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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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