Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

The Librarian of Basra

Susan Notes: Jeanette Winter has written & illustrated an extraordinary book, The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq. She was inspired by the story below in the NY Times.

We must be inspired by what inspired Winter, The optimism of the human spirit, even in inhuman conditions.

In an interview Winter said,

Alia’s story gave me a much-needed sense of optimism during this dark period of war. I think of the phrase “pessimism of the intellect, and the optimism of the will” (Antonio Gramsci, 1891-1937). With so much destruction all around her, and no help from either side in this war, Alia had the will to defy her surroundings and act with remarkable courage. The optimism of the human spirit, even in inhuman conditions, is a wonderful inspiration.

Basra's Chief Librarian Spirited Away Priceless Volumes to Safety Before Iraq Library Fire Shailak K. Dewan
July 27, 2003

BASRA - Ms Alia Muhammad Baker's house is full of books. There are books in stacks, books in the cupboards, books bundled into flour sacks like lumpy aid rations. Books fill an old refrigerator. Pull aside a window curtain, and there is no view, just more books.

There are English books, Arabic books and a Spanish-language Quran. There are manuscripts, some hundreds of years old, on the finer points of Arabic grammar and the art of telling time. There is a biography of the Prophet Muammad from about 1300. All told, Ms Baker says, the books number about 30,000. And then there are the periodicals.

These books are fugitives, and Ms Baker, a 50-year-old librarian in stout shoes, is the engineer of their underground railroad. As the British forces stormed Basra in early April, she spirited the volumes out of the city's Central Library, over a 2.1m-high wall, to the back room of a restaurant and then later into trucks to carry them to her home. Even friends and library employees were enlisted as caretakers for troves of the books.

The books constitute about 70 per cent - all that there was time to save - of the library's collection. Nine days later, the library building was gutted in a mysterious fire.

The survival of the books is all the more remarkable because in Baghdad, looters left both the National Library and a government building containing thousands of illuminated Qurans in smouldering 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?'

Before the war began, Ms Baker had requested permission from Basra's governor to move the books to safety but he refused without giving an explanation.

Ms Baker, however, was not easily deterred. 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 Quran, the first thing God said to Muhammad was 'Read',' she said.

Under her 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 anti-aircraft 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.

Ms Baker kept going to work, but every evening she filled her car with books and quietly took them home.

On April 6, the day the British entered the city, the job took on a new urgency. At noon, Ms Baker called and found that the government workers had left the library undefended. The next morning, as artillery fire filled the air, she turned to the restaurant next door, the Hamdan, and asked one of the owners, Mr Anis Muhammad, for help. At the library, the carpets, furniture and lights had already been looted.

'What could I do?' Mr Muhammad said as he remembered her plea. 'It is the whole history of Basra.'

Mr Muhammad, 49, enlisted his brothers and employees. Armful after armful of books was taken from the library, passed over the wall and stacked in the Hamdan's empty dining rooms.

Soon, other shopkeepers from across the street chipped in to move the books. Then some of the neighbors began to help.

They used sacks and boxes. Ms. Baker tore down the library's curtains to bundle the books. The group worked through the night and into the next afternoon, carrying books on every subject but one.

"The books related to Saddam Hussein, we left them," said Mr Hussein Muhammad al-Salem al-Zambqa, whose shop offers perfumed powder puffs and lavender bras.

"The people who carried the books, not all of them were educated," Mr. Zambqa said. "Some of them could not write or could not read, but they knew they were precious books."

The night of the fire, Mr. Muhammad said, he went to the British asking for help, but they did nothing. The next day a British patrol stopped at the Hamdan restaurant and asked Mr. Muhammad why he had weapons. Mr. Muhammad held his breath, worried there might be a search. They were only to protect his business, he told the soldiers. "They did not know that the whole of the library was in my restaurant," he said.

If Ms Baker is strong, she is not invincible. After the fire, she had a stroke. She will see that the library is rebuilt, she said, and then retire.

"The Mongol invasion, that was the last time anyone would burn a library," she said. According to legend, in the 13th century the Mongol leader Hulagu burned the Baghdad library but threw the books into the Tigris, turning the river blue from ink.

After Basra grew calm, Ms Baker and her husband hired a truck to carry the books to her house, distributing some to trusted friends and library employees.

In her neighbourhood, Ms Baker heard whispers that she herself was a looter. "People were looking at me saying, 'Why is this woman bringing books?' People are stealing much more valuable things than that."

The Iraq Book Program of the American Library Association was created with the support of $20,000 from the Working Assets Grantmaking Fund of the Tides Foundations to help purchase much needed children's books for Iraqi libraries. You can send donations to:

The International Relations Office
The American Library Association
50 East Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60611

Checks should be made out to the 'American Library Association' with notation that they are for the 'Iraq Book Program.' All donations are tax deductible.

The ALA is in contact with Ms. Muhammad and are working on the selection of materials for the Basra library.

— Jeanette Winter


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.