AP/Samir Mizban
A women checks an archived newspaper
at Iraqi National Library in Baghdad

Book-starved Iraqis See Glimmers of Hope

April 16, 2009 08:00 AM
by Ellen Shapiro
Books are one of many casualties in the Iraq War, but a recent book fair shows that the situation might be improving.

Iraqi Bibliophiles Find Creative Ways to Stay on the Page

It is a well-known saying in the Arab world that “Egypt writes, Lebanon publishes, and Iraq reads,” but the Iraqi love affair with books has been severely tested by years of war, poverty and the ransacking of dozens of libraries—including the National Library and Archives—following the 2002 American invasion. As the war spread, many intellectuals fled the country or sold their personal libraries so they could stay alive. Then in 2007, Baghdad’s fabled Mutamabi Street book market was devastated by suicide bombs that killed 38 and shut down the cultural heart of the city.

Students have been especially challenged. Iraq was once considered the best country for education in the Middle East, but now most high schools use texts that are decades old, and graduate students at Baghdad University spend months trying to locate up-to-date research books. Buying online is not an option since mail service barely exists.

"You could say we are starving for textbooks," May Youssef Saour, a microbiology professor at Baghdad University's al Kindy College of Medicine told Corinne Reilly of McClatchy Newspapers. Some grad students ask colleagues who live abroad to scan textbooks and then e-mail the pages—not a small feat in a country with only sporadic electricity.
With the recent decrease of violence, bibliophiles have reason for hope. A first-of-its-kind book fair was held at Baghdad University at the end of March, with more than 12,000 titles from 40 European and American publishers. The event proved so popular that it was extended from nine days to 15 days.

Digital libraries can be a lifeline for researchers, especially in technical fields. The Iraqi Virtual Science Library has been operating since 2006, providing Iraqi engineers, medical personnel, scientists and students with access to over 17,000 full-text technical, online training and educational material.

And as the infrastructure continues to improve, more Iraqis should have access to additional Web resources, including the mammoth Internet Archive

Unwilling to live long without books, Iraqis have rebuilt the Mutanabi Street market, and stalls are once again buzzing with business. The National Library—which once housed more than 12 million documents before its sacking—is slowly rising from the ashes, with state-of-the-art computers, a conservation department, and over 900 readers a month willing to risk a visit to its war-torn location.

"Some say books are a small matter compared to many of Iraq's issues, but I say this is not true," said Alaa Makki, the head of Iraqi parliament’s education committee to McClatchy Newspapers. "Without knowledge and educated people, who will solve these things? I believe education is the path to solve all (Iraq's) problems.”

Related Topic: Overcoming challenges to share literacy

In other parts of the world, people have also had to overcome challenges to obtaining books. In Colombia, for example, a school teacher uses two donkeys to deliver books to remote villages. Luis Soriano, discussing his “biblioburro” with the New York Times, said, “This began as a necessity; then it became an obligation; and after that a custom. Now, it is an institution.”

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