Five years since the occupation of Timbuktu

Even though the word Timbuktu is often used as a metaphor for a primitive place far from civilization, Timbuktu is a real city with a glorious history. When Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, Timbuktu was a centre of African civilization, trade and scholarship.

The city’s recent history has been less glorious. This week marks five years since Timbuktu was invaded by Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda militants. Five years since the town’s Sufi population began to suffer the imposition of sharia and its ghoulish punishments. Five years since the town’s famous librarians started an ingenious smuggling operation to save thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts from destruction.

Today there is both good and bad news from Timbuktu. The bad news is that bandits and radical Islamists are still present in the region, launching sporadic attacks on the town and its peacekeepers. The reach of extremist teaching throughout the Sahara is expanding, not contracting.

The good news is that in Timbuktu itself, many of the World Heritage landmarks have been restored. Local craftsmen have rebuilt many of the shrines to the saints of Timbuktu, and the instigator of their destruction imprisoned for nine years. The exquisite ‘Door of Heaven’ in the Sidi Yahya mosque has been repaired. The values of Timbuktu, its so-called ‘seven gates’, remain intact: tolerance, honour, dignity, generousity, hospitality, honesty and justice.

And what of those famous manuscripts? Currently in exile in Mali’s capital city Bamako, the manuscripts are being well looked after. The Herculean task of cataloguing and preserving these ancient texts continues.

Blood & Ink is fundamentally a thriller and a love story. As a thriller it contains chases, smuggling operations and a locked-room mystery. As a love story it features a Malian Romeo and Juliet, drawn together in spite of their cultural and religious differences.

And yes, as a piece of historical fiction, the novel by necessity explores the theme of violent jihad. I had the honour of participating last month in the Cologne literary festival, where I read and discussed the novel with teenage festivalgoers. Their questions went right to the heart of the matter. What are the causes of radicalisation? Is religion itself to blame? Was I nervous about the controversy my book might cause? Finally – and essentially – what is the solution to Islamist extremism?

At a recent conference in Vienna, Timbuktu’s chief librarian Abdel Kader Haïdara was asked this same question. He replied that he looks for solutions in the Timbuktu manuscripts themselves. ‘Many of these ancient Islamic manuscripts deal with conflict resolution, including many which have not yet been translated or published. I am hopeful that the manuscripts will one day foster a better understanding of the world of yesterday and the world of today, as well as the promotion of tolerance and a culture of peace.’

I am not nervous about the controversy my book might cause. Controversy entails discussion, more useful than any awkward silence. My highest hope for Blood & Ink is that, like the Timbuktu manuscripts themselves, it might foster understanding, tolerance and peace. My rather more modest hope is that it proves a gripping, exhilarating read.

This post was written as a guest post for the Aladin Verlag blog: link

Blood & Ink at lit.Cologne 2017

Thanks and warm wishes to all the Cologne secondary students and teachers who came to my Blood & Ink reading at the Altes Pfandhaus yesterday. Schools are sometimes nervous about frank discussion of radicalisation, but not so yesterday. Your questions and comments were intelligent and thought-provoking. I hope Blood & Ink does well in Germany and that it helps to promote empathy and peace at a time when both are sorely needed.

Buy Blood & Ink: Die Bücher von Timbuktu on Amazon.de

Blood and Ink at Harbour Front Literary Festival in Hamburg

Just back from Hamburg, where I spent a couple of days at the kind invitation of the Harbour Front Literary Festival. Two readings, one at Aladin (who this summer published Blood & Ink in German) the other at a youth event laid on by the festival. What a wonderful city Hamburg is. Can’t wait to visit again.

Blood & Ink: Die Bücher von Timbuktu

I’m delighted to announce that Blood & Ink has found a publishing home in Germany. On 28 July this year (my fortieth birthday, as it happens) Aladin Verlag will publish a hardback version translated from the English by Katharina Diestelmeier and titled Blood & Ink: Die Bücher von Timbuktu. The book is beautifully designed and printed, and contains on the inside covers this striking, almost luminous, map of the Timbuktu area (click to enlarge).

Blood & Ink: Die Bücher von Timbuktu map
map by Christian Schneider

Aladin’s founder Klaus Humann used to run Carlsen Verlag, a Hamburg based publishing house. Carlsen were not a big publisher when Humann started there, but that was before they bought the rights to Harry Potter and Twilight. As you would expect, these two series did them a bit of good.

After fifteen years at Carlsen, Humann got tired of running a big company, so in 2012 he founded Aladin Verlag – an independent children’s publishing house. His five-member team publish just 28 books a year, but they have complete creative freedom to seek and acquire ‘unique and special’ books.

Klaus Humann - Aladin Verlag
Klaus Humann (picture by Nina Stiller)

What I particularly love about Aladin is the ethical value that they attach to children’s publishing, summed up by this quotation from Klaus Humann himself:

The good thing is you’re doing something worthwhile for society, because if you bring the best stories to children then it’s going to be a better world — at least this is what I hope. There’s still hope that with good stories, there are better children, better people, and better human beings.

Is this too idealistic? Too much weight on the shoulders of us frail children’s authors? I hope not. Humann’s bright-eyed positivity reminds me of something similar which Amanda Craig wrote last year:

It is children’s authors who are what Shelley called “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. From them, as much as from parents, a child receives an idea of how the world could or should be.

Though a tense and at times violent read, Blood & Ink is a well-intentioned story, and I am thrilled that Humann has judged it unique and worthwhile enough to publish. It is about radical Islamism, a subject of global relevance and concern, but it is also about radical courage and radical compassion, and I hope it is received in that spirit.

I shall be visiting Germany this autumn and speaking about Die Bücher von Timbuktu at the Harbour Front Literaturfestival in Hamburg on 21 September. The event will include a dramatized reading by German actress Verena Wolfien, which I am really looking forward to. More about that another time.

Harbour Front Festival in Hamburg
Harbour Front Festival (photo: Jonas Wölk)

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

This wonderfully titled book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts is written by renowned travel writer and journalist Joshua Hammer. It tells the true story of Abdel Kader Haidara, the mild-mannered librarian who spearheaded the smuggling of Timbuktu’s priceless manuscripts out of the city in 2012, when they were under threat of destruction by Islamist extremists.

abdel_haidara

My own novel BLOOD & INK recounts the same story from the point of view of Timbuktu’s teenagers. Whereas my book is YA historical fiction, Hammer focusses on the adults and sticks to the facts. He recounts these facts in truly dramatic fashion, though – the story has been called ‘a heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven’. Reviewer Jeffrey Brown comments that ‘the stories of Haidara’s colorful and sometimes perilous journeys to gather manuscripts make for some of the book’s most exciting passages’.

I look forward very much to reading it myself.

THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS OF TIMBUKTU comes out tomorrow, published by Simon and Schuster.

BLOOD & INK is already available in the UK, published by Andersen Press. It comes out in the US later this year, published by Charlesbridge, and in Germany, published by Aladin Verlag.

Badass_Librarians_reviews

Tired of hating people – the story of Zak Ebrahim

Interesting story from Zak Ebrahim, the son of a terrorist, about his rejection of violence and his determination not to be his father’s son. Resonates closely with the character development of Ali in BLOOD & INK.

Particularly poignant was Zak’s mother’s reaction to his change of heart:

She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who had experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime, and said, ‘I’m tired of hating people.’ In that instant I realized how much negative energy it takes to hold that hatred inside of you.