Fri, Jun 13, 2008 - Page 9 News List

The nation-building librarian

Saad Eskander, director of Baghdad’s national library, wants to help Iraqis through education. The former Kurdish fighter talks about why culture is the key, why the US must surrender looted papers — and why he refuses to have a bodyguard

By Stuart Jeffries  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

In 2003, Saad Eskander had just finished his doctorate at the London School of Economics when he decided to return to Baghdad. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime had been overthrown and the dictator was in hiding. Thirteen years after seeking asylum in Britain, the former teenage Kurdish fighter was going home to help rebuild his country.

“In London, I was part of a group of Iraqi painters and writers who decided to visit Baghdad to see what we could do in the sphere of cultural education,” he recalled.

It sounds, I suggest, a wildly utopian project to undertake in the middle of a city seething with foreign troops, sectarian militias, gunfire and car bombs.

“It is,” said Eskander, looking over his glasses at me with a slight smile, “extremely important. Without cultural education, we cannot emerge from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship properly. Without it, we cannot resist the ideas of religious fundamentalism.”

But still, it is an almost hopeless and insanely dangerous thing to try to attempt.

“All my friends went back to London,” he conceded. “But I decided to stay.”

Five years on, Eskander, who was born in Baghdad, still works in the Iraqi capital and continues to insist that cultural education is one of the most important means to reconstruct the Iraqi homeland, about which he has come to feel patriotic.

“One month after I arrived, I was told there was a job and asked if I’d be interested in applying,” he said.

The job turned out to be director-general of the Iraq national library and archives.

“Under Saddam Hussein, this was an arm of the dictatorship. The [new] minister of culture wanted to ensure it was not a Baathist director. He needed someone who could modernize the library, and he knew of my background — fighting with the Kurdish Resistance Movement in northern Iraq and studying history in London. I was the right person in the right place,” Eskander said.

Why did it appeal to him?

“When I went back, I thought I would get a history job at the University of Baghdad. That seemed important. We had a failed state. You have to get back to history to study what went wrong in Iraq. But with this job, I thought I could help Iraqis understand their past and build their future,” he said.

When Eskander talks about his library, he makes it sound like a combination of a national healing process, a social crucible for establishing a more egalitarian society and a center of free inquiry that Iraqi intellectuals have been denied for decades.

CULTURAL EDUCATION

But what does cultural education mean?

“We want to change people’s orientation through our books. Otherwise there is no alternative but mosques. I would always say invest in secular education, because religious extremism is a cultural phenomenon; it is not wholly an armed phenomenon. We need to prove to people that there is an alternative,” he said.

This was the vision he brought to his new job. He tells me it was founded, partly, on his sense of the difference between British and US colonial rule in Iraq. It’s an unlikely inspiration.

“The British during and after the first world war built secular education system and museums in Iraq. They didn’t allow religious institutions to intervene in politics. The Americans in Baghdad now have not invested in higher education and culture. These things were at the bottom of their list of priorities. But they are wrong. That is why in Baghdad the universities are dominated by militias,” he said.

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