Global Policy Forum

Iraq’s Ruined Library Soldiers On


By R.H. Lossin

The Nation
April 9, 2008

The brutalities of the Iraq war accumulate so fast it is difficult to keep track. But in this season of fifth-year anniversaries, one largely forgotten crime demands to be recalled, in part because it relates directly to the politics of memory itself. Five years ago this week, US troops stood by as looters sacked the Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA)--one of the oldest and most used in the world. In Arab countries the old expression was "Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads."

American troops were under orders not to intervene. Library staff who requested protection from the GI's were told, "We are soldiers, not policemen" or "our orders do not extend to protecting this [building]." American military orders did, however, extend to guarding the Ministry of Oil, and the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein's secret police.

The selective passivity of US forces was not only ethically questionable, but also a violation of international law. The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) makes clear that libraries should not only be spared attack in wartime but also actively protected. Despite the sack of a major cultural institution and the collapse of the society around it, the library struggles on, continuing a long tradition of resurrection from the ashes of war. The world's first library was located in Mosul, in Northern Iraq. It was built in the 7th century BCE and produced the first known catalog in history. In 1927 a British archeological team unearthed it and, for "purposes of preservation", carried off many of its artifacts--including the oldest known copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first great work of world literature.

Iraq's intellectual golden era came later and coincided with the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258) whose capital was established at Baghdad. In 832, the construction of the Byat al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) established the new capital as an unrivaled center of scholarship and intellectual exchange. The tradition of research there brought advances in astronomy, optics, physics and mathematics. The father of algebra, Al-Khawarizmii, labored among its scrolls. It was here that many of the Greek and Latin texts we accept as the foundation of Western thought were translated, catalogued and preserved. And it was from Baghdad that these works would eventually make their way to medieval Europe and help lift that continent from its benighted, post-Roman intellectual torpor.

In 1258, the Mongols descended on Baghdad and emptied the libraries into the Tigris, ending the city's scholarly preeminence enjoyed for nearly 500 years. "Hence the legend developed," as one scholar wrote, "that the river ran black from the ink of the countless texts lost in this manner, while the streets ran red with the blood of the city's slaughtered inhabitants." But under the Ottoman Empire, the library recovered and carried on. And despite decades of repression and deprivation under Saddam, intellectual accomplishments were still regarded as a major aspect of Iraq's cultural identity.

The sacking of the library that began April 11, 2003, was a bad one. The current Director of Iraq's National Library and Archive, Dr. Saad Eskander, estimates that over three days, as many as "60 percent of the Ottoman and Royal Hashemite era documents were lost as well as the bulk of the Ba'ath era documents.... [and] approximately 25 percent of the book collections were looted or burned." Other Iraqi manuscript collections and university libraries suffered similar fates.

Since then, Iraqis have once again tried to rebuild their library. The occupying powers have played along, but like so much about the Iraq War, their effort has been marked by ineptitude, hypocrisy and a cruel disregard for Iraqi people and culture. Early in the occupation, L. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), demonstrated an unwillingness to provide the basic funds necessary for the reconstruction of Iraq's educational and informational infrastructure. Dr. Rene Teijgeler, senior consultant for Culture for the Iraqi Reconstruction Management office at the American Embassy in Baghdad, left his position in February of 2005, not having "the supplies of ready cash that could be used to acquire something as simple as bookshelves." His position was left empty. When John Agresto, the education czar of the CPA, asked for $1.2 billion to make Iraqi universities viable centers of learning: he received $9 million. He asked USAID for 130,000 classroom desks, and received 8,000.

So the NLA staff have looked elsewhere, occasionally finding pieces of the old collection for sale there on Al Mutanabi street, home to Baghdad's booksellers. In fact Al Mutanabi is the source of 95 percent of the books purchased to replace the looted collection of Iraq's National Library and Archive. But Al Mutanabi was destroyed by a car bomb in March of 2007.

In a speech to the Internet Librarian International conference in 2004, Dr. Eskander described the state of the INLA: "When I was officially appointed as the new DG, INLA faced several challenges. It was the most damaged cultural institution in the country. The building was in a ruinous state; there was no money, no water, no electricity, no papers, no pens, no furniture (apart [from] 50 plastic chairs). The morale of employees [was] very low. Three departments out of 18 were half-functioning." Despite this state of near-total ruin, the budget awarded by the CPA for the INLA in 2004, was only $70,000.

In addition to material and financial obstacles, Dr. Eskander has had to contend with the problems arising from the immaterial legacy of a totalitarian dictatorship. In sharp contrast to the de-Baathification of Iraqi society by the CPA, a purely negative process of removing ranking members of the party from civil service positions, the INLA has adopted a comprehensive approach to restructuring institutional relations. "I removed all corrupt and lazy elements from positions of responsibility, while promoting a number of qualified young female staff to higher positions...The culture of taking orders was dominant," Eskander said. "Staff members were unable to and sometimes afraid of taking initiative. I have encouraged them to be proactive and creative. The new culture has begun gradually but steadily to take root in the internal life of NLA. I radically changed the mechanisms of decision-making and implementation by democratizing them. Now, librarians and archivists elect their own representatives who will participate at the meetings of the council of managers, where decisions are made. These representatives can monitor all activities within NLA and meet the DG anytime they want."

The INLA now provides transportation for all of its 425 employees (up from 95 and not counting a security staff of 36) despite the rising costs of private security. It houses a functional nursery in order to maintain its female staff. (American libraries, whose staff is 85 percent female and whose directors are 45 percent male, could take a cue.)

Many dedicated people have offered important solidarity. In Florence, the city government underwrote construction of a conservation lab. The Czech government funded the training of Iraqi archivists. With the exception of invaluable training sessions organized by private educational institutions such as Harvard University, American support has been limited to a relatively small number of individual scholars, a few dedicated nonprofit agencies, nominal USAID support and the cooperation of a handful of private corporations. In 2005 the American Library Association issued a resolution on the connection between the Iraq war and libraries, calling for a full withdrawal of troops and a redistribution of funding but the conversation never extended much further than the bullet points.

The US State Department has created the Iraq Virtual Science Library, which provides access to a large number of health and science databases to institutions throughout the country. But Internet access, like electricity, is intermittent at best. Iraq is, after all, a largely collapsed society.

Many other more promising projects have been abandoned or left in a state of limbo for lack of funding. Efforts at book donation have become ever more challenging as the security situation worsens and thus have largely stopped. The British National Library has provided recently published English-language social science texts and donated microfilm copies of its colonial administrative records from its last occupation of Iraq. But the replacement of physical documents largely ends here.

It would be unfair and frankly absurd to blame American librarians and their shrinking budgets, rising legal costs and increasingly costly dependence on proprietary databases for the state of Iraq's infrastructure. But the increasingly unstable position of American libraries is actually part of the same logic that produced that war. The disdain for cultural institutions does not stop at the border--bombs there, budget cuts here.

That said, the lack of solidarity from the American community of librarians and scholars for their Iraqi counterparts is shameful. Rousseau suggested that empathy is the basis of language and communication. If the raison d'íªtre of the library profession is the preservation and dissemination of information, and thus the communication of ideas and the promotion of open discourse, then this question of empathy and solidarity should be the profession's guiding purpose. Books might seem like an afterthought for people facing violent death, poverty and shattered future, yet the library now receives 750 patrons a month. If there is any hope for stability and reconstruction in Iraq, a little more library solidarity is due.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Destruction of Cultural Heritage
More Information on Consequences of the War and Occupation of Iraq


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