Brave Sage of Timbuktu: Abdel Kader Haidara

Image by Brent Stirton/Getty. Mali, 2014.

It was early in the summer of 2012, and at the Mamma Haidara Linbrary in Timbuktu, a clandestine operation was under way. Night after night, a team under the direction of the library's found, Abdel Kader Haidara, quietly packed the ancient works of astronomy, poetry, history and jurisprudence into metal chests, then spirited them out of the library in mule charts and 4x4s to safe houses scattered around the city.

It was part of a last-ditch attempt to protect the country's most significant collection of historic manuscripts from falling into the hands of militants allied to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Six months earlier, terrorist groups had seized northern Mali and launched a systematic effort to destroy anything they viewed as haram—forbidden—according to their harsh interpretation of Islamic practices.

The extremists' inroads, military and culturally, held a sad irony: Haidara as a scholar and community leader had made it his life's work to document, as never before, Mali's achievements as an ancient center of progressive thought, including Islamic teachings that were anathema to the fanaticism that AQIM was now attempting to spread through the West African country.

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