Joshua Hammer won the 2016 National Magazine Award for Reporting from the American Society of Magazine Editors for his story on the Ebola outbreak. Prior to becoming a freelance foreign correspondent, he held various Bureau Chief positions with Newsweek, including being stationed in Nairobi, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Berlin and Jerusalem. With articles published in the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ and the New York Times Magazine, he is currently a contributing editor to Smithsonian and Outside magazines and the author of four books. Stay Thirsty Magazine caught up with Joshua Hammer for this Conversation while he was on assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan.
STAY THIRSTY: Your latest book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, is an adventure story reminiscent of The Monuments Men meets Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has been called "vivid, fast-paced…gripping." What motivated you to tell the story of a race across Mali to save "the world's most precious manuscripts" from certain destruction by Islamic extremists?
JOSHUA HAMMER: Hey, I like that comparison. Thanks. This book was a long time in the making. As I write in an early chapter, the manuscripts first came to my attention in 2006, after I read a newspaper article about efforts in Timbuktu to recover and restore thousands of old Arabic and Islamic texts – including many from the city's golden era in the 15th and 16th centuries. I was just starting my freelance career, and pitched an editor at Smithsonian magazine on the story, and within a week was on my way to Timbuktu. I spent days wandering, dreamlike, through the ancient city, inspecting chests filled with 600-year-old volumes and new libraries that were being built with Western funding. It was easy to get hooked on the manuscripts, and on Mali after that. When Al Qaeda invaded the north in 2012 and declared the region a Caliphate, I thought about the manuscripts I'd seen and the people I'd met in 2006 and on several subsequent trips to the north, and I followed developments closely. The French invaded a year later, and I joined them on the road to Timbuktu, this time for the New York Review of Books. I heard rumors about the manuscript rescue during that time, and confirmed it later. There was just so much drama there, I became determined to research and tell the story.
STAY THIRSTY: The reluctant hero of your true story is a simple librarian named Abdel Kader Haidara who grew up in Timbuktu and learned from his father about a secret treasure trove of ancient manuscripts dating back to the 1100s that were hidden in safe houses throughout the city. How did you discover Haidara and how has he and his quest impacted you?
JOSHUA HAMMER: I met Haidara during that 2006 visit to Timbuktu. He was the most charismatic and forceful figure behind the rehabilitation of Timbuktu's manuscripts. During that visit, he showed me around his collection, introduced me to other librarians, and arranged a trip deep into the Sahara to meet Tuaregs who were digging up volumes that had been hidden for centuries. We stayed in occasional touch, and when I learned through friends that he had played the lead role in the 2012-2013 rescue of the trove from the hands of Al Qaeda, I got in touch again. In January 2014 we met again for the first time in years, and wound up spending many hours together in Bamako over the next month, sitting in my hotel courtyard overlooking the Niger River in the early evenings, talking in French about his life. Haidara was a lot more forthcoming about his early years running around the desert searching for manuscripts than he was about the actual rescue – I think he was still worried about being targeted by Al Qaeda – so it took quite a lot of doing to persuade him to open up. But the story that I wrested out of him was more dramatic and satisfying than I'd anticipated. It filled me with a great sense of hope about the resilience and resourcefulness of humanity.
STAY THIRSTY: While you were researching this book, did you ever feel that your life was in danger? Did you ever fear that you would be kidnapped and held for ransom like many other journalists?
JOSHUA HAMMER: Indeed I did. During my winter 2014 trip to the north I felt it was imperative that I visit both Gao and Timbuktu to piece together the story of the manuscript rescue and, equally important, gather details about life in northern Mali under the brutal rule of the Islamists. The French military had driven Al Qaeda out of the population centers, but they were still lurking in the desert, and I clearly took a risk traveling for hundreds of miles down near empty Saharan highways, just my driver, my translator/fixer, and I, to get from one place to another. Hiring a Malian military escort would have been tremendously expensive – beyond my budget – and also might have attracted the attention of the militants. Traveling unescorted, on the other hand, left us dangerously exposed. So we really had no good choices. I was especially anxious during the long slog on the 100-mile sand track that led to Timbuktu. There was absolutely nobody else on that road for hours and hours, and we were ripe pickings for Al Qaeda. I had wrapped a Tuareg headscarf around my face a few times to camouflage myself, but I don't think it would have fooled anybody. Fortunately, nothing happened.
STAY THIRSTY: Your book is a testament to the bravery of ordinary people struggling to preserve their cultural and intellectual heritage against jihadists whose brutal ways were blind to the things Haidara held dear. What created the climate in Mali that allowed extremists to flourish and to put at risk the long tradition of learning and of institutions that had been a hallmark of Timbuktu for centuries?
JOSHUA HAMMER: I think the answers resemble those that you find in every corner of the world that Islamic extremism has flourished: poverty, illiteracy, boredom, government neglect, and the lure of a hypnotic ideology that promises meaning and belonging to a larger cause. This was further facilitated by the spread of Saudi Wahhabist ideology across the Sahara: as I mention in the book, the Saudis lavished millions to build Wahhabi mosques in Timbuktu and other Malian towns in the north, spreading a hateful ideology. There was a core group of young men in northern Mali that were just waiting for a catalyst, and the spillover of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from neighboring Algeria provided that. Remember that we're not talking about that many militants— perhaps only a couple of thousand throughout northern Mali. But they proved to be more than a match for a weak, unmotivated government army that had squandered tens of millions of dollars in US training over a decade.
STAY THIRSTY: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is your fourth book and it grew out of a project funded by the Pulitzer Center. What was the catalyst that interested the Pulitzer Center in your desire to investigate and tell this story?
JOSHUA HAMMER: In fact it was the other way around. I had the book contract already, and then persuaded the Pulitzer Center to fund my travel in the winter of 2014, in return for a series of magazine articles about the conflict in Mali. I think it was a natural for the Pulitzer Center – there were just so many stories to write about in one of most fragile regions of world, and so few journalists working there. I wrote about an unsung hero of the manuscript rescue; about a music festival on the river in the southern town of Segou that included many Tuareg musicians who had fled the north; and about a hair-raising trip to Kidal, in Mali's far north, which remained the most dangerous place in the country.
STAY THIRSTY: Over the past 28 years you have worked as a foreign and a war correspondent, a news magazine bureau chief and a correspondent-at-large for some of the great publications of our time and won numerous journalism awards for your efforts. You have traveled the globe and covered some of the critical stories of the day. Of all that you have done, what are the top three extraordinary experiences of your career?
JOSHUA HAMMER: "Extraordinary experiences" can cover a lot of ground. In terms of the most horrific, the Rwandan genocide was unquestionably number one. As Newsweek's Africa bureau chief based in Nairobi, I was one of the first Western reporters to arrive in Kigali after the massacres began, and the first to identify in print what was going on as "genocide," following an early May tour of the killing fields with the Rwandan Patriotic Front. It was an encounter with evil, with the depths of human horror that will certainly (let's hope anyway) never be matched in my lifetime. In terms of the most inspiring/positive story, the South African election in April 1994 that brought Nelson Mandela to power – ironically, an event that took place simultaneous with the Rwandan genocide – stands out. It was thrilling beyond words to travel with Mandela through the townships and countryside and witness the outpouring of joy that greeted him everywhere; the transition to black-majority rule, while marred by violence, was an epochal moment for humanity, a happy end to a story of appalling injustice and courageous struggle. For the third, I'll go back to 1980, when, out of college and unclear about my goals, I trekked with a close friend for eight weeks in the high Himalayas of Nepal. I was 22, and just discovering the world, and the beauty and wonder of that trip helped to define my ambitions and set me on the course I've now been on for three and a half decades.
STAY THIRSTY: How has music played a role in your coverage of stories around the world?
JOSHUA HAMMER: Two places come to mind: Mali and Brazil. I've reported frequently out of Brazil during the past 25 years, and one of the great lures for me is its music – hypnotic, alluring, bursting with life, like Brazil itself. It was my soundtrack on a riverboat heading up the Amazon with a disgraced Dutch paleontologist for Smithsonian magazine; for a trip to the slums of Salvador for Newsweek, for long luxurious days and nights in Rio de Janeiro. Mali's music played a similar role for me, drawing me back to the country time and time again. I wrote a long piece on Mali's music for the Times in 2006 and attended "The Festival in the Desert" near Timbuktu in 2008. One of the greatest memories from my reporting trip for Bad-Ass was traveling through the Sahel at dusk, heading for Timbuktu, with Ali Farka Touré's haunting albums Niafunke and "The River" blaring through my headphones. Still gives me goosebumps thinking about it.
STAY THIRSTY: You were the Newsweek Jerusalem Bureau Chief during the early part of the 21st century. As you look back on those days as the Israeli-Palestinian conflicted raged and compare it to the rise of Islamic extremism, how do you see the next few years unfolding in the Middle East and Northern Africa in terms of politics and violence?
JOSHUA HAMMER: I'm afraid I see only more violence, sectarian strife, and irresolvable conflict. The Al Aqsa intifada, which was the subject of my second book, A Season in Bethlehem: Unholy War in a Sacred Place, illustrated for me how radical Islam, in the guise of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, can flourish in a place utterly devoid of hope. We've seen the same thing happen across the Arab World, as the promises of the Arab Spring, which I also witnessed first hand, dissolved into tribalism, sectarianism and radicalism. In all of these countries – with the single exception of Tunisia – the lack of a democratic tradition and strong institutions have made it impossible for liberals/moderates to flourish. The choices seem to be either a return to dictatorship, as in Egypt, or a breakdown into anarchy and extremism, as in Libya, Yemen and Syria. There's not a lot of hope there.
STAY THIRSTY: After twenty-five years of covering stories emanating from Africa, is there a one form of government that naturally fits the continent or is African governance a messy business that differs from country-to-county and region-to-region? Do you see US, European, Russian or Chinese influence becoming more important in Africa and if so, which countries are in play?
JOSHUA HAMMER: African governance is indeed a messy business, blighted by weak institutions, big men addicted to power, and ubiquitous corruption. That's not to say that there aren't some bright spots, but even the countries that have managed reasonably successful transitions to democracy, like South Africa, are being held back by deeply-flawed governments. It's not surprising that China has gained so much ground in many of these countries, offering the kinds of things that dictators love – roads, dams – while keeping silent about the things that dictators hate to talk about, i.e. human rights.
STAY THIRSTY: What is next on your agenda?
JOSHUA HAMMER: I'm currently in Kabul, Afghanistan, on assignment for GQ Magazine. I'm going down to Uruzgan province, one of the country's poorest and most conflict-ridden areas, to write about an eleven-year-old boy who died a hero fighting the Taliban. It's a story about the culture of violence and tribalism in Afghanistan and about why the US has been barely able to improve the situation here – in fact many would argue it's far worse now – after 15 years of war. I just seem to be drawn back again and again to these kinds of places. I can't stay away.