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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."