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[BKARTS] Books Spirited to Safety Before Iraq Library Fire
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- Subject: [BKARTS] Books Spirited to Safety Before Iraq Library Fire
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- Date: Mon, 4 Aug 2003 07:32:06 +0200
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Books Spirited to Safety Before Iraq Library Fire
By SHAILA K. DEWAN
ASRA, Iraq ? Alia Muhammad Baker's house is full of books. There are
books in stacks, books in the cupboards, books bundled into flour
sacks like lumpy aid rations. Books fill an old refrigerator. Pull
aside a window curtain, and there is no view, just more books.
There are English books, Arabic books and a Spanish-language Koran.
There are manuscripts, some hundreds of years old, on the finer
points of Arabic grammar and the art of telling time. There is a
biography of the Prophet Muhammad from about 1300. All told, Ms.
Baker says, the books number about 30,000. And then there are the
These books are fugitives, and Ms. Baker, a 50-year-old librarian in
stout shoes, is the engineer of their underground railroad. As the
British forces stormed Basra in early April, she spirited the volumes
out of the city's Central Library, over a seven-foot wall, to the
back room of a restaurant and then later into trucks to carry them to
her home. Even friends and library employees have been enlisted as
caretakers for troves of the books.
The books constitute about 70 percent ? all there was time to save ?
of what was the library's collection. Nine days later, the library
building was burned in a mysterious fire.
The books' survival is all the more remarkable because, in Baghdad,
looters left both the National Library and a government building
containing thousands of illuminated Korans in smoldering ruins. Even
some manuscripts taken from the Basra library to be studied in
Baghdad were destroyed.
Despite what was saved, Ms. Baker, Basra's chief librarian for 14
years, mourns what was left behind.
"It was like a battle when the books got burned," she said. "I
imagined that those books, those history and culture and philosophy
books, were crying, `Why, why, why?' "
Before the war began, Ms. Baker requested permission from Basra's
governor to move the books to safety, but he refused without
Ms. Baker, however, is not easily deterred. Although the library did
not allow lending, over the years she often slipped books into the
hands of readers and sent them home.
"In the Koran, the first thing God said to Muhammad was `Read,' " she
Under Ms. Baker's guidance, the library became a salon, where
doctors, lawyers, professors and artists met each afternoon. "My
office wasn't a room for dignitaries," she said. "It was a room for
As soon as the war started, government offices were moved into the
library, a modern assemblage of tall cubes. An antiaircraft gun was
placed on the roof.
Ms. Baker and others said this was part of a calculated plan by the
government, which assumed that the library would be spared bombing,
or if not, the bombing would generate ill will against the allied
Ms. Baker kept going to work, but every evening she filled her car
with books and quietly took them home.
On April 6, the day the British entered the city, the job took on a
new urgency. At noon, Ms. Baker called and found that the government
workers had left the library undefended. The next morning, as
artillery fire filled the air, she checked on the library.
First she called the restaurant next door, the Hamdan, and asked one
of the owners, Anis Muhammad, for help. At the library she discovered
that carpets, furniture and lights had already been looted.
"What could I do?" Mr. Muhammad said as he remembered Ms. Baker's
plea. "It is the whole history of Basra."
Mr. Muhammad, 49, enlisted his brothers and employees. Armful after
armful of books was taken from the library, passed over the wall to
waiting hands and stacked in the Hamdan's empty dining rooms.
Shopkeepers from across the street joined in. Then some of the
neighbors began to help.
They used sacks and boxes. Ms. Baker tore down the library's curtains
to bundle the books. The group worked through the night and into the
next afternoon, carrying books on every subject but one.
"The books related to Saddam Hussein, we left them," said Hussein
Muhammad al-Salem al-Zambqa, whose nearby shop offers perfumed powder
puffs and lavender bras.
"The people who carried the books, not all of them were educated,"
Mr. Zambqa said. "Some of them could not write or could not read, but
they knew they were precious books."
The night of the fire, Mr. Muhammad said, he went to the British
asking for help, but they did nothing. The next day a British patrol
stopped at the Hamdan restaurant and asked Mr. Muhammad why he had
weapons. Mr. Muhammad held his breath, worried there might be a
search. They were only to protect his business, he told the soldiers.
"They did not know that the whole of the library was in my
restaurant," he said.
If Ms. Baker is strong, she is not invincible. After the fire, she
had a stroke. She will see that the library is rebuilt, she said, and
"The Mongol invasion, that was the last time anyone would burn a
library," she said. According to legend, in the 13th century the
Mongol leader Hulagu burned the Baghdad library but threw the books
into the Tigris, turning the river blue from ink.
After Basra grew calm, Ms. Baker and her husband hired a truck to
carry the books to her house, distributing some to trusted friends
and library employees.
In her neighborhood, Ms. Baker heard whispers that she herself was a
looter, if not the shrewdest one.
"People were looking at me saying, `Why is this woman bringing
books?' " she said. " `People are stealing much more valuable things
than that.' "
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