Iraq's Cultural Curators Defy Sectarian Unrest Cultural institutions in Iraq have become key targets for insurgent bombs. And while a bombed-out book shop in Baghdad tells a grim side of the tale, the rebuilding of Iraq's National Library offers some hope.
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Iraq's Cultural Curators Defy Sectarian Unrest

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Iraq's Cultural Curators Defy Sectarian Unrest

Iraq's Cultural Curators Defy Sectarian Unrest

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here are some numbers from the first month of a new American strategy in Baghdad. Since more intensive patrols began, 73 Americans have been killed across Iraq, many of them in Baghdad, and that includes four Americans killed yesterday in a Shiite area of the eastern part of the city. A suicide bomber also killed 14 people yesterday. But some officials suggest the number of execution-style killings may have declined.

MONTAGNE: A bombing this month at the booksellers market in Baghdad was the latest blow to Iraq's intellectual life. Since violence took root in Iraq, cultural icons and institutions have been targeted, leaving those who are interested in books or music and art reeling.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro visited what's been lost and what is being reborn.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a story about two places. The first is a scene of devastation and sorrow.

(Soundbite of street)

I'm standing on Muttanabi Street. It was a street of booksellers, of caf├ęs where intellectuals would gather. It was a bustling market where people would come to flee the everyday violence of Iraq, to talk about art and literature and life. A car bomb exploded and all around me right now are the results: blackened buildings, burned books. This was once an oasis, and now, as has happened in so many other places in Iraq, the war has come directly here.

(Soundbite of chanting)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Down an alley is the mourning tent for the people who died here that day. It wasn't the first attack on Muttanabi Street, but it was the deadliest. Salim al-Kushalli lost his five brothers when the bomb ripped through his family's printing shop.

Mr. SALIM AL-KUSHALLI: (Through translator) Of course we were expecting Muttanabi Street to be targeted one day, because anyone targeting Muttanabi Street is targeting Iraq's civilization; he targets Iraq's history, he targets Iraq's heritage.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As he talks, people come to kiss him on the cheek and express their condolences. He is mourning his family, but he says he's also grieving the loss of something more intangible.

Mr. SHALLI: (Through translator) This funeral is not only for the individuals who were killed, but also for the culture that has gone without being documented. These are one-of-a-kind books that are gone, manuscripts gone. They were not catalogued. They were something personal and important. But now everything has been lost in the fire.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just up the road near the backhoe that's removing debris, an old man sits in a plastic chair. He's held vigil for the past week, waiting for his son to be found underneath the rubble. He was a student who came to buy a book on the day of the attack. His body has not yet been discovered. He whispers to me in English, desperate to be understood.

Unidentified Man: Please help me. I want to leave Baghdad. Okay? I want leave Baghdad because my son and my house - I do not have anything here, okay?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is the familiar litany of tragedy in Iraq. But just down the road at the Iraq National Library and Archive, instead of things being destroyed against all odds, they are being rebuilt.

(Soundbite of hammer pounding)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This place is literally rising from the ashes and being turned into something far beyond what it was before.

How are you?

Mr. SAAD ESKANDAR (Director, Iraq National Library and Archive): I'm fine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was shocked to see that you're still here and still alive and still in Iraq.

Mr. ESKANDAR: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ESKANDAR: (Unintelligible).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Saad Eskandar is the head of the National Library. When he took it over in late 2003, it had been looted and burned. A few plastic chairs were all that remained. Now it's a spotless hive of activity, which he's proud to show off.

Mr. ESKANDAR: This is the computer department. We are trying to put all our collections on the Internet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is impressive. I mean, we're seeing dozens of computers here, the latest models.

Mr. ESKANDAR: Yeah. You see, the youngest librarians here, I - I employ them. It was part of my policy to introduce new blood. And I do believe that new technology needs a younger brain, a new brain. So I'm really proud of this department. I built it - we didn't have one computer when I was appointed; now we have about 140 computers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a restoration department whose workers have been trained in the Czech Republic and in Italy. Other fully staffed and equipped areas include a place where all the documents are placed onto microfilm, a cataloguing area, and a department that hunts down documents for the collection from Iraqi ministries. Four hundred people now work here trying to preserve fragments of Iraq's past. As he walks around, the staff greet him warmly.

Mr. ESKANDAR: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But while this place seems almost utopian for today's Iraq, reality does intrude.

Mr. ESKANDAR: This is one of the bullets hit the window...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He points to a bullet hole. The library resides in one of the most dangerous areas in Baghdad near Haifa Street. Five of the staff have been killed. The library has had to close for days at a time when the fighting in the neighborhood gets too heavy. But that is outside. Inside, Eskandar has rules to keep the problems of wider Iraq at bay.

Mr. ESKANDAR: First, I prevented any political activities within the National Library and Archive. I removed all the pictures of certain politicians and religious men. For example, I prevented any joke, sectarian joke, to be told in this institution. And I think we succeeded, we didn't have a single sectarian problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many women are department heads.

Mr. ESKANDAR: Now we have a women's society within the National Library. And even they celebrated the women's day last week.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's a meritocracy. People are promoted through the votes of their peers unlike most state institutions here where political and religious affiliations get you the job. For Eskandar, the Iraq National Library is more than a building. He says it's a battlefield where the prize is Iraq's very soul.

Mr. ESKANDAR: Institutions like us, book market like al-Muttanabi, they are important source of uniting and unifying the country. The museum, the National Library are symbols. By destroying these national symbols, people will look for local symbols, not national symbols, and this will divide our society even more and more and more. It's not just a political attack on Iraq by the terrorist groups. It's a cultural attack as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eskandar acknowledges that there have been setbacks and says he's received threats, but he says he will never leave Iraq.

Mr. ESKANDAR: If all of us emigrate and leave the country, they will win the war and they will take the country. So as a human being, as a citizen of this country, it's our duty to stay and to resist and to fight them in our spheres. My sphere is culture.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What Saad Eskandar has done at the National Library hasn't affected life outside his walls yet, but in a place that so often lacks hope, his library seems like a small beacon of light in the dark.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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