Iraq's Library Struggles To Piece Together National History

Roundup: Talking About History

Rory McCarthy, The Guardian (London), 12/21/04

From the outside it is an unpromising sight. The brickwork of the three-storey building is scarred with black scorch marks from last year's looting, and the cold concrete wall and floors are still bare where the furniture and fittings were stripped away. Only the sign above the entrance was spared, a blue-tiled mosaic announcing to the few who still visit: The House of Books and Documents.

This had been one of Iraq's greatest treasures: a national library that held ancient works of Arab literature, a vast archive of Ottoman-era grandeur, the papers of the British-sponsored monarchy and latterly the obsessively recorded and often chilling evidence of the past 30 years of Ba'ath party rule. The daylight burning of the library, which the invading US military did not protect, was one of the first costly failures in the post-war chaos of occupation last year.

Now it is slowly being restored. But in a country where recent history remains bitterly disputed, resurrecting the library and national archive has turned into a remarkably sensitive and political operation.

Saad Eskander steps away from his desk in a small office in a building beside the library, and walks over to the tall metal safe in the corner to bring out one of his finds. It is a thin book dating from the end of the Ottoman era. Inside is a carefully handwritten ledger of property transactions, each entry neatly signed and sealed with a yellow paper stamp marked with a star and crescent."It is extremely important," said Mr Eskander, the library's director."We had 1,000 of these volumes. Now there are two or three."

In many cases, the property transactions recorded in the pages of these books still stand today. Visitors have come asking to look through the books, hoping to find the evidence that will allow them to reclaim family homes and land appropriated by Saddam Hussein's regime.

"We tell them: 'Sorry we can't help you,' because we don't know how much has been lost, perhaps 90%. It will break the heart of a lot of people," Mr Eskander said.

A Kurdish historian who lived in exile for many years and studied at the London School of Economics, Mr Eskander believes the fires that devastated the library last year were carefully targeted.

Two in mid-April destroyed all the records of the republican era from 1958 until the present, including most of the Ba'ath regime's documents.

He estimates the library lost about 60% of its archive, including most of its rare books. Many of the oldest books were moved out before the war and hidden in a nearby government tourist office. In July last year they were found floating in water because a pipe had burst.

Although most appear damaged beyond repair, they have been wrapped in plastic and frozen until Iraq's librarians have the skills and equipment to restore them.

Mr Eskander has found other rare books from the library for sale in street markets, apparently stolen or dumped during the looting.

During the Saddam years the library functioned as a quiet instrument of dictatorship. Little was done to preserve records, such as the important Ottoman property deeds, and many books were simply relegated to an unseen"forbidden books" section.

"This was a dictatorship afraid of new ideas, new theories, new concepts that would question their cultural conformity. They were afraid of anything new," said Mr Eskander."They wanted conformity. They didn't believe in multiculturalism and the multi-party system."

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