This is the second time I’ve written about Pascal Grousset’s 1886-87 Irish travelogue in this space. The first time was last summer, when I had read only the introduction and first chapter and recommended it to GPF readers based on that limited sample. As often happens, I was waylaid from finishing the book and did not pick it up again until last month. The motivation was simple: It was beginning to look uncertain that the United Kingdom and European Union would reach a Brexit deal, and Northern Ireland was the main stumbling block. Though the two sides have a deal now, Northern Ireland may still be a stumbling block, and Grousset’s book is as good an explanation of why as any.
The book is a collection of articles Grousset wrote for Le Temps – in French – during the summers of 1886 and 1887. It’s essentially a photograph of life in Ireland at the end of the 19th century – in that purgatory between the Great Famine and the Irish War of Independence. The picture Grousset paints is a bleak one, of a people beaten down as much by British occupation as by their own capacity for self-sabotage. Mixing statistics with local interactions and traveling from Dublin to Ireland’s farthest western reaches on Valentia Island, Grousset’s pen is as pleasantly descriptive as his observations are incisive. There are also moments where you forget Grousset was writing over a century ago, like when he relates a renters’ crisis – it’s hard to forget that Ireland is going through another housing crisis today.
The book, while not comprehensive by any means, is valuable not for any one detail, fact or observation. It is that rare work that succeeds at making the reader feel what it was like to be where the author was so many years ago. That, in addition to Grousset’s relative obscurity, makes it worthy of a second appearance.
Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis
Nothing is simple in Mali. Not its past, not its present. Joshua Hammer captures the nuance and complexity of the Sahelian country in this superbly written work, which reads as part historical treatise, part modern-day thriller. Hammer’s training as a journalist keeps the reader at attention for the entirety and leaves us with a richer understanding of – and perhaps even passion for – Mali.
The bad-ass librarian in question is Abdel Kader Haidara. Born to a prominent Timbuktu family, Haidara inherited his family’s scholasticism and its manuscripts, a collection that reflects the city’s rich history as an academic, musical and religious beacon of the Islamic world. Hammer reminds us that while Europe languished in the dark ages, Timbuktu flourished – it was home to some of the greatest mosques and universities of the Muslim world. The city was a pilgrimage destination for religious acolytes and scholars alike, who came from Casablanca, Cairo and Shiraz. But the city’s beacon also drew conflict. North African and Middle Eastern empires grappled for control of Timbuktu, a struggle that continues today. Timbuktu is a gateway to the Sahara: It is a geopolitical bridge that connects sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea, and Western Africa to the Arabian Peninsula.
The current conflict (really, conflicts) in Mali is so dynamic that even those who work in the country have a hard time keeping up with all the parties and their political positions, territorial holdings and goals. Hammer’s concise yet colorful recounting of how this situation arose and unfolded was the best I came across in six years of studying Mali. He captures the political gamesmanship, international interference (or lack thereof) and, of course, the geopolitical underpinnings that have shaped today’s conflict. Many writers could do this, but few with the intimacy Hammer offers: His friend Haidara invites us into his life to understand these huge forces from the position of a single person in a single neighborhood of Timbuktu, racing to save his family’s and his city’s heritage from al-Qaida’s cultural purges.
This perspective is what makes “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” unforgettable. The history and the conflict are not abstract; they are personal. For an added touch, I suggest Tinariwen as a soundtrack – it’s a taste of the Tuareg music that has helped shape this desert city’s sound for centuries, and that, under jihadist occupation, fell silent.
Emma Pennisi, editor