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Baghdad's brave librarian

Loud talkers, lost books ... and the occasional sniper fire, rocket attacks, and death threats are what Saad Eskander is up against in rebuilding the National Library and Archive.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 9, 2008

The book keeper: Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, who was in the Boston area recently, gave up a comfortable life in England to return home to rebuild the national library, amidst rocket fire and car bombs. The library was almost destroyed in the first month of the war.

Nicole Hill

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Cambridge, Massachusetts

Like most librarians, Saad Eskander, director of the Iraq National Library and Archive in Baghdad, has to deal with a number of disturbances: people speaking loudly in the study area, lost books, and the occasional sniper fire or Katyusha rocket attack.

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"Our building was rocketed a few times," says Dr. Eskander, in the same level tone he might use to describe a trip to the grocery store. "It was mortared and part of our fence was destroyed.... Stray bullets and sometimes snipers' bullets smashed some windows as well, including my office."

Though none of Eskander's staff have been injured in these attacks, five have been killed in sectarian violence, and death threats have displaced dozens of his 300-plus staffers.

Eskander hardly seemed the Jack Bauer of librarianship as – during a recent tour of the US – he recounted his experiences in the Cambridge apartment of his colleague, an archivist at Harvard University. A slight man, Eskander is soft-spoken and not easily excitable. His wire-rimmed glasses and slick sports coat belie the stereotype of librarians committing 30-year-old fashion faux pas. But then again, Eskander is not your typical librarian.

About 20 years ago, he was hunkered in the mountains of northern Iraq with a band of Kurdish rebels opposed to Saddam Hussein's regime. After a few years working for their underground newspaper, Eskander, a Kurd, fled to Iran where he spent several years before finally immigrating to England.

When American tanks rolled over the Kuwait-Iraq border in 2003, Eskander had lived in England for nearly 15 years. He'd become a citizen.

If he'd wanted, the quiet librarian could have lived the rest of his life without stepping foot back in Iraq. But in November 2003, he decided to contribute to Iraq's culture by developing the Iraq National Library and Archive. The new post not only placed him at the center of a violent conflict, but the library had been looted and virtually burned to the ground during the first month of the war. Rebuilding it would prove a massive undertaking.

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"I heard before visiting the National Library and Archive that it was damaged, but I did not know the extent of the damage," recounts Eskander. "I was astonished when I found it in a total ruinous state."

Arsonists trying to destroy potentially damning documents about the Baathist party burned the building twice within a three-day period, causing considerable structural damage. Looters absconded with equipment and furniture, and Iraqis whose family members had disappeared during Saddam's reign carried off documents that could offer any clue about what happened to their loved ones. The library lost approximately 95 percent of its rare books, 60 percent of the archival collections, and 25 percent of the book collection.

Eskander was also confronted by an unraveling security situation. If ever there was a place on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks – even by Iraqi standards – the National Library and Archive was it. It is sandwiched between Baathist militant strongholds, Al Qaeda hotbeds, and an American military base. Eskander has watched US helicopters rain down fire on targets just outside the library.

Even to the south, where the library is flanked by Baghdad's commercial district, there are regular car bombings.

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