The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq

by Jeanette Winter
ISBN: 0152054456

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A Review of: The Librarian of Basra
by Olga Stein

This is a marvelous book in more respects than one. The story is simple, but the subject matter and the quality of the illustrations-capturing as they do the profoundest of human emotions-moved me practically to tears. Based on actual events, the book depicts the brave efforts of Alia Muhammad Baker, chief librarian of the central library in Iraq's city of Basra. It is April 2003, and as the war to liberate Iraq is about to reach her city, Alia fears for the 30,000 books in her care. The library, formerly a refuge for Basrans who enjoy reading and discussing books, has itself become pervaded by fear; frequenters talk only about the impending war and their fears of how it will affect their lives. But Alia fears not for herself. She pays a visit to the city governor in the hope of persuading him to let her move the books out of the library.

"Alia worries that the fires of war will destroy the books which are more precious to her than mountains of gold. The books are in every language-new books, ancient books, even a biography of Muhammad that is seven hundred years old."

There's a wonderful illustration of Alia imploring the seated governor, who stares at her with what appears like a combination of disdain and boredom. The governor, obviously too preoccupied with other matters to take seriously the worries of a woman, a mere librarian, rejects Alia's request. This forces wise and steadfast Alia "to take matters into her own hands." Nightly, she fills her car with books and takes them to her own house. When the fighting draws closer, government offices are moved into the library, and soldiers are stationed on the roof. Days later, bombing of the city begins, chaos spreads, and the government employees flee. But Alia will not abandon the books-the gems of her culture, precious fruits of a civilization. She asks her neighbour, Anis Muhammad, a restaurant owner, for assistance, and lo, despite the danger, other Basrans come to her aid. Using crates from the restaurant, they manage to move the books to Anis's restaurant just days before the library burns down. During a lull in the fighting, Alia hires trucks to transport the books again to her own home and the homes of friends. A touching illustration shows Alia, fatigue on her face, cramming more books into her tiny house.
At the end of this book, we see Alia, weary from the sounds of war and destruction but still full of hope, imagining the splendid new library that will be built once the war is over. Her longing is instantly recognizable as that noble quality, shared by individuals of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, of an abiding love and respect for the creative and intellectual output of civilization. A little digging will reveal that modern history is full of heroic acts of this kind, especially since it is sadly marked by the cruelest and most relentless attacks on urban centres, locations of major libraries and museums.
This story is based on the courageous exploits of Alia Muhammad Baker, who was responsible for saving 70 per cent of her library's book collection, and who is still waiting to see the construction of a new library. We're told that a portion of the book's sales will go to the American Library Association, which will use the funds to rebuild the collection of Basra's Central Library. I urge you to buy this beautiful book.

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