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

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories