After decades of fresh wounds, the bleeding has stopped and Iraq is finally taking stock of its many scars. And no scar, to my mind, is more poignant than Baghdad’s National Library and Archives. It is a microcosm of everything that went wrong, and everything that may be bettered.
The library—a garish building circa 1970s sitting opposite the Ministry of Defense—is abutted at the back by a neighborhood of old Baghdad that even in Saddam’s day was a no go area for anyone who had no business with the addicts and criminals trawling its narrow and decrepit alleyways.
Looted and gutted by arson in the days following liberation, the librarians managed to preserve 400,000 titles, or at least the books that the former regime deemed acceptable, ones not laden with ‘dangerous’ and ‘treacherous’ ideas. It is slowly coming back to life as a library, but what can one expect with a state-appropriated budget of 250,000 USD, which has to pay for salaries, maintenance, utilities and guards; the library can only afford to buy around 4,000 new books a year. The rest, including the sofas, are gifts and other manifestations of largesse gathered from Western contributors by the library’s tireless director.
Still needed: all sorts of multimedia equipment, a large generator, many more books and digital access to libraries and archives around the world, and a reading public; that last one an itch every librarian the world over yearns, often desperately, to scratch. Getting the governments of Turkey, the United Kingdom and India to share their Iraq-related Ottoman and British imperial documents would be additional icing.
However, the library is about to embark on a very ambitious project: the Iraqi government has set an amnesty date on August 1st by which all state documents formerly belonging to the Saddam regime are to be handed over to the Ministry of Culture. Eventually, all these documents will be housed under the auspices of the National Library and Archives. Money has been earmarked for a couple of new buildings to go up to gather in tons of files.
The largest cache of Saddam’s files is now held, secretly, somewhere in Delaware or West Virginia. These files need to be physically repatriated to Iraq as the means to store them become available in Baghdad. All have been scanned, yet there is still reluctance to hand over digital copies on what would amount to a dozen hard drives to the library.
The United States government and Congress shouldn’t just stop there: invigorating the library is a unique opportunity to leave behind a humanitarian legacy for the Iraqi people, making sense of treasure and blood expended in liberating the country. A system by which the victims of the Ba’ath Party can access their files or those of their loved ones, within legal frameworks, in order to bring those who did them harm to justice or at least to a shaming, and to demand compensation as mandated by successive Iraqi parliamentary legislations, would be a generational bequest salving the scars of the past. This system would require dozens of new hires, training and logistical support. It is expensive, and absolutely necessary. It would cost a fraction of what gets donated to a presidential library. President George W. Bush, can you spare a fundraiser?
One looks around Iraq and is constantly bewildered by the question, “Why hasn’t this been done yet?” Much can be chalked up to the convulsions of the last few years, but as things calm down—and they have in significant ways—the rebuilding, in brick and mortar, and in spirit, has to begin somewhere. The National Library is a symbol and witness of the past, and a harbinger of how things can be. It is a good place to start.