“What you destroy, we will rebuild, only better” – Slogan of Kurdish Peshmerga.
The garden I am standing in is so beautiful that I find it difficult to imagine that it was a former detention centre operated by Saddam Hussain’s Ba’ath party, a place of imprisonment and torture. It is now a garden full of flowers and trees and in its centre rises the impressive Zaytun Library of Erbil. This is no accident, the Kurdish Peshmerga vowed that all these sites would be rebuilt this way once Saddam’s regime ended and the people would reclaim such poisoned land for purposes such as libraries and gardens. Erbil or or Hawler as it is called by locals like much of Iraq has seen a lot of history pass its way, Alexander the Great sorted out the Persian King Darius near here and the citadel of Erbil is the oldest inhabited city in the world and a soon to be UNESCO heritage site.
But let’s take a step back. What is a London based Corkonian doing in the middle of former detention centre/ garden in Iraqi Kurdistan? This region in the north is the ancestral homelands of the Kurds – the oft persecuted minority in Iraq. The Kurds constitute the largest minority without a homeland. I was at the library as part of the third House of Books workshop funded by the EU and UNESCO and run by a Humanitarian NGO called Un Ponte Per…. You can read more about their involvement here. It is the last in a series of workshops which has been looking at digitisation of texts and their preservation and its main partner is the Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA). Many institutes from Iraq joined us including the National Museum of Iraq, Centre Numérique des Manuscrits Orientaux and other projects. From the Middle East the National Library of Jordan and the American University of Beirut also took part. My story with the INLA goes back to 2004 when I managed after some effort to persuade Dr Saad Eskander to write his diary about his day to day life reconstructing the destroyed library in Baghdad.
Iraq National Library and Archives
The INLA was destroyed during and post war in 2003. Of its 417,000 books, 2,618 periodicals dating from the late Ottoman era to modern times, and a collection of 4,412 rare books and manuscripts, an estimated 60 percent of its total archival materials, 25 percent of its books, newspapers, rare books, and most of its historical photographs and maps were destroyed in various ways. This was not just a loss for Iraq, it was a catastrophe for the world on many levels.