The epic true tale of the vigilante librarian who saved thousands of books from jihadists.

Under the dark cover of night, a team of clandestine agents smuggled contraband on mule carts past the heavily armed militants who policed the ancient streets of Timbuktu...

But this undertaking was a little less "Ocean's Eleven," a little more "Indiana Jones" with an Islamic bent — because the traffickers were librarians, and their black market swag was a vast collection of hundreds of thousands of historical manuscripts dating as far back as the 11th century.


Photo by Francois Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images.

The mastermind behind this grand scheme? A middle-aged book collector named Abdel Kader Haidara.

Haidara spent most of his life searching his native Mali and other parts of Western Africa for lost relics from the region's rich history. Over the years, he had amassed thousands of rare and valuable manuscripts, which he preserved, restored, and digitized for future generations.

Haidara's collection included historical chronicles of the rise and fall of Saharan and Sudanese monarchs; ethical quandaries by Islamic philosophers debating everything from polygamy to smoking tobacco; medical volumes full of treatments derived from birds, lizards, or plants; codices hand-bound in lavish materials such as goatskin or fish scale and adorned with glittering gold calligraphy; rare illustrated copies of the Quran itself; and ancient secular writings on astronomy, poetry, and math.

"A lot of people were surprised because they had been told — even at school — that there were no written African historical records," Haidara said in 2014. "But we have hundreds of thousands of these documents in Arabic and in African languages."

Photo by Fred DuFour/AFP/Getty Images.

When the Mali crisis began in May 2012, Haidara quickly realized that Timbuktu's incredible archives were in danger.

An alliance of militant Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) seized a number of northern Malian territories, including Timbuktu. They overthrew the country's president, Amadou Toumani Touré, and imposed Sharia in the now-independent territory of Azawad, banishing anything that fell outside their narrow interpretation of the Quran.

Soon they were demolishing Sufi mausoleums and other Islamic traditions that opposed their own zealotry. Haidara knew it was only a matter of time before they came for the book collections, too.

"The manuscripts show that Islam is a religion of tolerance," he told National Geographic. Haidara believed that the archives could not only change Western perceptions of Islam, but could also refute jihadist dogma — something which the extremists would never allow.

Photo by Fred DuFour/AFP/Getty Images.

Days after the invasion, Haidara called together his colleagues from the Timbuktu library association, who represented 45 different Malian libraries and about 400,000 rare volumes.

As he recalled in the Wall Street Journal, he told the assembled group: “I think we need to take out the manuscripts from the big buildings and disperse them around the city to family houses. We don’t want them finding the collections of manuscripts and stealing them or destroying them.”

With help from family, tour guides, and other archivists, Haidara and his team began buying all of the metal and wooden trunks they could find without arising suspicion. Once they'd bought up all the stock in Timbuktu, they sent their buyers to other markets south of the city, or purchased unused oil drums and barrels to convert for their purposes.

Photo by Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images.

They stored the crates at Mamma Haidara and other libraries throughout the city, where small groups of volunteers would gather at night to carefully pack the delicate manuscripts inside. They worked entirely by flashlight, since the jihadists had cut their access to electricity.

Once the books were packed, they were smuggled by mule carts at night to hiding places under the homes of volunteers across the city.

Photo by Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images.

Within a few months, there were nearly 2,500 footlockers full of manuscripts hidden throughout the city. But moving them out of al-Qaeda territory wouldn't be easy.

Donations began to pour in from Indiegogo and private foundations to help fund strategic smuggling trips by river and by road, moving manuscripts incrementally in order to cut down on potential losses.

But they still had to contend with both extremist border patrols and the Malian army, which was on the lookout for smuggled weapons en route to or from al-Qaeda. Even the French military, which had arrived to help liberate Timbuktu, formed another inadvertent obstacle when it almost fired on a boat full of books, acting under the assumption that they were trafficking firearms.

Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFp/Getty Images.

The operation lasted for nine harrowing months, during which the radicals managed to destroy only 4,000 manuscripts.

Of course, there were plenty of close calls along the way.

Early in the campaign, militant leaders stopped Haidara's nephew, Mohammed Touré, as he was leaving the library late one night with a trunkful of manuscripts. They arrested him for stealing and threatened to cut off his hands. But Haidara swung into action and told the Islamist police that Touré was a legal employee of the museum who was doing his job by taking the books to be repaired.

On another occasion, a fleet of boats carrying 300 footlockers full of books was held hostage by opportunistic hijackers until Haidara could pay the ransom they demanded.

“If we hadn’t acted, I’m almost 100% certain that many, many others would have been burned," Haidara told the Wall Street Journal.


Photo by Evan Schneider/Stringer/Getty Images.

The remaining manuscripts are now safe in climate-controlled storage in Bamako. But they can't stay there forever.

Between the humidity in the Malian capital and the creaking weight of tall stacks of boxes upon boxes threatening to crush the books beneath them, it's only a temporary haven. The Malian government has estimated that it would cost nearly $11 million to build new archives in the capital to properly preserve and restore the codices.

As for Haidara, he received the 2014 Africa Prize from Germany and is the subject of a new book called (appropriately) "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu." But he's still more concerned about the collection.

"I'm all the time surrounded by worry, by responsibility, sometimes I even forget my family," he told National Geographic. "My only ambition is to rehabilitate all these libraries in Timbuktu, so that I can bring all the manuscripts back to each family that entrusted them to me. That will give me a little bit of peace."

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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