After 2003 looting and years of disrepair, a onetime cultural gem in Baghdad gets restoration help from Florence and Venice.

Iraqi National Library after it was attacked in 2003 (IFLA)

LA STAMPA/Worldcrunch

By Carla Reschia

FLORENCE - Iraqi officials responsible for returning their ransacked National Library to its former glory are turning to a country -- and city -- that know a thing or two about cultural restoration.

Ever since the massive 1966 flood of the River Arno in Florence damaged scores of art masterpieces and countless rare books, Italians have become arguably the world's leading authorities on salvaging treasures of the past.

Experts in Florence are now imparting that knowledge -- and cutting-edge technology and practices – to their visiting Iraqi counterparts as part of a major restoration project, many years in the waiting.

The National Library in Baghdad was once considered one of the most important centers of Middle Eastern knowledge and culture, boasting a historical archive with a collection of a 1.5 million volumes, which included extremely rare ancient Korans. But in 2003 the library was bombed and looted in the aftermath of the American invasion, and ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime.

That spontaneous devastation followed the effects of the international embargo that preceded the war, which impeded upkeep of the library's contents and led to widespread corruption. A portion of the archeological collection has been misplaced or stolen over the years, most likely forever lost to the black market.

Restoring the library is the centerpiece of a project spearheaded by UNESCO and the European Union. The project, which includes officials from Iraq, Jordan and Italy, aims to restore the network of public libraries, universities and religious institutions that were once the pride of the region.

There are currently four Iraqi librarians in Italy who aim to bring back know-how and the latest techniques to the Baghdad library. Nadia Al-Shaikhli, Shatha Hashim, Ammar Al-Baidy and Iman Al-Rubaye — three women and a man — who are hard at work under the tutelage of Italian experts from the National Library in Florence, as well as the National Marciana Library of Venice. They are learning the newest techniques in digitization and informational archiving.

Upon their return to Iraq, the librarians will instruct their colleagues and share with them the essence of the project: to begin to return Iraq to its place as the Middle East's capital of tolerance and the cultural avant-garde. This is where, under the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258), the Capital city of Baghdad commissioned 60 different libraries. They were all subsequently destroyed when the Mongols sacked the city in 1258. But the Iraqis, patiently over time, rebuilt them and remained faithful to the dictum: "The Egyptians write the books, the Lebanese sell the books, but it is in Baghdad that books are read."

But to engage with books now — like then — isn't easy or even safe. In Florence they still remember Ali, a leading librarian who was part of an earlier exchange program. When Ali returned home to Baghdad, he was killed in a random bombing.

"Over these years we have contributed to the renovation of their infrastructure, we are providing equipment for their labs, supplying technical instruction for the restoration and the digitization of the books," said Domenico Chirico director of the organization ‘A Bridge For," who is organizing the project. "But the central and most important task has been the professional and human exchange that has been created. Because of that, there is particular pain for everyone involved. We have tried to give whatever help we can to the family of Ali."

There is also another aspect to the project that has consumed the director of the library of Baghdad, Saad Eskander. The former Kurd resistance fighter, who was awarded Archivist of the Year by Columbia University in 2007, aims to recover materials from the national Archive that he claims was sequestered by the American forces after the invasion.

"We are still negotiating with the administrators and the American embassy in Baghdad," says Eskander. "In theory we have made progress, but in reality they are just trying to buy time hoping that we will just let it be. But we won't."

Eskander remains very skeptical about the future of culture in his country, noting that the government has not made it a high priority, nor increased the budget for such projects. "A serious government in my opinion should give priority to the rebuilding of the infrastructure and re-develop the institutions and the people who work there," he says. "But I don't believe they will do this and this is nothing new. It has been like this since the 1980s and so in that sense there really has been no regime change."

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