An Archive of Despair
Saad Eskander Works To Protect Iraq Library From Bombs and Mold

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 7, 2007


Saad Eskander sat behind his chocolate-colored desk, another day in a promising, but broken, place.

Sunlight peeked through bullet holes in the shattered bathroom window of his top floor office at the Iraq National Library and Archive, where he is director. Downstairs, power cuts took a toll on books. And earlier on the morning of March 5, he said farewell to an employee who was fleeing the capital. Her brother had been murdered.

To his right, glass bookcases contained the rarest books and manuscripts in the building. To his left, floor-to-ceiling windows provided a view of the world outside. At 11:40 a.m. the windows shook. "Every day we hear this," said Eskander, his soft voice hardening. Calmly, he stood up and gazed out at the fog of black smoke and white paper drifting toward the sky, half a mile away. "This is not the closest one. I've lost count of the bombs."

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, looters pillaged and burned the library. Now, on the brink of the fourth anniversary of Saddam Hussein's fall, and several weeks into a new security offensive, Eskander and his staff are struggling to preserve the fragments of Iraq's ancient heritage at a place he calls the "historical memory of the country."

"What makes a Kurd or a Sunni or a Shia have something in common is a national library," he said. "It is where the national identity of a country begins."

The library today is humming with young employees. Religion and politics are checked at the door. But the same forces fracturing Iraq are slowing the library's progress: violence, bureaucracy, sectarianism, political rivalries and a lack of basic services.

Eskander walked away from his desk, where he keeps shards from mortar bombs as souvenirs, his eyes inspecting the glass bookcases. "Stay away from the windows," he urged.

He looked again at the smoke mushrooming in the distance. "I think it is coming from al-Mutanabi Street," he said.

Mutanabi Street was the intellectual heart of Baghdad, filled with booksellers and booklovers. Eskander often went there to add to the library's collection. He later learned that the car bomb he had just heard outside killed at least 26 people, including a bookseller he knew.

He ordered his guards to stop any staff from leaving the building out of concern for their safety. Through the windows, he watched the ambulances pass by. Over the next several days, he wrote his thoughts in an online diary (

Monday, 5 March

This day will be always remembered, as the day when books were assassinated by the forces of darkness, hatred and fanaticism. . . . Tens of thousands of papers were flying high, as if the sky was raining books, tears and blood. The view was surreal. Some of the papers were burning in the sky.

* * *

Eskander, 44, is slim and firm, with a long, angled face, short, wavy hair peppered with gray flecks, and round glasses. An ethnic Kurd born in Baghdad, he joined the Kurdish resistance in the mountains of northern Iraq when he was 19, then later lived in Iran and Syria. At 28, he moved to England, where he earned a doctorate and became a British citizen.

After the invasion, Eskander was among a phalanx of Iraqi expatriates who streamed into Baghdad to help rebuild. By then, thousands of antiquities had been looted from the National Museum and archaeological sites in a nation with 11 centuries of history. During a three-day rampage at the National Library and Archive, looters stole hundreds of rare, centuries-old Islamic documents and texts, including a 16th-century treatise by the ancient Islamic philosopher Ibn Sina. Military and national security records were torched, apparently to erase evidence. Fire, smoke and water damaged much of the remaining texts.

Before he accepted his job, Eskander drove past the charred, partly gutted building. A few employees sat outside with blank looks, he recalled. On the first day, "I didn't have any chair to sit on. There was no electricity, no water. Dogs and cats lived inside the library."

Saturday, 10 March

Three bombs exploded in my neighborhood. Two bombs went off at 7.30. They violently shook my flat, as I was watching some TV programme. At 13.20, another bomb exploded in my neighborhood. It shook my flat.

I spent the whole day writing and reading in my room.

* * *

Unlike in other government buildings, there are no portraits of politicians or clerics at the library. Eskander won't allow it, nor jokes with sectarian overtones.

"When you work in the government, you shouldn't be a Kurd or a Sunni or a Shia," said Eskander. "You should be Iraqi."

In a society that is male-dominated, the library encourages women's rights, has a women's society and has a day-care center. Promotions are handed out based on merit -- not political influence or religious affiliations.

"He's very democratic," said Nadia Hassan, who is in charge of the library's Web site. "He is changing people's ideas."

In one room, six female and two male employees work on modern restoration equipment donated by Italy and the Czech Republic. On this day, they are preserving a yellowing 127-year-old Ottoman Empire legal record, gently cleaning off the dust and grime.

But Eskander's most prized treasures are inside his office. One bookcase contains rare 19th-century texts. Another contains old Hebrew books. Under the government of Hussein, they were placed in a damp, forgotten corner because the staff feared they would be seen as aiding Israel, said Eskander. Today, he worries about the religious Shiite fundamentalists exerting influence over Iraq's education and culture.

"I know such books will anger a lot of narrow-minded people," he said.

Monday, 19 March

The snipers attacked a number of civilians from their positions in al-Fadhel. The INLA had electricity for only 40 minutes. Power-cuts began to effect our work, especially in the Computer and Micrographic Departments. . . . Corruption and restricted regulations have prevented me from repairing the generator since mid-2006.

* * *

The library is nestled in one of Baghdad's most violent killing zones, sandwiched between the Sunni insurgent havens of Haifa Street and the Fadhel neighborhood. In February, a Sunni insurgent ambushed two employees, a Sunni and a Shiite, near the library and forced them at gunpoint to cross the street into Fadhel. The Sunni was beaten up and released. The Shiite was shot dead. He was the fifth employee killed over the past year.

Another day, a receptionist brought in his murdered son's coffin and asked for money to bury him.

When the Ministry of Defense, controlled by Sunnis, wanted to use the library's roof as a guard post, Eskander refused. He was concerned about the nearby Ministry of Health, under the grip of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "Everybody knows we're neutral, neither Sunni or Shia," said Eskander.

But that hasn't stopped Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen from sometimes shooting at them from the roof of the Ministry of Health, he added.

In 2005, Eskander received a death threat ordering him to stop renovating the library. He ignored it. Since then, to protect himself, his wife and his baby son, he has changed houses and neighborhoods four times.

Next to the front door of his office, a woman has set up a stall that sells snacks and candy at Eskander's request. He doesn't want his staff risking death for a meal.

"I am trying to build a restaurant here, so nobody will leave the building," said Eskander, as he passed the stall.

Sunday, 25 March

Several bullets hit the rear facade of the building. One bullet made two holes: one in the exterior window and the second in the interior window of the English collections room. Miss, S, our point of contact with the Ministry of Culture, was weeping when she entered my office. The flat that she shares with her sister's family was damaged extensively in Saturday's car bomb attack, which killed 30 people, mostly police officers. The staff decided to collect some money to help her.

* * *

In a room filled with 32 computers, where Eskander's staff is creating a digital library to preserve aging texts, the power is out. Eskander has a pained expression on his face. But he continues with his meeting. He's trying to breed a new generation of employees and weed out the remnants of the Hussein years, when political and tribal affiliation mattered most in a job.

The department once had 23 employees. Now there are 16. The violence outside forced most to quit. One never got that option. In a corner of the room, pictures of Ali Salih, 27, the former director of the Web site, hang next to a computer. Gunmen killed him in December as he approached the National Library, explained Hassan as she stood next to his empty chair, with tears in her eyes. He was her best friend, she said.

"We pay a price in different ways," said Eskander. "But I keep them busy. I make jokes. I try to make life much better than outside. A lot of them see their job here as something that distracts them from that reality."

Monday, 26 March

The fighting broke out again. . . . The roundabout and the streets were being shelled by mortars, while armed men open fires on the pedestrians. The entire INLA's staff caught in the crossfire. One of my librarians, who is partially disabled, lost his balance and fell on his head on the pavement. He was bleeding, unable to stand on his feet. As the fighting abated, some people came to his rescue.

* * *

Eskander walked downstairs, through a cacophony of hammers and saws of workmen renovating rooms, past children playing, until he entered the archive on the bottom floor. Inside, 19th- and 20th-century books, journals and newspapers, once covered with thick dust, are now neatly organized on metal shelves.

But they are perishing because of a lack of ventilation and electricity, and a harsh lighting system. Eskander and his staff are scanning the texts, as fast as they can, onto microfiche.

"We are fighting for their lives," he said. "It makes me angry."

In local newspapers and in his online diary, he has publicly criticized the culture minister and other politicians for not doing enough to protect Iraq's heritage. He speaks to foreign journalists without authorization from his superiors.

"They put hurdles in our way. So we have to find ways behind their backs. Sometimes illegal, but it's in our interest," said Eskander. "If you are a traditionalist, obey laws and obey instructions, you will achieve nothing."

He admits he has stolen books and documents for the library. Once, he said, he retrieved a truckload of documents dating from Iraq's monarchical times from the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraq's government. He told U.S. officials that the cache was worthless. "I did a lot of Ali Baba things in Baghdad," he said. He travels regularly to Europe to solicit donations, even though his bosses find it embarrassing. In October, he visited the State Department and the Library of Congress seeking help to purchase more scanners and create the digital library.

He is also providing the world with an unvarnished view of Iraq. Millions read his online diary, which is linked to the British national library Web site.

"He represents hope," said Catriona Finlayson, a spokesperson for the British Library. "He's trying to ensure a future for the next generation. It's important that Iraqis rebuild their country. It's also important that they don't forget their past."

Wednesday, 28 March

I was surprised to learn that Miss Kh showed up to work. She was kidnapped along with 3 men, including the driver, and 6 women. . . . The kidnappers beat up the driver and his male passengers, before releasing the women. . . . She ends the conversation with the same old question: why do not you leave and return to Europe ? I give her the same answer: how can I abandon nice people like you?

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