Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer was a interesting non-fiction tale of history and danger about the preservation of historical manuscripts in the African country of Mali.

The book centers on Abdel Kader Haidara, who followed in the footsteps of his father, a scholar and Islamic judicial authority who died in 1981 when Haidara was seventeen. He was named in his father's will as the custodian of the family library, and starting in 1985, worked on behalf of the Ahmed Baba Institute, purchasing manuscripts from people who had them in their homes and attempting to preserve and protect the precious documents against termites and the ravages of time. The manuscripts dated back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and contained African history, logic, astrology, music, medicine, and notions celebrating both humanity and religion.

Hammer wrote of how he in 2006 wrote a piece for the Smithsonian Magazine on Haidara and his efforts and at the time, the author saw the beginnings of Islamic fundamentalism in the area. The book covers how unrest in the region started to intensify in 2011 and in early 2012, Tuareg rebels took control of Timbuktu and instituted a harsh brand of Islamic governing with whippings and other atrocities. Islamist jihadis then took out the Tuaregs in July and put in place Shariah law and even more draconian measures including amputations, firing squads, and stonings as punishment for acts they deemed wrong.

With these extremists in power and trumpeting their interpretation of Islam as rejecting some of what the manuscripts contained, Haidara feared the documents could be destroyed for representing ideas counter to their notion of Islam and in the summer to fall of 2012 evacuated 270,000 of the 377,000 manuscripts in Timbuktu. The extremists grip on the region became tenuous as international pressure mounted and the French launched an offensive against the jihadis in early 2013. Of the roughly 100,000 manuscripts remaining hidden in Timbuktu, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fighters found and destroyed 4,000 of them, confirming to Haidara the importance of getting them out of the area and Haidara had the remaining documents go down the Niger River to safety. The French then defeated the jihadis in March 2013, taking back Mali.

While the book a story of a dangerous venture by Haidara successfully achieved, it's very much a historical read about what seems a horrible place to be, including the possibility of kidnapping of westerners for ransom money, and atrocities in the name of a view of a religion, with Hammer noting a terrorist attack at a Mali Radisson hotel in November 2015 that left nineteen dead. It's an informative and very interesting book, but also one that feels to portray that area of the world as one to avoid.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart by Mark Epstein

Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness by Mark Epstein was a book I heard about from 10% Happier by Dan Harris, with Epstein written of as one of the people who got Harris interested in the practice of meditation.

The title of Epstein's book refers to it being ok for for things to go wrong, just those things don't then have to become worse than they are. If bad events happen, they happen, if someone sad or feeling empty, it's not awful for them to feel that way and the toxic part isn't typically the situation, but the reaction to it.

Epstein writes of how "happiness comes from letting go," which reminds me of Harris describing meditating as looking dispassionately upon one's situation and feelings. Related to this, another idea from Epstein is how people can often get so caught up in their emotional reaction to a situation they become paralyzed, one approach would be for someone to look past the current spot and at the next thing to come. Additionally, Epstein touched on something Harris noted, meditation doesn't have to involve sitting quietly by oneself in a room, however it occurs, meditation is about being explicitly aware of surroundings and feelings, not overwhelmed by them, but aware.

The book definitely didn't feel as entertaining as 10% Happier, but was a quick read and had some interesting concepts to it.