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[BKARTS] Basra's chief librarian spirited away priceless volumes to safety

Saviour of Iraq's books

Basra's chief librarian spirited away priceless volumes to safety

BASRA - Ms 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 Quran.
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 periodicals.

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 2.1m-high wall, to
the back room of a restaurant and then later into trucks to carry
them to her home.

Friends and library employees were enlisted as caretakers for troves
of the books.

The books constitute about 70 per cent - all that there was time to
save - of the library's collection. Nine days later, the library
building was gutted in a mysterious fire.

The survival of the books is all the more remarkable because in
Baghdad, looters left both the National Library and a government
building containing thousands of illuminated Qurans in smouldering

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 had requested permission from Basra's
governor to move the books to safety but he refused without giving an

Ms Baker, however, was 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 Quran, the first thing God said to Muhammad was 'Read',' she

Under her guidance, the library became a saloon where doctors,
lawyers, professors and artists met each afternoon.

'My office wasn't a room for dignitaries,' she said. 'It was a room
for gatherings.'

As soon as the war started, government offices were moved into the
library, a modern assemblage of tall cubes. An anti-aircraft 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 turned to the restaurant next door, the Hamdan,
and asked one of the owners, Mr Anis Muhammad, for help.

'What could I do?' Mr Muhammad said as he remembered her plea. 'It is
the whole history of Basra.'

At the library, the carpets, furniture and lights had already been

Mr Muhammad, 49, enlisted his brothers and employees. Armful after
armful of books was taken from the library, passed over the wall and
stacked in the Hamdan's empty dining rooms.

Soon, other shopkeepers from across the street chipped in to move the

'The books related to Saddam Hussein, we left them,' said Mr Hussein
Muhammad al-Salem al-Zambqa, whose shop offers perfumed powder puffs
and lavender bras.

'The people who carried the books, not all of them were educated.
Some of them could not write or could not read, but they knew they
were precious books.'

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
then retire.

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 neighbourhood, Ms Baker heard whispers that she herself was a
looter. 'People were looking at me saying, 'Why is this woman
bringing books?' People are stealing much more valuable things than
that.' -- New York Times





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