Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Two Profiles of Saad Eskander

Two excellent profiles of Iraqi National Library Director Dr. Saad Eskander have appeared yesterday and today. The first comes via the BBC's Jane Beresford. She notes the disastrous state of the library and its collections when Dr. Eskander assumed leadership of the institution in December 2003. The looting and arson that occurred with the fall of Saddam's regime was responsible for much of this damage, but not all of it:

Sixty percent of the archival materials and 95% of the rare book collections had been destroyed or were missing.

Most had been lost in the aftermath of the invasion but others had gone missing long before.

"During Saddam's regime all Jewish schools and synagogues were closed down and the Ministry of the Interior confiscated all of these books," says Mr Eskander.

"So when I was appointed, the first thing I did was to search for the remaining Hebrew books and we did succeed in saving a huge number, some of them published in the 17th and 18th Centuries."

Ms. Beresford describes the often horrific conditions that Dr. Eskander and his staff confront on a daily basis. According to him, they are indeed targeted by radical Islamists because they are librarians:

He believes his work makes him and his colleagues targets.

"Archivists like me represent secular culture and they want to stop normality and disrupt our daily lives," he says.

The piece also discusses the jihadists' most horrific assault on intellectual freedom in the new Iraq:

His darkest day was when al-Mutanabbi Street, known in Baghdad as the Street of Booksellers and where the Inla buys 95% of its new material, was bombed.

"For decades under Saddam's regime al-Mutanabbi was the place were illegal books were copied underground," he explains.

"It was a symbol of resistance. After the downfall of Saddam new publications started to emerge on that street, especially progressive books on sociology and so on.

"It represented the new Iraq and that was why it was targeted."

The second article appears in today's Christian Science Monitor, and adds further details about the situation confronting Dr. Eskander and the library:

Like most librarians, Saad Eskander, director of the Iraq National Library and Archive in Baghdad, has to deal with a number of disturbances: people speaking loudly in the study area, lost books, and the occasional sniper fire or Katyusha rocket attack.

"Our building was rocketed a few times," says Dr. Eskander, in the same level tone he might use to describe a trip to the grocery store. "It was mortared and part of our fence was destroyed.... Stray bullets and sometimes snipers' bullets smashed some windows as well, including my office."

Though none of Eskander's staff have been injured in these attacks, five have been killed in sectarian violence, and death threats have displaced dozens of his 300-plus staffers.

As the Monitor article points out, the security environment near the library has improved substantially in the last few months. In addition, Dr. Eskander and his staff have made major progress in restoring the library and its collections despite all the dangers. Still, residual terrorism and sectarian violence plus bureaucratic corruption pose significant challenges for the library.


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