Monday, October 31, 2016

The book burners

     One of the first things the Nazis did when they seized power in Germany was to burn the books.

     Radical Islam has a similar aversion to books, along with anything else they believe remotely threatens their twisted fundamentalist view of spiritualism and morality. 

     In January, 2013, fifteen jihadists stormed into the Ahmed Baba Institute, a government library in Mali, carried 4,200 centuries-old manuscripts—on physics, math, medicine, logic, and chemistry—into the tiled courtyard and contemptuously threw them onto a pile, doused them with gasoline, and burned them to holy ashes, destroying in minutes the laborious works of Timbuktu’s greatest scientists.

     Months earlier scholar Abdel Haidara, who had helped establish 45 libraries across Timbuktu, had seen the outrage coming and taken steps to at least mitigate it.  He’d raised a million dollars from sources as diverse as the Ford Foundation and the Dutch National Lottery organization and Kickstarter, and had recruited a quiet secret army of his own.  Their dangerous sole mission was to save thousands upon thousands of books from the determined al-Qaeda destroyers.

     Haidara had secreted 377,000 precious volumes in safe houses around Timbuktu in 700 purchased footlockers, chests, and even steel barrels, but he no longer felt that was enough.  He decided his covert army would smuggle them all to the better protected capital of Bamako.  Using cunning and stealth and bribery, and working often by night, Haidara and his army set out to transport as many volumes as possible south, by river boat and truck and even taxi, past hostile jihadists and venal military patrols and marauding bandits.  Some of the couriers, many of them teenagers, were detained and interrogated and threatened at checkpoints, but in the end they managed to carry out the mission.  They lost not a single manuscript.

     Much knowledge has these days been stored away electronically, of course.  But that in no way diminishes the incalculable treasure that includes the finest works of mankind still stored away as books on every aspect of human endeavor and achievement in repositories around the planet. 

     And in many countries, outside the grim reach of the jihadists—who themselves can boast of no enduring achievements whatsoever to benefit humankind—that treasure remains accessible free to anyone through our network of libraries.


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