Baghdad Day to Day: Librarian's Journal
By PATRICIA COHEN
Published: February 7, 2007
Saad Eskander, the director of Iraq's National Library and Archive in Baghdad, finally had some time to catch up on his diary after a couple of very busy weeks. As he wrote in his latest entry, he was having trouble repairing the Internet system; the Restoration Laboratory "was hit by 5 bullets"; and "another librarian, who works at the Periodical Department, received a death threat. He has to leave his house and look for another one, as soon as he can; otherwise, he will be murdered."
For a month now, Dr. Eskander's intermittent diary entries have been appearing on the Web site of the British Library (bl.uk/iraqdiary.html), and they detail the daily hurdles of keeping Iraq's central library open, preserving the surviving archives and books and, oh yes, staying alive.
"We thought it would be a good opportunity to highlight the conditions Dr. Eskander and his staff are really facing and that they are risking their lives to provide this service," said Catriona Finlayson, a spokeswoman for the British Library.
Written in a flat, unemotional style, the entries relate the bombings, blockades, shootings, threats, shortages and petty frustrations that make up everyday life for the cadre of civil servants working at Iraq’s main cultural and literary storehouse. A complaint that heating fuel prices are 40 times higher than in the fall is followed by a report on the assassination of one of the library’s bright young Web designers and the need to ask the government to keep the electricity on.
Dr. Eskander said that a friend who works at the National Archives in Britain suggested he write a diary for an archivists’ Web site. "I was hesitant," he wrote in an e-mail exchange yesterday. "I feared that people would not believe what I would say about our daily life and the state of total chaos and destruction prevailing in Baghdad."
Finally, he agreed, because "I was in debt to my librarians and archivists, who have been working very hard and making all sorts of sacrifices to serve the cultural needs of the educated class of the country."
The British Library started publishing his journal on Dec. 30, the day of Saddam Hussein's execution. It includes material beginning in mid-November, right before Dr. Eskander decided to close his library for three weeks after a frightening series of bombings, shootings and death threats. The mostly unedited entries retain their typos, missing words and mistakes in English, contributing to a sense of immediacy and intimacy.
Tuesday, Jan. 23, began well enough, Dr. Eskander wrote: "The staff received their monthly salaries after two days delay." But by 11:30 a.m., "One window was smashed as a result of the explosions. I was informed on the same day that two of our technicians were kidnapped by unknown armed men." Both were later released unharmed, but then Dr. Eskander learned that"Mr. C, the head of the Restoration Laboratory, received a death threat. He and his family left their house." After visiting the laboratory, Dr. Eskander wrote: "One of the restorers told me that her brother was murdered ten days a go for sectarian reasons. Another restorer told me that he cousin, who lived in Mosul, in northern Iraq, was also murdered for sectarian reasons. I did not know about these two incidents. I discovered that a number of my staff do not inform the administration about their ordeals for fear of reprisals."
In mid-January, he published a chart on the impact of sectarian violence on his staff for just the month of December. It included 4 assassinations of employees and 2 kidnappings, 66 murders of staff members’ relatives, 58 death threats and 51 displacements.
The newest entries, posted on Thursday, take readers through Wednesday, Jan. 31. Dr. Eskander writes that the week started off quietly: Most of the staff couldn’t get to work because of blockades and military checkpoints. "On Wednesday, 31 Jan., a huge explosion shock our building. I hurriedly went to the second floor and saw a thick black smockrising from a car in al-Bab al-Mudham round-about (200 meters away from the NLA). I asked the security to prevent all members of staff from going outside the building, fearing that there might be another car-bomb."
Working to replace rare books and documents that have been destroyed, Dr. Eskander has been in touch with the British Library ever since the Iraq Library and Archive was burned and looted in 2003 when Mr. Hussein’s regime fell. The British Library is trying to send another shipment of microfilm and books, Ms. Finlayson said, although, she added: "Our contact is quite sporadic — it’s difficult to get material there. It’s hard for him to keep in touch."
The response to the diary has been very moving, said Andy Stephens, secretary to the British Library Board. "To me, why it’s so powerful is these are people doing exactly the same job we are here, and we can relate to them." He said there has been some interest in dramatizing the excerpts on the radio.
Two weeks ago the library gave people an opportunity to send in comments. Most offered support and prayers, and expressed frustration about being unable to help. "I just want to say how important I think it is both that the BL supports its colleagues in crisis in the ways it is doing," Andrew King of Canterbury Christ Church University wrote in an e-mail message to the British Library, “and that the Web site allows BL users like me to reflect on the consequences of war for an educated elite who in other, less troubled, countries might not think it possible that they might be subject to terror such as Saad Eskander is going through."
In the e-mail exchange, Dr. Eskander wrote: "I used to be very optimistic. But, the security situation is getting worse daily."
Although all available resources have been directed to keeping the collections safe, "terrorists attacks, especially mortars shelling represent a considerable threat,” he wrote. "It is extremely difficult for my staff, including me, to work in a normal way. Many roads and bridges are often blocked. Hundreds of checkpoints are responsible for the daily heavy traffic. There is always the possibility of daily car-bomb attacks, assassinations, kidnapping and so on. Sometimes our drivers refuse to go to dangerous districts. All these ‘tiny things’ affect our works on daily basis."