Category Archives: Africa

Books About Books: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

A book entitled The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts has got to be a bibliophile’s dream. About a year after seeing reviews of Joshua Hammer’s book flood the Internet I spotted an available copy at my public library. So, with a title like that of course I grabbed it.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the story, 500 hundred years ago the North African city of Timbuktu was the Oxford or Cambridge of the medieval Islamic world. Scholars, clerics, jurists and doctors from across the  Muslim realms came to Timbuktu to do research and exchange ideas. This was made possible in no small part by the city’s extensive collection of manuscripts covering a diverse array of subjects including philosophy, religion, science and medicine. Over time, even though Timbuktu slipped into obscurity, the manuscripts nevertheless remained hidden away in places like mosques and privates homes. Until about 10 years ago, Abdul Kader Haidara, a forward thinking Malian realized it was high time to gather the countless manuscripts spread throughout the city and place them in one climate controlled library. This would not only make the aged texts easily accessible for the world’s scholars, but more importantly it would protect them from the ravages of time and the elements.

But as the old saying goes, no good plan survives contact. In 2012 when Islamist fighters conquered the area and began imposing their interpretation of Sharia law, the city’s new rulers took a dim view of the manuscripts. Fearing for good reason the Muslim extremists saw the texts as religiously impure, Haidara made sure the library’s manuscripts were secretly extracted and hidden away throughout the area. With out saying too much, had it not been for Haidara and a number of ordinary Malian citizens who risked their lives to hide the manuscripts countless irreplaceable writings would have went up in smoke.

One of the cool surprises of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is Hammer devotes a significant amount of time showing how Mali found itself in such a dire situation. In only a few years Mali went from West African backwater to a hip, up and coming cultural Mecca, once the world discovered the nation’s vibrant indigenous music scene. But once Mali’s ethnic rivalries were amplified by larger geopolitical struggles the country became a battleground. Therefore, when the Islamists do come to Timbuktu, you the reader are able to understand the conflict in its fuller context.

Combining elements of travelogue, battlefield reporting and historical writing The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu did not leave this bibliophile disappointed.



Filed under Africa, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, History, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden

Why oh why did I wait so long to read Black Hawk Down? Published in 1999, Mark Bowden’s book received critical praise and was a commercial success, in addition to inspiring a 2001 motion picture adaptation that was highly successful in its own right, winning two Oscars and performing robustly at the box office. Hitting a literary home run with Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War,  Bowden built on his success with a parade of well-received nonfiction offerings like Killing Pablo, Guests of the Ayatollah and Worm. Yet, despite all of this, I never read his 15-year-old book until just recently.

By now, I’m sure most of you are familiar with what the book is about. In 1993 an elite American military team invaded a hostile Somali neighborhood in hopes of capturing agents of a local warlord who’d been coordinating attacks on the international peacekeeping forces assigned to the area. After encountering surprisingly strong and well-coordinated resistance from local Somali fighters several American helicopters were shot down.  (Assisted in no small part by al-Qaeda operatives well-versed in the art of bringing down helicopters thanks to their years of experience fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.) Pinned down by hostile fire and surrounded by enemy forces, the numbers of American dead and wounded began to climb rapidly. What started as a quick, surgical “snatch mission” soon degenerated into a bloody fight for survival.

This book did not disappoint. Like many readers, I enjoyed Bowden’s ability to vividly describe events on the ground as they unfolded, especially from the perspectives of both US and opposing Somali forces. I also enjoyed the Bowden’s account of how the international peacekeeping forces went from being seen by many Somalis as benevolent humanitarians to hated occupiers, thanks to the peacekeepers’ political missteps and heavy-handedness. Probably the biggest surprise for me anyway was the degree of rivalry and animosity between Delta Force and Rangers. During their time in Somalia the more elite Delta Force soldiers saw the Rangers as inferior fighters, lacking in ambition, intelligence and ability. On the other hand, the Rangers saw their Delta Force compatriots as arrogant and over privileged. Of course, once the bullets began to fly and the blood flowed, these bitter frenemies would have no choice but to depend upon each other for survival.

I’ve heard Black Hawk Down is *the* book to read when it comes to modern urban combat in a developing country. After finally getting around to reading it, I could not agree more.


Filed under Africa, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, History

Africa Reading Challenge: The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Shadow of the SunA few years ago, Kinna hosted the Africa Reading Challenge. As one would probably guess, its purpose was to inspire people to read books about Africa, set in Africa and or by African authors. Knowing a good reading challenge when I see one, I happily signed up. Over the course of that year I read a number of qualifying books. Per the challenge’s guidelines I chose a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, representing or dealing with in some way nations from across the continent. And many, both fiction and nonfiction were by African-born writers. Looking back, I’d have to say it was rewarding experience and I had fun participating.

After the challenge took a brief hiatus, Kinna resurrected it at the beginning of this year. Once I heard the good news I eagerly signed up. Then, just like I do with so many other challenges, promptly forgot about it. So much for me knowing a good reading challenge when I see one.

But fear not, all is not forgotten. Let me present my first contribution to the Africa Reading Challenge. Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun recalls the four decades he spent crisscrossing the continent as a foreign correspondent. Because of his insistence in engaging Africa on its own terms – that is traveling by crowded bus, staying in spartan accommodations and venturing where most Westerners would fear to tread – we are treated to visions of Africa not seen in travel magazines or the evening news.

We when we think of foreign correspondents, we usually envision an intrepid American or British fellow hopping from one global hotspot to another.  Not so with Kapuscinski. He was a Pole. When he started his journalistic career back in the 50s, his employer was Poland’s Soviet-aligned  Communist government. (A few years ago speculation was ripe he collaborated to some degree with Poland’s intelligence services.) But according to Kapuscinski, no matter where he went in Africa, because of his skin color Africans assumed he was a wealthy European, regardless of his nation’s ruling ideology.

Partly because Kapuscinski’s Communist employers paid him very little and partly because of his a habit of living and traveling like a local, Kapuscinski experienced more than his share of hair-raising adventures. He battled malaria, had his travel documents held hostage by hostile warlords, risked thirst and exposure after being stranded in the desert, watched his modest living quarters burglarized on a nightly basis and narrowly escaped being bitten be a deadly cobra. But in spite of all the dangers he survived and wrote about the continent’s coups, civil wars, corrupt officials and diverse cultures. And most of all, because he lived and traveled like a local, he also wrote about Africa’s everyday people.

This is a pretty good book for anyone who wants to learn about Africa, but might not know where to start. Although he ignores almost all of North Africa and all of South Africa, the rest of the continent gets a pretty in-depth treatment. I guess my only complaint with The Shadow of the Sun is sometimes Kapuscinski can be a bit long-winded with his commentary. Some readers might also take issue with his particular take on local politics and cultures, accusing him of Western bias. But that’s an issue I’ll let more astute bloggers tackle.

With The Shadow of the Sun under my belt, I hope to read a few more Africa related books. Kinna’s African Reading Challenge is a great one. It would be a shame not to take advantage of it.


Filed under Africa, Area Studies/International Relations, History, Memoir

There is a Country: New Fiction from the New Nation of South Sudan

After decades of civil war, the small African nation of South Sudan finally achieved independence in July of 2011. One would think that a nation so young could not inspire a literary anthology. Well, guess again. Last week during one of my library visits what did I find while rummaging through the newly arrived works of international fiction but a copy of There Is a Country: New Fiction from the New Nation of South Sudan. Realizing that such a book is a rare find indeed, I quickly grabbed it and headed to the check-out machines. After letting the short anthology sit on my self for just a day, I picked it up one afternoon and started reading it. Since it’s a shade under 100 pages understandably I breezed through it in only two sittings. Much to my relief, I didn’t dislike this anthology. Since almost all collections tend to be uneven in some way or another, some of these stories I liked and some I did not. Some, like Victor Lugala’s “Port Sudan Journal” and Edward Eremugo Luka’s “Escape” I enjoyed quite a bit. Another particularly good piece, David Lukudo’s “Holy Warrior” I liked because of its sympathetic portrayal of a Sudanese soldier battling against the South Sudanese. (It takes a lot of courage to humanize your nation’s enemies. Kudos to Lukudo for doing so.) The rest of the pieces I found OK, but not outstanding. The closing piece of poetry did nothing for me.

But even though South Sudan is a young country, There Is a Country does not feel like a rush job. Nor does it feel slapped together. I found the collection of fiction small, modest and passionate – just like the newly created nation it represents.

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Filed under Africa, Area Studies/International Relations, Fiction

Cousin K by Yasmina Khadra

As we all know, the Most Interesting Man in the World doesn’t always drink beer, but when he does, he prefers Dos Equis. Therefore, in keeping with that spirit of singular exception, I don’t always read fiction, but when I do, I prefer stuff by international authors. Fortunately for me, the Central Branch of my county library has a prominently displayed shelf of recently published works of international fiction for me to choose from. A few days ago while rummaging through this shelf I realized I hadn’t read much international fiction of late. After a bit more rummaging, before I knew it I was walking out the door with a handful of fictional works by authors from Morocco, Algeria, Syria and Greece. Later that evening, as I looked over at my desk and saw my recent literary acquisitions sitting there waiting to be read I felt happy, inspired and eager to begin.

Yesterday morning while slamming down coffee at my neighborhood coffee shop in vain hopes of trying to revive myself after a late night out drinking beer with friends I began reading one of those books. Of the four pieces of fiction I the one a chose to read first was the novella Cousin K by Algerian Yasmina Khadra . (The author’s actual name is Mohammed Moulessehoul, who adopted the feminine pen name to avoid censorship at the hands of  Algeria’s military rulers.) Due to the work’s shortness I was able to read it in only two settings. After finishing it yesterday afternoon, I asked myself what I thought of Cousin K. While I really didn’t like it, I really didn’t dislike it either. I did however find Cousin K to be a bit, well, odd.

It’s the story, told in first person, of a young man living in Algeria with his dominating and capricious mother. Entering the story at various intervals are his older brother (an up and coming army officer whom he idolizes and his mother loves with almost incestuous fervor) a young female cousin he both hates and loves and an unnamed young woman he rescues from an attack only to later imprison in his family’s home. All of this is told from the narrator’s perspective. While the novella contains a lot of powerful lines that have the power stand alone with poetic intensity, as a whole Cousin K feels a bit chaotic. I’m not really sold on the idea that its sum is greater than its individual parts, no matter how good some of those parts might be.

Being the first person narrator comes across as both a tortured soul and one who has a great deal of contempt for the world around him, Cousin K reminded me a lot of Camus’ The Stranger (interestingly, both Camus and Khadra/Moulessehoul were born in Algeria) and Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone.

But even though Cousin K wasn’t a huge hit with me, I’m happy because it counts towards a number of reading challenges. With Algeria being in North Africa, I can apply it to both the Middle East Reading Challenge and the Global Reading Challenge. Since it was translated from the French, it also counts as part of the Books in Translation Reading Challenge. Lastly, since it came from the public library, I can also apply it to the Library Books Reading Challenge.  I love it when a book counts towards so many reading challenges.


Filed under Africa, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Fiction, Middle East/North Africa

2013 Middle East Reading Challenge

 Over the last several years Helen, one of my favorite book bloggers, has hosted the Middle East Reading Challenge. Not only has her reading challenge been a fun and intellectually stimulating activity, but in light of 2011′s Arab Spring and recent events in Libya and Syria it’s served as a fantastic opportunity for readers to gain a deeper understanding of people and forces reshaping one of the world’s most volatile and dynamic regions. When Helen announced she was stepping down from being the challenge’s host and suggested that I take her place at first I was reluctant. While I’ve been book blogging for several years, I’ve never hosted a challenge. However, to see the Middle East Reading Challenge vanish into the ether would be a huge loss. Therefore, after thinking it over I’ve decided to accept her offer and host the 2013 Middle East Reading Challenge.

I’ve you would like to get a sneak-peak, feel free to drop by the challenge’s new home. Love to have you join me for 2013’s Middle East Reading Challenge!


Filed under Africa, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Fiction, History, Iran, Islam, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Fear and loathing in Zimbabwe

The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of ZimbabweI owe a huge debt of gratitude to the NPR program Fresh Air. Thanks to them, over the years I’ve discovered countless great nonfiction books like Wide as the Waters, The Murder Room and Lost Christianities, in addition to novels like Push and The Magician’s Wife. Back in the spring of 2011 while was driving across town I happened to catch host Terry Gross’ interview with journalist Peter Godwin in which he recalled his 2008 visit to the African nation of Zimbabwe. Intrigued by what I heard, about a week later put Godwin’s book on my Goodreads list of books to read and then, as I usually do in cases like this promptly forgot about it. Then one day not long ago while raiding the shelves at my public library I stumbled upon it. With my memory jarred (and wanting another book to read as part of Kinna’s African Reading Challenge) I quickly grabbed it. Boy I’m glad I did. Peter Godwin’s The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe is one heck of a powerful book.

Judging by the picture Godwin paints in The Fear, Zimbabwe for all intents and purposes if not a failed state, it’s certainly a failing one. It’s bad enough the country suffers from astronomical hyperinflation, a collapsed state infrastructure, food shortages and diseases like AIDS and cholera but to make matters worse, it’s been in the vice grip of a ruthless dictator for over 30 years. While Zimbabwe possess many of the components of a Western-style democracy like elections, a judiciary, a legislative assembly, political parties and an independent media the grim reality is President Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party rule through intimidation, violence and murder.

I found The Fear to be a great book. It’s well-written and flows quickly. The individual stories of courage in the face of violence are nothing less than inspiring. Since Godwin was born in this country (back when it was white-ruled Rhodesia) and spent his youth in Zimbabwe, this book also has that great insider’s/outsider’s perspective that I love. Along the way he encounters countless people, each of them interesting in their own individual way. Godwin tells his tale leavened with anger, disgust, fear, terror and believe it or not, even sarcasm and humor.

As 2012 draws to a close I’m starting to compile my “best of” list of this year’s best books. Right now as I type this post there’s a strong likelihood Godwin’s The Fear will be on that list.


Filed under Africa, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Memoir