Saad Eskander: Interview with the Iraq National Library Director

Historians in the News

Following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saad Eskander left the relative safety of England to accept the directorship of the National Library and Archives of Iraq. Librarians and cultural organizations around the world had voiced outrage over the looting and burning that occurred after the takeover, and Eskander was determined to play a role in the recovery and the establishment of a democratic government. He spoke with American Libraries Editor in Chief Leonard Kniffel by mobile phone April 14 from Baghdad, where he and his staff are struggling against unimaginable odds to return the National Library to some semblance of normalcy. This is a transcript of their conversation.

American Libraries: Describe the situation when you returned to Iraq to take the job at the National Library in 2003.

Saad Eskander: Before returning to Baghdad I knew that a number of cultural institutions were burned and looted by different groups for different motives, but I didn’t expect that the Iraq National Library and Archives was the most damaged institution in the whole of the country. The Iraqi Museum lost some of its collections, whereas the National Library lost a huge portion of its library and archival collections. The building itself sustained considerable structural damage as it was burned twice within the space of two or three days. The library was in total ruins—in a ruinous state—and I was really surprised by the extent of damage. But when I was appointed I was surprised by all the damage that affected all Iraqi cultural institutions and educational institutions. I knew I had very difficult times because the infrastructure of the institution was not there. It was destroyed totally, there was no power, no water. There was no money even to start with.

Even the staff of the Iraqi Library was totally demoralized by the looting and the destruction of their institution. So my first effort was to restore their self-confidence and make them believe that they could rebuild the National Library step-by-step. It took us over seven months to reopen the National Library main reading room for the university students and the scholars. I started to reorganize and we reopened most of the departments one by one. At that time we didn’t have an annual budget to start with, and we relied on some financial support we get from the Ministry of Culture and from some friends who went abroad. About six months later we opened the main reading room in the National Archive.

The problem too was at that time that culture is not a priority for the CPA, which is the Coalition Provisional Authority, and not by its Iraqi successor. The Iraqi Cabinet did not pay attention to the importance of culture to the new Iraq. They think culture is something that’s just not as important as education or the economic well-being of the country. So we need now to persuade the politicians that culture is extremely important for the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

American Libraries: Can you tell us why it is important to rebuild the National Library even though at this point the war is still raging?

Saad Eskander: I think that the sudden collapse of the Saddam regime created several vacuums, and one of them is a cultural vacuum. This cultural vacuum created a lot of problems for us. More traditional institutions like the mosques have begun to fill that vacuum. Secular institutions like us and the Iraqi Museum at the moment are not able to compete with the mosques because these traditional institutions have the money, they have backing, and they have the support they get from different parties, including neighboring countries. So it is extremely important for us in this particular situation to work very hard to fill that vacuum and not to allow extreme values and extreme jealousies to dominate our cultural life here in Baghdad and the rest of the country....

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