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[BKARTS] Iraq's library struggles to rise from the ashes

Iraq's library struggles to rise from the ashes

Remains of national history are slowly pieced together

Rory McCarthy in Baghdad
Tuesday December 21, 2004
The Guardian

From the outside it is an unpromising sight. The brickwork of the
three-storey building is scarred with black scorch marks from last year's
looting, and the cold concrete wall and floors are still bare where the
furniture and fittings were stripped away. Only the sign above the entrance
was spared, a blue-tiled mosaic announcing to the few who still visit: The
House of Books and Documents.
This had been one of Iraq's greatest treasures: a national library that held
ancient works of Arab literature, a vast archive of Ottoman-era grandeur,
the papers of the British-sponsored monarchy and latterly the obsessively
recorded and often chilling evidence of the past 30 years of Ba'ath party
rule. The daylight burning of the library, which the invading US military
did not protect, was one of the first costly failures in the post-war chaos
of occupation last year.

Now it is slowly being restored. But in a country where recent history
remains bitterly disputed, resurrecting the library and national archive has
turned into a remarkably sensitive and political operation.

Saad Eskander steps away from his desk in a small office in a building
beside the library, and walks over to the tall metal safe in the corner to
bring out one of his finds. It is a thin book dating from the end of the
Ottoman era. Inside is a carefully handwritten ledger of property
transactions, each entry neatly signed and sealed with a yellow paper stamp
marked with a star and crescent. "It is extremely important," said Mr
Eskander, the library's director. "We had 1,000 of these volumes. Now there
are two or three."

In many cases, the property transactions recorded in the pages of these
books still stand today. Visitors have come asking to look through the
books, hoping to find the evidence that will allow them to reclaim family
homes and land appropriated by Saddam Hussein's regime.

"We tell them: 'Sorry we can't help you,' because we don't know how much has
been lost, perhaps 90%. It will break the heart of a lot of people," Mr
Eskander said.

A Kurdish historian who lived in exile for many years and studied at the
London School of Economics, Mr Eskander believes the fires that devastated
the library last year were carefully targeted.

Two in mid-April destroyed all the records of the republican era from 1958
until the present, including most of the Ba'ath regime's documents.

He estimates the library lost about 60% of its archive, including most of
its rare books. Many of the oldest books were moved out before the war and
hidden in a nearby government tourist office. In July last year they were
found floating in water because a pipe had burst.

Although most appear damaged beyond repair, they have been wrapped in
plastic and frozen until Iraq's librarians have the skills and equipment to
restore them.

Mr Eskander has found other rare books from the library for sale in street
markets, apparently stolen or dumped during the looting.

During the Saddam years the library functioned as a quiet instrument of
dictatorship. Little was done to preserve records, such as the important
Ottoman property deeds, and many books were simply relegated to an unseen
"forbidden books" section.

"This was a dictatorship afraid of new ideas, new theories, new concepts
that would question their cultural conformity. They were afraid of anything
new," said Mr Eskander. "They wanted conformity. They didn't believe in
multiculturalism and the multi-party system."

This in turn means that introducing new ideas and challenging recent history
has brought its own dangers. Like many government officials in the new Iraq,
Mr Eskander has been threatened since he started work in December last year,
after the former director was sacked.

"Every director is threatened," he said. "All of us get threats. Even former
employees are making threats; they want to return to their jobs because the
salaries have gone up."

He said that some would see the restoration of the library as an acutely
political endeavour. "It is a political job when you liberalise your
national library: you are talking about building Iraq. We removed all the
barriers that prevented leftwing books, Shia books, Kurdish books - all are
available now."

Despite the damage, the library still functions to a degree.

Mr Eskander leads the way into a large room in the main building of the
library, where a dozen women surrounded by gas heaters are poring over
records, many in English, trying to gauge their importance.

Most are from a collection of older interior ministry records stretching
back to 1920, which were hidden in rice bags in the basement and survived
the fires unaffected.

One woman consults Mr Eskander about a document she has found in English
issued on June 26 1925 by King Faisal. It is addressed to Abdul Mohsin
al-Sadun, to tell him that the prime minister has just resigned and that he
has been appointed to take his place "in view of our confidence in your
ability and reliability".

The library is now negotiating with the British Library to obtain microfilm
copies of other official documents stored in London that relate to modern
Iraqi history, as a way to replace the losses.

"This war opened a new opportunity to show people a new society in a new
state," said Mr Eskander.

"To build a new Iraq, you have to have access to the right information. Iraq
cannot be built if you distort history or write history according to
ideology. We must shed new light on our history and reconsider our past."


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