountainside and extended in an airborne loop over the collapsing hillside above where I’d hike and fish for cutthroat trout in Fifteen Mile Creek.

Mine - Bear Creek Yards.jpg

On the tour, we continued our walk beyond the Caroline mine, and several hundred feet further along the trail, our tour guide stopped along a crumbling hillside that I’d climbed dozens of times in my youth. At the top of the hill, among the layers of shale we would find rocks embedded with amber. Rock-hounds from near and far, following the lead in their guidebooks, would come searching for this amber, and the road to this location just happened to cross our property. For obvious reasons this hill was known to the family and friends as Amber Hill.

Our tour guide asked if we could guess why nothing grows on the hillside of exposed rock, and naturally we guessed that it was because of the shale. He then explained that just a few inches below the surface is a concrete cap that sealed off the air shaft to the Caroline mine. What?!  It should have occurred to me that there was a solid reason why nothing grew on that slope; nature reclaims everything in that forest, and it swiftly overgrows and covers everything. And it turns out that there’s a concrete reason!

Amber Hill.jpg

Just as the mine itself was draining water from the hillside, so did that airshaft while it was uncovered. Apparently the water flowing from both hillside openings was so great at the time that in order to bring coal from the Bear Creek Yards Mine, they needed to build a bridge to cross both the outflows. But concrete was plentiful at mine projects and bridges were expensive, so the decision was made to seal the upper cave entrance and build just one bridge.

The other discovery made on my backyard tour was that a high profile crime was related to the Caroline Mine. For the entire story of the Weyerhaeuser kidnapping, you can visit this site. It seems that after days of being driven around the western states, the 9-year-old heir to the family fortune was left tied up in the guard shack at the mine. When he escaped, he followed the road out of the forest, and his trail to freedom crossed the property where I grew up.

I know that there is always more to learn, but it was especially rewarding to spend two hours on a springtime Saturday learning so much about the back yard where I grew up on Tiger Mountain.

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What Makes Home?

The other day, I was settling down for an afternoon nap. My dog Quagmire was curled up beside me, and I could hear my husband doing something or other on the opposite side of the house. The sounds of home. How lucky am I?

I do feel at home in my home, thank goodness, and with my husband and my dogs, and at work… but to be honest, I still don’t feel at home in the Pacific Northwest, even though I’ve been here nearly 5 years. People confuse me out here. I don’t understand them. And the weather is strange. And I still don’t know my way around. When people talk about small towns in another part of the state, I don’t know where they are. All these things make me feel like an outcast.

So the question is, what makes home? What follows are my stream of consciousness thoughts on the subject. (Special thanks to Cris, Ray, and Martin for ideas.) It’s a dense topic. And, spoiler alert, I don’t think I’ve managed to fully define it, but here goes…

Home is familiarity. It’s knowing where everything is, and also knowing alternate routes to that place. I think GPS has punked me in this regard. I no longer have a full map in my head. I don’t know where places are in relationship to other places anymore.

To help me with this, my husband has hung a local map in the garage for me. It has made a difference. But I really need to stop being lazy by relying on a mechanical voice to get me to my destination. I need to get some sense of context.

Home is also being able to make your way around in the dark without stubbing your toe.

But it’s not just familiarity, because I knew my way around Jacksonville, Florida, and there was a sense of relief there, a sense of predictability, but I don’t miss it, and if I never go back again it wouldn’t upset me overmuch. I miss my friends, I miss the fried chicken, I miss bodies of water that are warm enough to swim in, and I miss a few other places, but I don’t miss the city at all.

Home is what you’re used to. I’m used to flat land and straight roads that are on a grid pattern. If that’s what I need to feel at home, I’ll never feel that way in the curvy, hilly, mountainous state of Washington.

Home is knowing what neighborhoods you can walk through after dark. Back to familiarity again. But maybe there’s a feeling of safety wrapped up in it.

It’s recognizing the priorities, the politics, and the culture of the place where you are. Is it where everyone shares your politics? If so, we’re all screwed these days. But I must say I feel a lot more politically at ease in Seattle than I ever did in Florida.

Home is knowing the history of your location. I’m working on that.

Home is what makes you feel normal. It’s what you expect. I’m definitely not there yet. But I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt completely normal.

What is so un-homelike about where one is living that so many people are willing to leave everything they’ve ever known and relocate to another part of the planet? What’s missing? Why do they think they’ll find it elsewhere?

Do nomads ever feel at home? Is home where your yurt is? Does home reside in the people you love? I’m loved out here. And I’m at home in my house. But then I drive away from it, and I’m back to feeling like I’m in a foreign country again.

Is it a sense of belonging? Is it being made to feel welcome? Is it having a restaurant where you can say, “I’ll have the regular,” and they know what you mean? Is it being worthy of the gossip of your neighbors? (God, I hope not.)

I always felt at home in Western North Carolina. Even the very first time I stepped foot in the area when I was 17. Whenever I am there, it feels like I can exhale. Like I can breathe. The mountains embrace me. I can sleep, knowing the crickets and fire flies mean me no harm. But why? Why that place?

If all you ever knew was prison, would you consider that home? Is home where you’re resigned to your fate?

How can one person’s home be someone else’s hell?

Home is a feeling, more than a place. Because you can feel at home in more than one place.

Is it an emotion? It’s not happiness. Because you can be sad at home. Is it contentment? Contentment is fleeting for me, albeit highly appreciated when it comes around.

And I think home takes time. I never feel at home at first. I can’t even sleep the first night in a hotel room. But jeez, how much time does it take?

The craziest thing about home is that everyone will have a different definition of what that is.

I know it’s more than the house you live in. It’s your community, your region, your environment, your loved ones. It’s the place where you’re accepted as you are. It the place you can find your way back to.

Home is your comfort zone. But what causes you to feel like you’re in that zone?

I love to travel, but I can never 100 percent relax while I’m doing it, and after a few weeks, I want to go home. Home is where you can rest. I can’t completely rest here. And I want to be able to. So I need to figure out what makes home for me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject, dear reader.

Home

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Epiloguing

When I come to the end of a really good book, I feel myself becoming slightly sad. A truly good story invites you in and makes you feel as though you’ve gotten to know the characters on a personal level. At the end of that experience, it’s understandable to go through a period of mourning. You’re saying goodbye to friends, and odds are good that you’re never going to see them again. (Even Sue Grafton’s alphabet series ended at Y.)

It’s the same way I feel at the end of a trip. There’s too much to see in this world for me to repeat my outings, so if I’ve had a wonderful time, I gaze at the landscape knowing it’s not going to be part of my world anymore. I’m very grateful that I had a chance to be there, but life is short, and I have miles to go before I sleep.

This is why “epilogue” is one of my least favorite words. While I appreciate an author’s instinct to wrap things up and kind of send the reader one last postcard, that word is the moment when I can no longer deny that this particular journey is coming to an end.

Nooooooo! Don’t leave me! But at the same time, it was wonderful to meet you, and I’m excited to meet the next character in the next book.

Adieu, adieu… epiloguing is so bittersweet.

Books

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A Long Term Trek

Way back in January 1, 2015, I wrote a blog post about Paul Salopek. By then he’d been walking for two years, in the footsteps of our ancestors, from cradle of civilization in Africa with his ultimate goal being the tip of South America. He’s writing, filming, and photographing along the way. When I wrote about him in 2015, he was in Turkey. At the time of this writing, he is in Bodhgaya, India. He has a long way to go. I can’t even imagine the state of his feet, knees, and back.

But oh, how I envy his experiences. If you ever want to travel vicariously, check out the stories posted in the Out of Eden website. They’re mesmerizing. I wish I had the fortitude and the confidence to leave all traditional life behind and just walk for years on end, seeing the world. What an adventure.

I think the hardest part about a trek like that, for me, would be the loneliness. Granted, he usually has a companion, whether it be a journalist or translator or a guide, but no single person has joined him for the entire stretch. He’s in it alone. Oh, and currently he has a donkey. Sometimes he has a pack horse.

Either way, I wonder what he will do once he reaches his goal, if he does. Will he want to settle down and root himself in? Will he want to never go anywhere else again? Will he be over it all? Or, on the other hand, will he always be restless and never satisfied by staying put? These are questions I’d like to ask him if we ever crossed paths. (And it does look like he will be passing close to Seattle, someday, years from now.)

I wonder if the portion of his trek through the United States will be jarring and unpleasant after all that wandering through rural third world lands. Will he be anxious to get it over with, or thrilled to have constant access to Starbucks? These are the things that interest me most. Not the trek as much as how the trek has shaped him.

I need to backtrack and read all the posts of his journey and get a better sense of the man. I need to follow the Out of Eden Walk Facebook group. I need to see the progression, the evolution, of Paul Salopek. Because I can.

It’s a rare thing, when someone puts his or her entire life’s journey out there for the world to see. It’s like anthropology through an electron microscope. And what a unique opportunity that is for all of us.

Out of Eden Walk

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The Blooming

There’s something about flowers that has always intrigued me. Their beauty. Their aroma. The way they are created from basically nothing, serve their gorgeous purpose, and then quietly disappear, only to re-emerge again in their next season. Flowers mark the passage of time on the world’s clock.

That, and their sex organs are proudly, colorfully, elegantly on display. No shame. No excuses. Nothing conservative about the pistil and stamen. When bathed in that scent, designed to do nothing but attract, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer force of nature, the astounding instinct to continue living.

This was the attitude I brought to the glorious blooming of the cherry blossom trees at the University of Washington. I stood in their midst and just inhaled, allowing the pure luxury of being amongst them wash over me.

I wasn’t even bothered by the drone flying overhead, because I knew its footage would be unforgettable, And I was right. Here it is, on Youtube.

Life. What a gift.

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