A Conversation with Dr. Saad Bashir Eskander

Dr. Saad Bashir Eskander is Director-General of the Iraqi National Library and Archive (INLA) in Baghdad. A Kurdish historian, he was appointed to the position in December 2003. This summer, he spoke to Deena Chalabi about the fraught role of culture in an increasingly destabilized Iraq.

Deena Chalabi: Could you tell me what you were doing before you became director general of the INLA? Were you in Iraq during Saddam’s regime?

Saad Bashir Eskander: I was in exile for twenty years. I spent 1991 to 2003 in London, where I finished my education; I got a BA in modern history at the University of London and an MA/PhD in international history. I got my PhD in 1999, and I worked as a researcher at the Iraqi Cultural Forum. After the downfall of Saddam’s regime, I came back to Baghdad in November 2003.

DC: The INLA suffered from two days of looting and fire in April 2003, and there was deliberate flooding of the archival records. What was lost?

SBE: The INLA was the most damaged institution in the whole of the country. We lost sixty percent of the archive.The library lost twenty-five percent of publications and almost all our rare and valuable books, including a copy of Ibn Sina’s famous book, Al-Qanon fi Al-Tib (The Canon of Medecine), written in the sixteenth century. Most of the Ottoman records and a large portion of the records from the monarchical and republican periods were destroyed. We still have some books written in Hebrew from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

DC: How did you set about addressing the damage, and where did you find the money to do so?

SBE: There was no budget when the Americans ran the show in Baghdad and the rest of the country. They focused their attention on the museum more than the other cultural institutions so we didn’t benefit from their experience or funds.

I put together a six-month strategy to open the main reading room in the National Library, just to raise the morale of my employees. It was a crazy idea because everything was in very bad shape: we didn’t have chairs, equipment, electricity, or water. But we started to get some money from the Ministry and from outside Iraq — for example, from the Italians.

The Iraqi government has been funding the renovation of the INLA since late 2004. Foreign funds have been used for purchasing equipment, furniture, and training. In general the government is not interested in cultural matters; security is its main concern. Ordinary Iraqis pay little attention to culture and education, owing to the long years of isolation, poverty, and dictatorship.

DC: What is the situation within the INLA today?

SBE: About seventy-five to eighty percent of the building is renovated. We have a website, and our book collections are on the internet. We’ve reconstructed the microfilm lab and the restoration lab. We have begun the automation process of our collections, and we started to work on the records and files of the Ministry of the Interior. Most of these files were classified materials, and they contained a lot of very valuable information about different aspects of life in Iraq between 1914 and 1980.

But we still suffer from a shortage of electricity and water. The collections of the library and the archive need a certain temperature and humidity (18–22˚ Celsius), but we only have five hours of electricity per day in Baghdad, and the temperatures often get to 50 or 55˚ Celsius.

The whole security situation is our main problem and our main concern. Yesterday one of our drivers was shot in the head. The day before, one of our librarians lost his son — he was assassinated. Every day we have a story. These things have really taken our time and our energy. It’s a really unbearable situation here in Baghdad. The educated people, the middle classes, have started to leave Baghdad. Now Baghdad is an empty city.

Today about four bombs exploded close to the National Library. Sometimes the mortar shells damage parts of the building, or under the impact of the bombs, glass will be broken. The physical damage is very limited, but the effect on morale is considerable.

DC: How many people are using the library?

SBE: At the moment, the number of the readers who come to our institution is very limited. Sometimes when the security situation is very bad, we receive just one reader. But even when we have one reader, we open the main reading room… In my view, this is very important, morally and politically; we have to fight. I think we are the only cultural institution in Baghdad that has been open since 2003.

DC: It seems that your goal is to create a public space that reflects the kinds of values you want to see in the new Iraq. Are there any other public spaces that are being used similarly?

SBE: The University of Baghdad is open, and its libraries are functioning, but the problem is that the whole educational and cultural system in Iraq needs to be reformed because of the people. There are the old guard still in power here in Baghdad. In the past we had one Saddam and one policy. Now we have a thousand Saddams; every one of them is a little dictator… These little Saddams, at the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Defense, and so on, can be Shia, Sunni, secular, or even apolitical. We need to change the whole system. The old people are still in power, and that is why the pace of change is very slow.

In the past I was very optimistic; now I am very pessimistic about the future of the county. Since late 2005, the civil war has started. But we don’t say it. This is a civil war. And there are assassinations taking place every minute here in Baghdad.

DC: You have spoken of the damage to the INLA as a “national disaster beyond imagination” and the “loss of a large portion of Iraq’s historical memory.” But you also said in a 2005 speech that “the destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage began during Saddam’s era” because of indifference, neglect, and hierarchical notions of control at the expense of creativity. How is it possible to combat that other kind of cultural loss — not just material, in terms of the irreplaceable artifacts, but in terms of values — the loss of a culture in which culture itself is considered important?

SBE: We had a dictatorship for thirty-five years, and cultural life was dominated by the state and the Ba’ath party. The fall of the regime created a big cultural vacuum. Cultural values from Iran, from Saudi Arabia, mostly fundamentalist values, started to dominate our cultural life here in Baghdad.So in my view, the normalization of cultural life here in Baghdad is crucial, especially because these cultural institutions are secular, like ours, so it becomes a struggle, with these foreign cultural values being imposed on us. Our duty is to reopen the National Library and National Archive and provide an alternative.

DC: What hope do you see for cultural life in Baghdad?

SBE: Cultural life in Baghdad is dead. Every institution tries to be active on the cultural front, and to sustain activities, but in general they are very weak, very limited because of the security situation. We have cultural events without an audience. Let’s say tomorrow we go to the National Theatre in Baghdad and try to show the best play in the world, or hold an art exhibition. People will not go, because they are afraid.

DC: The Western media has talked a great deal about the material cultural losses in Iraq during the war in 2003 as a tragedy that befell humanity as a whole, given that Iraq has long been considered the “cradle of civilization.”

The archives of the former regime are very important for historical reasons and for human rights reasons. The idea that some people who come from abroad, even if they are Iraqis, control these archives and use them for this or that reason, is morally wrong, legally wrong, and historically wrong.

SBE: The term has been used in a negative way by the ultra-Arab nationalists (principally the Ba’athists) to mobilize the masses for their own ends. Nowadays, all political and religious forces use the term in a similar manner. The vast majority of Iraqi “intellectuals” use it in order to hide their inferiority complexes that the country is forty years behind socially, economically, and culturally compared with neighboring countries. What is the point of talking about the past and the greatness of our ancestors at a time when Iraq needs to question and even rewrite its ancient and modern history away from false ideologies and sentimentalisms? The term is a burden, not because we find it very difficult to live up to the deeds of our ancestors, but because we have been deceiving ourselves in thinking that we are a relatively advanced nation and that the foreigners are responsible for our present problems.

DC: Many people outside Iraq were shocked and confused by the destruction to cultural sites,and couldn’t understand why Iraqis would want to damage their heritage in such a way. Is there any collective memory of an Islamic civilization to be proud of?

SBE: It doesn’t apply to Iraq. In Iraq, secular forces always dominated political and cultural life since the establishment of the Iraqi state in 1921. The idea that there was an Islamic civilization — there is no such thing. Islam in Afghanistan is different from Islam in Iraq. Even in Iraq, Islam in the South is different from Islam in the North. There is no such civilization because there are different countries, with different levels of cultural and economic progress. Afghanistan is less developed than Turkey, Turkey is different from Egypt, which is different from Sudan, and so on.

DC: It seems, though, at least among Muslims elsewhere, that the notion has become part of a political mythology.

SBE: Yes, and the reason is escapism.

DC: Can Iraqi expatriates play a role in the reconstruction of the country, working to counter dangerous elements and promote culture? What do you think about Iraqi archival material being posted on the internet, or the work of the Iraq Memory Foundation (IMF), an initiative started by former Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya?

SBE: The archives of the former regime are very important for historical reasons and for human rights reasons. The idea that some people who come from abroad, even if they are Iraqis, control these archives and use them for this or that reason, is morally wrong, legally wrong, and historically wrong. For example, if you read the daily newspaper in Baghdad, you would read that every day they publish security documents about the life of this person or that person. They put lives in danger and violate rights. Some of this information is not correct, and a lot of people were killed because of the publication of these documents.

The Iraq Memory Foundation is a private initiative financed, I think, by some American institution or American nonprofit. In Iraq we have a law and it organizes the work of the National Archives and the archives of all the ministries and state institutions. The whole archive issue needs to be looked at again, to change the laws governing archives.

The IMF works without being subjected to Iraqi laws, outside of Iraqi legislative and executive bodies, so they are outside the legal framework of the country, and we don’t know what they do with the documents. Some of them are extremely dangerous,and they could be used as political weapons against others. And in Baghdad, as I said, these documents are used against opponents, so they are very dangerous in the hands of private groups and institutions.

It’s not only the IMF that is seizing millions of documents. Even the CIA and other foreign agencies, even some foreign journalists, when they left Baghdad, they took with them a lot of documents from Iraqi institutions and ministries. We need to collect all these materials, bring them to Baghdad and set up a special committee to write new legislation and to distinguish between this document and that document according to their value, whether their value is related to security or to a human rights issue.

We thought — even I believed — that the downfall of the Saddam regime would be followed by deep political, social, cultural, and educational changes. Unfortunately the Americans and the majority of our selfish political elites have made a mess of the political process. After the Americans removed Saddam Hussein, the whole state system collapsed. The Americans proved to be very bad imperialists and the native elites to be extremely naïve people. They were not up to the task.