Dispatch from Iraq

At the Erbil Literature Festival.

In a garden blossoming with roses stands the Erbil Public Library, also known as the Zaytun Library ("zaytun" meaning "olive" in Arabic), in a city that is part of Iraqi-Kurdistan, and the fourth largest city in Iraq. Here, I took part in a panel discussion about libraries, one of a series of events at the splendid inaugural Erbil Literature Festival in Iraq, organised by the British Council inpartnership with local Iraqi organisations including the Iraqi Writers Union. The panel featured Dr Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archive in Baghdad, and Inaam Kachachi, author of The American Granddaughter, and was chaired by Dr Rachel Holmes. All shared stories about how vital libraries have been in both their life and their literature. That free public libraries are a democratising force is strongly apparent in Iraq, which suffered the near-obliteration of its libraries under the Ba'athist dictatorship.

"If you tell the life of the library you are also telling the life of the city and the country," said Eskander, who, from 2006-2007, documented daily life in the library. "It was by far the worst day of the year," begins one chilling diary entry. As soon as he arrived at the library, there were explosions; the Ministry of Health had been bombed, mere metres away. At 11am, he received the devastating news that one of his young Kurdish employees had been assassinated in front of his younger sister. Eskander had previously sent him to Florence, Italy to be trained as a web designer and he had constructed their official website. "He was the symbol of modernisation and reform process," says Eskander. After his death, "morale was at its lowest".

Under the Saddam Hussein regime, libraries in Iraq, which had tried to meet the needs of the locals, suffered from budget cuts. The public library network collapsed. No new books were edited. Illegal photocopying of books took place. Library archivists lived in isolation from the rest of the world, not benefitting from training. During the invasion of 2003, most Iraqi cultural institutions were burned or looted apart from the region of Kurdistan. The National Library and Archive suffered considerable material and cultural damage, losing about 60 per cent of its archival collections, and the building itself was burnt and looted.

"We started from below zero to modernise," said Eskander. "It also gave us an opportunity to reform; we started with the concept of what it means to be a National Library: was it a library for all Iraqis regardless of their religious and ethnic background? It had instead become a tool of repression; to impose ideological conformity." Kurdish and left-wing publications had previously been blacklisted, so Eskander attempted to change the policy of the library by removing censorship, restoring damaged documents and rare books, and expanding the infrastructure of the institution by adding new buildings. Archivists and librarians received training. A group of restorers were sent to Italy and the French Republic and tried to collect publications that were relevant to a democratic Iraq. "The aim is to enable researchers and university students to put an end to one-sided interpretations of the past," explained Eskander.

His staff were worried for Eskander's own safety and asked him to leave the country. But with two young children, this was a difficult choice. Now, Eskander lives in Baghdad, where he has employed a new generation of archivists; Kurds and Arabs work side by side, and there is a greater sense of optimism. Youngsters in the audience spoke about their desire for new technologies. Another audience member pointed out that theirs was a country in which a great majority of the budget is spent on war and spoke of hopes that experts from the UK would share their skills via UK-Iraqi exchanges.

As more of our libraries are closed down in the UK, it is instructive to remember just what an important role they play in a democratic society. In 1852, for instance, Charles Dickens opened the first free public lending library in Manchester, built upon the philosophy of providing "wisdom for all, regardless of background".

Elsewhere at the Erbil festival, readers in Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac shared platforms in several wonderful readings. It was clear what a unifying effect a festival such as this can have, dismantling gender and racial barriers, and celebrating free cultural expression and the exchange of ideas.

There were also some stunning and uplifting musical performances. A Kurdish folk group gave a triumphant performance and Iraq's National Youth Orchestra played as the sun set over the ruins of the grand 6,000 year-old citadel . This was a memorable and moving festival.

Anita Sethi is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. She will be speaking at the Hay Festival on 31 May. www.anitasethi.co.uk

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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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