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Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

I've remarked elsewhere on the sad demise of Pyramid. And I mentioned that my not writing as much for the third iteration of the magazine was a consequence of moving on to writing longer works. That's certainly a part of it, but another part was that the looser format of the second edition lent itself to a more eclectic, impulsive style of writing. Something which happened quite often is that I'd read a book, realize that there was a gaming angle on it, and write a brief article about it. "Atomic Zombies of the Pacific," for example, was the result of reading a book about recent exploration of the sunken ships of the Bikini Atoll and dashing off a lightweight piece on the topic before moving on. The tighter format of the newer Pyramid made that kind of thing more difficult (whatever I was reading at any given moment might not fit well with any theme Steven might come up with, though given his historical performance, I suppose that's deeply and unfairly underestimating his formidable skills as an editor). And, of course, now it's not an option at all.

Which is too bad, because over the recent holidays, I had a bit of time to read (of which I have vastly less than I'd like) and polished off The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Jordan Hammer. This is exactly the kind of book which, during web-Pyramid days, would have had a short article winging its way to SJ Games in a few days. So here we are.

The Story

I'd known the general outlines of the story before, but this book went into considerable depth on details. Timbuktu, for those not up to speed on their West African geography, is a city in central Mali and one of the oldest cities in West Africa. It has intermittently been an important center of scholarship over the centuries. I say "intermittently" because there's a recurring theme of scholars having to go into hiding or other interruptions to the city's intellectual life: an animist Gaoan warlord, puritanical Almoravids and Almohads, and European colonial efforts have all sent intellectuals into hiding and their books into secret places, with the hope of recovering them in future years. A surprising number of Malians had or have a few elderly manuscripts, recognizing in them the heritage of their nation. In the early 21st century, Abdel Kader Haidara, youngest son of a scholar of Timbuktu, was set on a task of tracking down as many of these manuscripts as possible and collecting them so that they might be preserved. He did an excellent job, slowly winning the trust of people in the city and around the countryside and winning international funding for libraries and scanning and preservation facilities.

And that's when the civil war started. In 2012, Mali's president was overthrown and an alliance of Taureg nationalists and al-Quaeda-affiliated Islamists swiftly occupied most of the country's northern cities, including Timbuktu. This was bad news for Haidara. The manuscripts were valuable, which means that they might be taken away and sold off to fund the insurgents, and often reflected strains of Islamic thought opposed to the narrow interpretation of the Islamists, which means that they might be taken away and burned. Haidara leaped into action. Having spent years building up collections of manuscripts, he spent weeks doing the process in reverse, dispersing the delicate texts to friends, relatives, and colleagues hidden in nondescript crates and footlockers. The team he assembled worked quickly and quietly to avoid suspicion and detection.

In 2013, France stepped into the conflict and began rolling back the insurgents. Around this time, the Islamist regime announced that the city's manuscripts would be safe. Haidara knew immediately that this meant that the regime would soon be directly targeting them. Keeping them stashed around the city was no longer an option. His team of covert librarians enlisted local fishermen, whose livelihood was being disrupted by the regime's impractical and arbitrary dictates, and constructed a veritable black market navy of smugglers, taking crates of books downstream towards Bamako, where they might be safe. As Haidara suspected, the Islamists gathered up all the manuscripts they could find and made a bonfire out of them shortly before they retreated from Timbuktu, but thanks to his efforts and that of countless concerned citizens, that only constituted a fraction of the total. Many survived in the city itself (some in the basement of a building the regime had used as a headquarters; nobody had bothered to go downstairs and look), and many more had been shipped away.

Gaming With It

The gaming application here should be fairly obvious. This is an obvious scenario for an adventure or short campaign involving sneaky characters and social characters working in a very dense social setting. What allowed Haidara to get any of this done was access to a population which pretty much universally despised their occupiers. One is tempted to regard this as the people's espionage adventure. In GURPS terms, this wants lots of Allies and Contacts, along with Streetwise, Fast-Talk, Current Affairs, and other social skills to set things up and a bit of Stealth and Scrounging to actually get things moved around. Fighting characters might be occasionally useful, but generally speaking the level of surveillance and the ability of the regime to direct force anywhere it wants, without a lot of consequences to their already deeply unpopular rule makes fighting one's way out of this prohibitively difficult.

And, of course, this doesn't have to be set in the Malian conflict of 2012. This could work anywhere one regime might be seen to threaten the intellectual legacy of another: several times in Malian history, the Reconquista, the conquest of Constantinople, any of the several times Jerusalem changed hands during the Crusades, and in fantasy and SF settings where appropriate parallels can be drawn.

So, yeah, this is the sort of thing I'd have written up for Pyramid were that still an option, probably with a bit more geographical orientation (and a map; I love maps) and details about the major players. A nice gameable idea, but not so much of it that I'd have to write a book about it. My research interests in Africa are, after all, rather earlier than this period. Instead, though, here you go. And doubtless some of the ideas here will pop up sooner or later in other things I work on.


Rory Fansler said…
Nice! Short but very inspiring.

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