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

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    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.
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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.

"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.

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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.

Aside from obvious safety concerns, the security situation impedes many aspects of daily life. If there wasn't a war, for example, Eskander's commute would be less than five minutes. As it is now, it can take over an hour, if he makes it to the office at all. Military checkpoints create delays and car bombings can shut down entire roadways. On his longest commute, Eskander waited at three checkpoints before a car bombing pushed him on to congested side roads. Fortunately, Eskander, who hates driving, has a personal driver – not an uncommon luxury in the Middle East – to navigate the gridlocks.

Security around the library has noticeably improved since late September, says Eskander. Recent community efforts combined with US and Iraqi military campaigns have purged many fighters from the area.

Eskander inadvertently attained international notoriety chronicling daily life in Iraq in a web diary. Several international newspapers even posted links to it on their websites. He updated the journal from November 2006 to July 2007, but after nine months, announced its end.

"For sometime now, I have felt deep-down that I have been exploiting the tragedies and sacrifices of my staff, especially those who lost their lives," he wrote. "I discovered that by writing the diary I put a very heavy moral burden on my shoulders; as if I have been emotionally blackmailing the readers. I do strongly believe that I have no right to do so. I seize this opportunity to apologize sincerely to everybody."

In Cambridge, Eskander says there was more to his decision to stop writing. "I was exhausted mentally and psychologically. It's not easy to write about the suffering of the people you know," he says. "I felt as if I was waiting for bad things to happen in order to write about them, so this is awful. I felt guilty, as if I was selling them."

As a librarian, he acknowledges the importance of diarists documenting history, but feels he's done his part. "This is the diary of someone who works in the government. We need the views of ordinary citizens who work on the street," says Eskander.

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In March 2006, Eskander sent his most promising employee, a young web designer named Ali Salih, to Florence, Italy for training. Eight months after he returned, a group of four gunmen stopped Mr. Salih's car, forced him out, and shot him repeatedly in front of his younger sister.

In his diary, Eskander later described the shooting based on an account by one of Salih's brothers. "The street, the scene of the crime, was very busy that morning. But no one dare [sic] to intervene," wrote Eskander.

Face to face, Eskander characteristically reveals little emotion recounting the incident, but smiles warmly when he says, "[Ali] was the symbol of the new National Library and Archive. He represented modernity and modernization."

When he first started working at the library, Eskander says, "[the staff] thought I would leave Baghdad after one or two months, because they thought the security situation and the extent of the damage [to the library] would demoralize me."

Nearly four and a half years later, he's still there. Thanks to donations from several non-government organizations and the Czech Republic, much of the national library has been restored.

Still, there's always the threat of violence erupting at the library again. At a speech at the Boston Public Library, someone asked if Eskander is worried about another attack. He explained patiently that he budgets for extra guards and ammunition, but it's clear that for Eskander, the value of a national library far outweighs the risk of losing it again.

"Culture is important, especially secular culture and especially an institution that documents the cultural and scientific achievements of a nation," says Eskander. "The country was on the verge of dismemberment and institutions like us and like the Iraqi Museum could play a role in the fact that they provide common symbols to all Iraqis. We are not a sectarian institution; we are a national institution."

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