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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 January 2008, 15:04 GMT
The Baghdad librarian's story
By Jane Beresford
Taking A Stand, BBC Radio 4

The head of Iraq's National Library returned from exile to help rebuild the country's secular heritage, a task which he continues today despite death threats and the murder of colleagues.

Saad Eskander
Mr Eskander's first move was to search for lost Hebrew books

Saad Eskander was watching television in London as Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled.

"It was the most important event of my life - certainly the happiest," he says.

At that moment he had one dream, to return to Baghdad.

"Like thousands of Iraqis I wanted to participate in building a new society, a new Iraq... based on equality, on cultural and ethnic diversity," he says.

Born into a Kurdish family living in Baghdad, he had spent half his life, 21 years, in exile - following his time among Kurdish militants as a young man.

But since December 2003, just months after the invasion, he has been back in Baghdad with his wife who was just as keen to return and has since given birth to their second child while living in the city.

Bombed and looted

He was appointed director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (Inla).

A lover of books and learning, he believes passionately that libraries provide the "cultural memory" of a nation and must be preserved at all costs.

"In these institutions you can find common symbols which represent all Iraqis regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds," he says.

But as soon as he arrived at the Inla, he realised how awesome the task of rebuilding it would be.

The building itself was in total disarray, bombed and looted.

Sixty percent of the archival materials and 95% of the rare book collections had been destroyed or were missing.

Most had been lost in the aftermath of the invasion but others had gone missing long before.

"During Saddam's regime all Jewish schools and synagogues were closed down and the Ministry of the Interior confiscated all of these books," says Mr Eskander.

"So when I was appointed, the first thing I did was to search for the remaining Hebrew books and we did succeed in saving a huge number, some of them published in the 17th and 18th Centuries."

He describes it as an "Ali Baba" mission, driving a truck across Baghdad, which was still in the throes of fighting, to "re-appropriate" some of the materials.

Kidnap and murder

But his greatest challenge has been the conditions under which he and his staff have had to work.

Staff in the Iraqi National Library, Baghdad (image from March 2007)
Library staff work at personal risk
As well as administrative frustrations, they have had to cope with an unreliable electricity supply and rampant corruption.

But worst of all has been the continual level of violence directed towards his staff who have faced kidnap and murder.

He has chronicled it all including the monthly loss of life in a blog which was published by the British Library.

Two of his librarians, one Sunni and one Shia, went looking for a colleague who had been seized by an armed gang seven days earlier.

"As soon as they left the building some terrorist group arrested both of them," he says.

"The Sunni library worker was tortured and sent back to us. The Shia librarian was executed."

Mr Eskander later learnt that the colleague they were trying to rescue had already been murdered.

In 2005, Saad Eskander himself received a death threat.

"It said: 'Leave the institution. We are watching you and will kill you' - I just ignored it," he recalls.

He believes his work makes him and his colleagues targets.

"Archivists like me represent secular culture and they want to stop normality and disrupt our daily lives," he says.

Heaviest blow

His darkest day was when al-Mutanabbi Street, known in Baghdad as the Street of Booksellers and where the Inla buys 95% of its new material, was bombed.

"For decades under Saddam's regime al-Mutanabbi was the place were illegal books were copied underground," he explains.

"It was a symbol of resistance. After the downfall of Saddam new publications started to emerge on that street, especially progressive books on sociology and so on.

"It represented the new Iraq and that was why it was targeted."

Mr Eskander is an outspoken critic of the way the US dealt with the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, but continues to support the invasion itself.

"Such a powerful regime could not be removed by internal forces," he says.

"The Iraqis had tried for decades to get rid of Saddam Hussein, through coups d'etat and armed uprisings.

"The only force that could remove him was an external force. I don't regret supporting the invasion. Not because I like my country to be occupied but just to liberate the enslaved Iraqis."

Saad Eskander is committed to contributing to the new Iraq, one that is not defined by violence and sectarianism.

At home with his wife and two young children he says they never talk of the bombs or fighting.

"We talk about music, our social life, jokes," he says.

The archive is slowly being rebuilt thanks in part to donations from abroad as well as purchases in Iraq. And its staff has steadily grown in number.

And he is pleased to report that the Inla is providing another service alongside preserving the nation's cultural heritage.

"Since I have been there 30 of my staff have got married to each other!" he says.

"I have thought of changing my title from Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive to Director of National Marriage!"

Dr Saad Eskander was interviewed in Radio 4's Taking a Stand at 0900 GMT, 8 January, and a recording can be heard here: Listen again page.

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