The Battle of the Books

Alia Muhammad Baker infront of some of the books she saved

The books constitute about 70 percent -- all there was time to save -- of what was the library's collection. Nine days later, the library building was burned in a mysterious fire. The books' survival is all the more remarkable because, in Baghdad, looters left both the National Library and a government building containing thousands of illuminated Korans in smoldering ruins. Even some manuscripts taken from the Basra library to be studied in Baghdad were destroyed.

Despite what was saved, Ms. Baker, Basra's chief librarian for 14 years, mourns what was left behind.

''It was like a battle when the books got burned,'' she said. ''I imagined that those books, those history and culture and philosophy books, were crying, 'Why, why, why?' ''

Although the library did not allow lending, over the years she often slipped books into the hands of readers and sent them home.  ''In the Koran, the first thing God said to Muhammad was 'Read,' '' she said.

Under Ms. Baker's guidance, the library became a salon, where doctors, lawyers, professors and artists met each afternoon. ''My office wasn't a room for dignitaries,'' she said. ''It was a room for gatherings.''

As soon as the war started, government offices were moved into the library, a modern assemblage of tall cubes. An antiaircraft gun was placed on the roof. Ms. Baker and others said this was part of a calculated plan by the government, which assumed that the library would be spared bombing, or if not, the bombing would generate ill will against the allied forces.

 

Source: The New York Times: "After the War: The Librarian; Books Spirited to Safety before Iraq Library Fire," by Shailak Dewan, July 27, 2003; http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/27/world/after-the-war-the-librarian-books-spirited-to-safety-before-iraq-library-fire.html.