Friday, November 09, 2007

Eskander at the BPL

Dr. Saad Eskander, the head of Iraq's National Library, spoke at the Boston Public Library last night as part of a two-week American tour. Much of his discussion, "Rising From the Ashes: The Story of the Iraq National Library and Archive," is covered in David Mehegan's excellent Boston Globe article and follow-up post, but I did want to add a few of my own impressions. Eskander struck me as one of the most down-to-earth, humble and pleasant people I've ever met, and it was incredibly inspiring to hear what he and his staff have accomplished given the ongoing turmoil in the area around the library and the constant threats they continue to face.

Eskander began his talk by providing a short history of the National Library as it existed under Saddam's regime: he noted that official censorship meant that the collections were very conservative, and that the "destruction of cultural heritage" began during Saddam's rule as Baathists plundered the library to smuggle rare books and other items out of the country. He reported that in the pre-war years, all air-handling/ventilation systems were removed from the library building, and that librarians were being paid the equivalent of $6-7 per month (which led to rampant corruption and bribery).

After showing some cringe-inducing pictures of the library after the looting occurred in April of 2003, Eskander made clear that he rejects the theory that American forces intentionally allowed the library to be destroyed, but that they did allow it to happen and should be held responsible for the losses (60% of the archival material, 90% of the rare books, nearly all of the photographs and microfilm collections) caused by looters, thieves, and arsonists.

The major portion of the speech centered on the changes to the library that Eskander has engineered since 2003. He spoke of the new staff (an ethnically, religiously diverse group from across Iraq), new procedures and new technological equipment and systems that they've been able to put in place, including a conservation lab, a microfilm room (both funded by the Czech government) and an IT department (funded by the Italian and Japanese governments). He continued by discussing plans for expanding the archives and creating a Library of Pioneers, which he said would be designed "to create a common cultural identity for all Iraqis." A cooperative digital library project is in the works with the Library of Congress.

Eskander concluded by noting some of the continued challenges, which he said include excessive bureaucracy and widespread corruption at the Culture, Planning and Finance ministries. To combat this and increase the authority of the library's director, he's attempting to
remove the institution from the purview of the Ministry of Culture and link it directly to either the executive or to the parliament. He said the legislation governing archives in Iraq needs to be liberalized to reflect the shift from authoritarianism to democracy, and that the library requires funding to expand and modernize services. A major continuing dilemma, he said, is that coalition forces removed massive amounts of government archives from Iraq during the invasion and have transferred those to America; Eskander stressed that these documents are necessary for Iraqis to study and learn about the old regime so that they can move on and embrace the future.
Following his formal discussion, Eskander patiently answered questions for almost 45 minutes. He had to keep repeating the point that it is vital for the library to be open and available, saying that it remains necessary to make clear "We are here, we're working, and it's important to resist the attempt ... to paralyze life in Baghdad." Asked what the contingency plan was for if the library is attacked again, he noted that they are targeted in some way nearly every day, and that he has taken steps to hire as many 24/7 guards as he can to protect the collections and keep the building secure. Nonetheless, he said, the danger keeps many patrons away - right now the average number of visitors hovers around 400 per month.

Explaining the success of his efforts to have an integrated and diverse staff, Eskander praised his workers and noted "the problem is not at the bottom, it's at the top," adding that leaders of the major religious parties see it as their advantage to "motivate hate for their own ends."

The question that I'm sure most people had - about Eskander's view of whether American forces should be withdrawn from Iraq - wasn't asked until the end, and he prefaced his answer by saying that many in the crowd probably would not agree with it. He said that he has no doubt that the withdrawal of American troops would increase instability in Iraq: "You cannot just leave Iraq after you make a mess." He added that the first people to be targeted after an American pullout would be the liberals and secular leaders, and said that the country must be made more stable and the armed forces made strong enough to protect its institutions before a full pullout could occur. No one likes to see an occupying power in their cities, he said, calling himself "not unpatriotic, just realistic," but he fears that the loss of American protection could easily prove disastrous for the progress that has been made.

A fascinating discussion by a man who is I think one of the greatest unsung heroes of our time.