Chapter: Burning Books
16 April, 2003
was the burning of books. First came the looters, then the arsonists.
It was the final chapter in the sacking of Baghdad. The National Library
and Archives a priceless treasure of Ottoman historical documents,
including the old royal archives of Iraq were turned to ashes
in 3,000 degrees of heat. Then the library of Korans at the Ministry
of Religious Endowment was set ablaze.
I saw the looters.
One of them cursed me when I tried to reclaim a book of Islamic law
from a boy of no more than 10. Amid the ashes of Iraqi history, I found
a file blowing in the wind outside: pages of handwritten letters between
the court of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who started the Arab revolt against
the Turks for Lawrence of Arabia, and the Ottoman rulers of Baghdad.
And the Americans
did nothing. All over the filthy yard they blew, letters of recommendation
to the courts of Arabia, demands for ammunition for troops, reports
on the theft of camels and attacks on pilgrims, all in delicate hand-written
Arabic script. I was holding in my hands the last Baghdad vestiges of
Iraq's written history. But for Iraq, this is Year Zero; with the destruction
of the antiquities in the Museum of Archaeology on Saturday and the
burning of the National Archives and then the Koranic library, the cultural
identity of Iraq is being erased. Why? Who set these fires? For what
insane purpose is this heritage being destroyed?
When I caught
sight of the Koranic library burning flames 100 feet high were
bursting from the windows I raced to the offices of the occupying
power, the US Marines' Civil Affairs Bureau. An officer shouted to a
colleague that "this guy says some biblical [sic] library is on
fire". I gave the map location, the precise name in Arabic
and English. I said the smoke could be seen from three miles away and
it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later,
there wasn't an American at the scene and the flames were shooting
200 feet into the air.
There was a
time when the Arabs said that their books were written in Cairo, printed
in Beirut and read in Baghdad. Now they burn libraries in Baghdad. In
the National Archives were not just the Ottoman records of the Caliphate,
but even the dark years of the country's modern history, handwritten
accounts of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, with personal photographs and
military diaries,and microfiche copies of Arabic newspapers going back
to the early 1900s.
But the older
files and archives were on the upper floors of the library where petrol
must have been used to set fire so expertly to the building. The heat
was such that the marble flooring had buckled upwards and the concrete
stairs that I climbed had been cracked.
The papers on
the floor were almost too hot to touch, bore no print or writing, and
crumbled into ash the moment I picked them up. Again, standing in this
shroud of blue smoke and embers, I asked the same question: why?
So, as an all-too-painful
reflection on what this means, let me quote from the shreds of paper
that I found on the road outside, blowing in the wind, written by long-dead
men who wrote to the Sublime Porte in Istanbul or to the Court of Sharif
of Mecca with expressions of loyalty and who signed themselves "your
slave". There was a request to protect a camel convoy of tea, rice
and sugar, signed by Husni Attiya al-Hijazi (recommending Abdul Ghani-Naim
and Ahmed Kindi as honest merchants), a request for perfume and advice
from Jaber al-Ayashi of the royal court of Sharif Hussein to Baghdad
to warn of robbers in the desert. "This is just to give you our
advice for which you will be highly rewarded," Ayashi says. "If
you don't take our advice, then we have warned you." A touch of
Saddam there, I thought. The date was 1912.
Some of the
documents list the cost of bullets, military horses and artillery for
Ottoman armies in Baghdad and Arabia, others record the opening of the
first telephone exchange in the Hejaz soon to be Saudi Arabia
while one recounts, from the village of Azrak in modern-day Jordan,
the theft of clothes from a camel train by Ali bin Kassem, who attacked
his interrogators "with a knife and tried to stab them but was
restrained and later bought off". There is a 19th-century letter
of recommendation for a merchant, Yahyia Messoudi, "a man of the
highest morals, of good conduct and who works with the [Ottoman] government."
This, in other words, was the tapestry of Arab history all that
is left of it, which fell into The Independent's hands as the mass of
documents crackled in the immense heat of the ruins.
of the Hejaz, the ruler of Mecca, whose staff are the authors of many
of the letters I saved, was later deposed by the Saudis. His son Faisel
became king of Iraq Winston Churchill gave him Baghdad after the
French threw him out of Damascus and his brother Abdullah became
the first king of Jordan, the father of King Hussein and the grandfather
of the present-day Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah II.
For almost a
thousand years, Baghdad was the cultural capital of the Arab world,
the most literate population in the Middle East. Genghis Khan's grandson
burnt the city in the 13th century and, so it was said, the Tigris river
ran black with the ink of books. Yesterday, the black ashes of thousands
of ancient documents filled the skies of Iraq. Why?
Independent Digital (UK) Ltd