Many Hands Came Together to Save History

Jeannette Winter, author of Librarian of Basra with Alia Muhammad Baker

When Mrs. Baker asked the restaurant owner to help, he replied: ''What could I do?'' Mr. Muhammad said as he remembered Ms. Baker's plea. ''It is the whole history of Basra.''

Mr. Muhammad, enlisted his brothers and employees. Armful after armful of books was taken from the library, passed over the wall to waiting hands and stacked in the Hamdan's empty dining rooms.

Shopkeepers from across the street joined in. Then some of the neighbors began to help. They used sacks and boxes. Ms. Baker tore down the library's curtains to bundle the books. The group worked through the night and into the next afternoon, carrying books on every subject but one.

''The people who carried the books, not all of them were educated,'' Mr. Zambqa said. ''Some of them could not write or could not read, but they knew they were precious books.''

The night of the fire, Mr. Muhammad said, he went to the British asking for help, but they did nothing. The next day a British patrol stopped at the Hamdan restaurant and asked Mr. Muhammad why he had weapons. Mr. Muhammad held his breath, worried there might be a search. They were only to protect his business, he told the soldiers. ''They did not know that the whole of the library was in my restaurant,'' he said.

If Ms. Baker is strong, she is not invincible. After the fire, she had a stroke. Nonetheless, she saw the library rebuilt.

''The Mongol invasion, that was the last time anyone would burn a library,'' she said. According to legend, in the 13th century the Mongol leader Hulagu burned the Baghdad library but threw the books into the Tigris, turning the river blue from ink.

After Basra grew calm, Ms. Baker and her husband hired a truck to carry the books to her house, distributing some to trusted friends and library employees.

In her neighborhood, Ms. Baker heard whispers that she herself was a looter, if not the shrewdest one.

 

Adapted from: The New York Times: "After the War: The Librarian; Books Spirited to Safety before Iraq Library Fire," by Shailak Dewan, July 27, 2003; http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/27/world/after-the-war-the-librarian-books-spirited-to-safety-before-iraq-library-fire.html.