Report from Baghdad: 4 Scholars Reveal What They Found During a Visit in JuneNews Abroad
Located at the northern end of Baghdad’s historic core between the Tigris and the old Ministry of Defence complex, Bayt al-Hikma has taken its name from a translation/research institute founded by the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun in 832 CE that was famous for its translations of Greek philosophical texts into Arabic. The modern Bayt al-Hikma was established in 1995 by the Presidential Office itself. As originally conceived, this Bayt al-Hikma functioned as a research center, with lecture facilities, publications, a library and museum. The faculty associates of Bayt al-Hikma were drawn from the various universities in Baghdad and divided according to discipline. Junior researchers received stipends and office space at the institute. It produced several journals, including a monthly general interest cultural magazine, the Majallat al-Hikma as well as useful editions/translations of sources and documents in foreign languages.
Before the fall of the regime, the Bayt al-Hikma acquired the reputation of being intimately tied to the elite inner-circles of power. Doctoral dissertations and other scholarly work attributed to members of Saddam Hussein’s family were ghost-written by faculty affiliates. More generally, the Bayt al-Hikma served as a center for the production of regime-sanctioned knowledge and political orthodoxy. It was surprising then that of all the institutions in Baghdad, it has been among the first to receive money for redevelopment from the CPA. The staff have begun repairing and repainting one wing of the complex with a $17,000 grant from Ambassador Cordone’s predecessor, the American diplomat John Limbert. New computers were in evidence as were chairs and tables. When asked about why his office had moved quickly on behalf of Bayt al-Hikma, Cordone, replied that it had been “cleansed” of high-ranking Baathists, estimating that 75 people had been removed. He also noted that a new international board of trustees for the institute was being formed to oversee its redevelopment. Despite Cordone’s support, the future of Bayt al-Hikma is problematic: Erdmann anticipates that for ideological reasons it may be allowed to “wither away.”
We asked the chair of the history program of Bayt al-Hikma, the Medievalist Dr. Abdul-Jaffar al-Naji about the connections with the ancien régime. He admitted that these were complex and shaped by the repressive nature of the Baathists. However, in an interesting turn, he used words like “re-establish” and “re-institute” to describe the ongoing work of the institution. These were not references to the pre-war efforts of Bayt al-Hikma, but rather to the original 9th Century version thereof. This style of conscious anachronism was a central practice of Baathist nationalist historicist thought and it is significant that this institution has fallen back into that pattern. Consistent with its “forerunner,” the center was refocusing efforts on translation, organizing a conference of Orientalists in November on the civilization of Wadi al-Rafidain (Mesopotamia) and publishing a multi-volume work on the history of Ashurnasirpal’s Babylon. Again, this focus on the pre-Islamic “Arab” past of Mesopotamia – the “restoration” of Babylon being the most prominent example of the phenomenon – was a key element of the nationalist metanarratives employed by the regime and invented and defended by faculty from the Bayt al-Hikma. During our two visits, we noted a cautiousness, defensiveness and lack of openness on the part of most of the faculty at Bayt al-Hikma.
The building that once housed the National Library and Archives is located on Rashid Street opposite the Mandate-era buildings of the old Ministry of Defence. The modern three-storied structure has four wings built around a central courtyard. It included library stacks, reading rooms, microform reading equipment, bindery, photocopying offices, laser printers and photography labs. For a précis on its holdings see the previous report of group member Edouard Méténier at the MELCOM website. We met twice with library staff, including the current director, Mr. Kamil Jawad Ashur. On the second occasion, we made a complete visual survey of the building’s interior itself. We should note that the “Hawza” has added their own guards, complete with a semblance of a uniform of black shirts, slacks and beards, to the library – perhaps not trusting the library staff to adequately care for what is left, or to monitor events at the library and their interests therein.
According to library employees and representatives of the “Hawza,” the library fell victim to two separate arson attacks. During the first attack, while the Americans were at the gates of Baghdad, looters took most of the high-ticket items like photocopiers, computers, scanners and office equipment. A small fire broke-out in the building at that time, perhaps to cover the tracks of the looters. In a point that is still unclear, Ashur noted that employees moved books from the offlimits collection – perhaps both rare and politically sensitive books –to what he termed a “secret safe location” before the hostilities. He refused to disclose the location to us; noting, quite rightly that it would then “no longer be a secret.” When asked if the CPA knew of the location of this cache of books, he assured us they did. In our conversation with Ashur, he estimated that 50% of the library’s collection burned. Later discoveries cast doubt on the amount destroyed, and actual numbers may be an order of magnitude less than estimated. He was unwilling to share with us how he reached this figure and there are no records whatsoever of what is stored in various remote locations.
Ashur confirmed that among the items packed and stored before the war were newspapers, periodicals and Ottoman archival materials including tapu (cadastral) registers, sijils (court proceedings) and firmans (imperial decrees.) He thinks that around 350 tapu documents and no more than one half of the 1500 sijil records remain. He also confirmed that over the last five or six years the central authorities moved the entire Ottoman collection of Mosul and about half of the Ottoman collection of Basra to Baghdad. The complete lack of precision and the fact that stories often shifted and amounts of books and other materials ranged so widely from day to day, led us again to doubt the overall veracity of the employees’ accounts of what occurred and moreover their competence as library administrators.
Nothing prepared us for the sheer horror of the interior of the library. All that remains in the main wing are piles of ash that had been books. The heat in the entry hall of the library had been so intense that it had begun to melt the ceramic floor tiles. Much of the structure had lost integrity from the heat and the cement walls crumbled at the touch. Those areas not directly burned, perhaps half the building, are covered in an oily soot which has provided a useful medium for graffiti. Scattered throughout the library is the phrase “Death to Saddam the Apostate” and signed by the “Hawza,” suggesting that they saw their intervention on behalf of the library as a combination of civic duty, religious activism and a blow against the memory of the regime. Iraqi engineers and representatives from Cordone’s office inspected the building and pronounced it unusable. The ambassador informed us that he hopes to be able to use the officers’ club building at al-Balat al-Malki as a temporary storage location while a new structure is built. Plans for this move are tentative. There are no immediate plans to rebuild the library, and the future employment status of the library employees is unclear.
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