A Fight to Save Lebanon's Rare Manuscripts

The national library of Lebanon had been struggling for years to preserve and exhibit its collection of rare manuscripts, some of which date back to the 15th century. An Israeli airstrike recently hit the port where the collection is stored.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Israeli troops pushed deeper into south Lebanon today with Hezbollah fighting back. Israel's defense minister says his country must now expand its operations against the Hezbollah militia. The goal is to push Hezbollah northward and hold the territory until an international force is deployed there.

BRAND: The fighting that began three weeks ago is just the latest in decades of war in Lebanon. Through it all in Beirut the Lebanese National Library has been struggling to hold on to - and display its collection of books and periodicals.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

HOLLIE BISLEY(ph) (Librarian): Here you have a newspaper called (unintelligible)and you will have something like 30 issues.

NORTHAM: Hollie Bisley, a soft-spoken librarian, gingerly tries to open a book containing issues of a now de-funked Lebanese newspaper.

Ms. BISLEY: You have sometimes difficulties to open it. You can't open it, but it's very important to us, even in this bad condition, it's important to keep it.

NORTHAM: Bisley is surrounded by a room full of boxes crammed with newspapers, periodicals and books, there part of Lebanon's national library which has been undergoing a three year restoration project. There are books dating back to the 15th century, and many first and some last editions of national newspapers. The manuscripts are in Arabic, French, English, Russian as well as some obscure languages such as Syriac.

The whole collection is being stored in about a dozen rooms above a duty free shopping mall at the port of Beirut. The port was hit during an Israeli bombardment on July 15th. Gereard Khajerian the Director of the National Library Restoration project said he was terrified what would happen to the books.

Mr. GEREARD KHAJERIAN (Director of National Library of Lebanon):(Through Translation) The first night when Israel hit the port, I didn't sleep all through the night. The next morning I ran to the port, my wife and children were shocked, because I was going to a dangerous area. I didn't have a key to the main lock so I climbed over the fence, I wasn't thinking I was just trying to see the books.

NORTHAM: The books were safe. Khajerian said library officials developed a contingency plan in case the port was bombed again, the rarest most valuable books would be boxed up and taken somewhere safe. Where? Khajerian doesn't know. What he doesn't want is a repeat of what happened during the 15th year Civil War, which ended in 1990. A few years after that war started, the national library closed down, many books, national treasures were stolen or lost. Khajerian says others were stored away.

MR. KHAJERIAN: (Through Translation) Some government employees took those books, they packaged them in boxes and they moved those boxes to safe places such as cellars and tops of buildings. But as you know these places are very bad places to store books.

NORTHAM: Many of the books were badly damaged by humidity dust and mold.

NORTHAM: A special vacuum helps clean the books and manuscripts, their dusted down and disinfected. Then the real restoration work begins, says Christine Faleer(ph) with the library. She says most of the books need work.

Ms. CHRISTINE FALEER (Library Worker): Some of them brand new covers. Some of them just restorating covers, some of them we can save the old labels and put them back, we still have a great deal of work.

NORTHAM: So far more than 3,000 books have been restored since the project began, with financial help from the European Union. Damer Katar(ph) also donated $25 million to help renovate an old ottoman era building to house the books and periodicals. Right now, more than 1500 Lebanese displaced by the fighting are living in the building.

The constant threat that has enveloped Lebanon could severely effect plans for the new national library, because, money is needed to rebuild roads, bridges and buildings that have been destroyed by Israeli bombs. TAREK Mitri the Minister of Culture says he understands budget priorities, but says a national library with its printed history is important for a country like Lebanon.

Mr. TAREK MITRI (Minister of Culture): It's important to preserve your memory, short of doing this, people invent memories, you know, and invented fabricated memories are the most dangerous they contribute to making wars.

NORTHAM: Jackie Northam, NPR News Beirut.

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