Alia Muhammad Baker: The Librarian Who Saved Books in War-Torn Basra
Alia Muhammad Baker, also known as Alia Mohamed, was the chief librarian of Basra, Iraq. Her story is one of courage and dedication to the preservation of knowledge and culture.
Born in 1950 in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, Alia Muhammad Baker grew up in a family that valued education and knowledge. She attended school in Basra and later went on to earn a degree in library science from Baghdad University.
In 1979, Alia was appointed as the director of the Central Library of Basra. She was responsible for managing the library’s extensive collection of books and documents, which included rare manuscripts dating back to the 7th century.
Alia was a passionate advocate for the value of education and the preservation of knowledge. She saw the library as a vital resource for the community and worked tirelessly to make sure that it was accessible to everyone, including women and children.
In 1991, during the First Gulf War, Alia faced a new challenge. The library was located in the heart of the city, and the surrounding area was being bombed by coalition forces. Alia knew that the library’s collection was in danger and that it was her responsibility to protect it.
Despite the danger, Alia refused to abandon the library and its precious contents. She enlisted the help of her family and friends, and together they worked to move as many books and documents as possible to safety.
Over the course of several days, Alia and her team carried thousands of books and manuscripts out of the library and into their homes. They worked under the cover of darkness, using donkey carts and wheelbarrows to transport the materials to safety.
Despite the danger and the chaos of war, Alia remained calm and focused. She knew that the library’s collection was too valuable to lose, and she was determined to do everything in her power to protect it.
In the end, Alia and her team were able to save over 30,000 books and manuscripts from destruction. They stored the materials in their homes and in the homes of friends and family, carefully cataloguing and organizing them so that they could be returned to the library once the war was over.
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.
Alia’s bravery and dedication to preserving knowledge and culture made her a hero to the people of Basra and to people around the world. Her story inspired others to take action to protect libraries and archives during times of conflict.
After the war, Alia and her team worked to return the library’s collection to its proper place. They spent months sorting and cataloguing the materials, and eventually, the library reopened to the public.
Alia continued to serve as the chief librarian of Basra for many years, and she remained dedicated to the mission of promoting education and preserving knowledge. She passed away in 2004, but her legacy lives on.
Today, Alia Muhammad Baker is remembered as a symbol of courage and resilience in the face of war and destruction. Her story is a testament to the importance of education and the preservation of culture, and her example continues to inspire people around the world to take action to protect these vital resources.
In conclusion, Alia Muhammad Baker, also known as Alia Mohamed, was a dedicated librarian who risked her life to protect the valuable collection of the Central Library of Basra during the First Gulf War. Her bravery and commitment to the preservation of knowledge and culture made her a hero to the people of Basra and to people around the world. Her legacy serves as an inspiration for future generations to value education and to take action to protect these vital resources in times of conflict.