A Miracle Worker from Baghdad

Saad Eskander1It took four flights and twenty-seven hours for Dr Saad Eskander to reach Molde, a coastal town in Norway, home to the annual Bjørnson Festival. Arriving late on Friday, he is to give a lecture the next day and embark on the same, tiring journey back to Baghdad, his home, on Sunday morning. To add to the strain, the two nights he spends in Molde, he hardly sleeps. “I cannot sleep longer than half an hour at a time when staying at a hotel,” he tells me. He has come to Molde as a guest of the festival, asked to speak about his work as director general of the Iraqi National Library and Archive (INLA) in Baghdad. His lecture, entitled “Rising from the Ashes: The Destruction and Reconstruction of INLA (2003-2008)”, is one the highlights of this year’s Bjørnson Festival and is preceded by a moving poetry reading. The poet, Nada Yousif, lives in Norway in exile with her husband Thamer A.K. Al-Shahwani, a musician, and their small baby. Accompanied by her husband’s clarinet, she recites the original verses in a deep voice full of pain. English translations of her work are given to us before the lecture. She begins with the poem “The Last Flower” which ends with these telling lines: “My dwelling is now a tent at the borders / And my homeland… / A cemetery”.

Nada Yousif’s poetry reading sets the mood for Saad Eskander’s lecture. “The story I’m about to tell is a sad story, and it is always difficult to tell a sad story,” he admits and reminds his audience of John Milton’s remark that the destruction of books equals the destruction of reason. Throughout the history of humankind both have been constantly under threat. In this respect the fate of the INLA has not been unusual. During Saddam Hussein’s reign the library, like other cultural institutions in the country, served the dictator, not the nation. The regime was hostile towards any forms of creativity and did not participate in any rational planning to preserve the rich cultural treasures of Iraq. A small budget, shortages in acquisitions, ancient equipment, denial of access for scholars, unbearable working conditions, isolation from the international community, and censorship, contributed to the gradual demise of the library and archive holdings. Undesirable items were either removed from the institution or made inaccessible to the public. Constant surveillance by secret agents placed in the ranks of the library’s staff spread fear and intimidation. With salaries amounting to US$ 3 per month corruption thrived; quick and efficient access to the INLA became impossible without bribery.

The regime’s downfall in April 2003 put the INLA in an even more precarious situation. The institution became a target not only for the arsonists of the defeated regime wanting to destroy any criminal evidence, but also for professional thieves hunting for goods to sell to private collectors, and for ordinary looters who plundered the already minimal furnishings and equipment of the INLA. The cultural losses were enormous. With sixty percent of the archival materials and twenty-five percent of the institution’s publications, including rare books and periodicals, looted and destroyed, some of the remaining holdings scattered, ruined and lost, the events of the time can only be described as a national disaster. The building of the INLA itself was terribly damaged by fires, bombardments and vandalism.

The Coalition Provisional Government (CPA) of the time (2003-2004) did not prioritise cultural matters and failed to implement any goals for the INLA. The institution seemed doomed until the appointment of Saad Eskander as director of the INLA in December 2004. With a PhD in international relations and history from the London School of Economics and coming from a family known for its political integrity, Eskander was well-equipped to do the job. A former Kurdish fighter, after thirteen years of living in the UK he decided to return to his home country with a group of exiled Iraqi artists and intellectuals after the 2003 invasion to help with reconstruction. From the group, he was the only one to remain in Iraq permanently. He became well-known for the diary he wrote about the terrifying time of the civil war in Baghdad. The diary was made available worldwide through the British Library’s homepage where it was published.

Although he was told to wait with any plans and actions for the INLA when he took over the library as director at the end of 2004, he decided to open the institution without any help from the Ministry of Culture. There was literally nothing in the building to work with: no electricity, water, furniture, or security. With the help of some volunteers he organised looting parties and plundered specifically targeted buildings for some equipment and furniture. One of those targets was the club of Saddam Hussein’s son. All these actions were illegal, but they proved highly successful. The INLA opened officially after only a few weeks of preparations. The working conditions were appalling at first. The building was dark, cold and situated in a very dangerous neighbourhood. The people trying to restore the INLA had to overcome many obstacles and placed their life in danger to fulfil their task. Eight people died in the process, dozens of others were injured or displaced.

Those who persisted had to confront the rubble heaps covered by soot and dust that constituted the library. Eskander is full of praise especially for the women who got involved in the project: “Women are good leaders, they immediately took initiative and set to work.” From the beginning, democratisation of the INLA’s inner life and gender equality have been strongly encouraged under his policy. Knowing that corruption was one of the greatest challenges to be dealt with, he immediately curtailed his own power (his own people have the power to fire him anytime) and substituted the former culture of taking orders with a culture of initiatives. Women have formed their own association within the library’s governing structures and publish an independent journal. New people from all sections of the population – Kurds, Sunnis, Shias – are employed and skilled permanently.

The Czech Republic and Italy were the two nations first to offer their assistance to the INLA (funding, equipment, skill-exchange). Some of INLA’s staff members travelled to these countries to be trained in restoration and preservation of materials on the most modern equipment available. Other countries and NGOs followed suit. Eskander’s work has been recognised abroad. He was awarded the Archivist of the Year Award at Columbia University in 2007. The same year he also won the MESA Academic Freedom Award of the Middle East Studies Association of the University of Arizona. But his greatest achievement remains the look of satisfaction on the thousand of people’s faces visiting the INLA, hungry for knowledge. Access to the INLA’s holdings and to online resources is free for all.

Today, the INLA’s staff counts four hundred employees. The average salary is about US$ 300. The building of the INLA has been almost completely renovated and all working conditions tremendously improved. Self-sufficiency and resistance to all forms of censorship are high on the INLA’s agenda. When, in 2007, the INLA refused to be turned into a military base, the Iraqi army invaded the institution as punishment. They soon realised the futility of the action and retreated. However, the headquarters of the US forces remain opposite the INLA building. The coming and going of helicopters can be heard in the background at all times. Sometimes a misguided bullet or shrapnel finds its way into the library, reminding the workers and visitors of the constant threat and instability of the outside world. And even though the worst seems to be over, the INLA continues to face innumerable challenges.

In a recent interview with the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries, Eskander explained his motivation of taking up the job, “I thought I could help Iraqis understand their past and build their future.” Not a small task, but one he seems to be the perfect person to attempt.

During his lecture at the Bjørnson Festival in Molde, with obvious pride, he tells the audience about a file recently discovered in the INLA’s archives, portraying historical events unknown until now. He knows how crucial these and other findings are for the understanding and interpretation of history. As he ends his presentation on a very uplifting note, sharing with us some recent photographs of the beautifully renovated library, full of busy employees and engrossed visitors, most of us are moved to tears by Saad Eskander’s story. I do not manage more than a simple thank you and a handshake after his lecture.

In this context, it is a disconcerting anticlimax to hear the announcement of the next speaker, Vigdis Moe Skarstein, who will be talking about Norway’s National Library and the challenges of digitalisation the institution is facing. There will be no talk about security threats, blackouts, stray bullets, corruption, people displaced or killed – the everyday hardships of all the people working with Eskander to keep the library and archive going from on a daily basis.

Saad Eskander2Before he has to leave the next day, Eskander joins a few of the festival participants for dinner, even though it is very late and he is not used to eating at this hour. While we others enjoy the local specialities, he sips some wine and patiently replies to our endless questions. We all want to know whether he believes Barack Obama can bring about change in Iraq if he is elected president of the United States. Eskander does not seem optimistic. “No matter who is elected in November, the US foreign policy will continue on its own terms,” he says.

During our conversation we discover a lot of similarities between present-day Iraq and South Africa. The challenges of diversity seem all too familiar; both societies are trying not only to come to terms with their multiethnic, multilingual and religiously diverse makeup, but also to profit from the opportunities it offers.

At the end of the evening, Eskander shares a personal tragedy with us. Three days before his departure for Norway, a dear friend of his who served as the Advisor to the Minister of Culture was assassinated near his home. “Kamel Shayaa’s death shocked everybody in Iraq, as he was an exceptionally nice and gifted person. He spoke four European languages and had an MA in philosophy. Like me, he returned from exile (Belgium) to Baghdad after Saddam’s downfall.” Immediately after the funeral, Eskander boarded the plane to Norway only because he had given his word to the festival organisers that he would attend. “I did my best to conceal my sadness,” he writes to me after his return to Baghdad.

As we say goodbye after the dinner, we wish him a safe journey to that place which he, in spite of all, chooses as his home. A place I knew previously only through the horrific images of war and destruction favoured by the world media. Through the stories Saad Eskander shared with us, Baghdad became a place of hope.

First published in New Era on 3 October 2008 and an edited version in the Sunday Independent on 9 November 2008.

For updates see:
Wikipedia
Interview with Saad Eskander (2013)

In 2012 during Open Book, I spoke about Saad Eskander with the amazing Anne Nivat, who was on her way to Iraq. Watch her documentary in which she meets up with Saad Eskander:

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