A children’s story some adults could stand to read
by Padraic O’Neil
THE LIBRARIAN OF BASRA
A True Story from Iraq
Written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Harcourt Books, 2005
With bold, vibrant colors framing dramatic images, and in language direct and unadorned, Jeanette Winter tells the astonishing tale of Alia Muhammad Baker. As the chief librarian of Basra’s central library, she salvaged 30,000 books from the wreckage of war.
According to New York Times journalist Shalia K. Dewan, whose work was the inspiration for this welcome children’s book, "Alia Muhammad Baker’s house is full of books. There are books in stacks, books in the cupboards, books bundled in the flour sacks like lumpy aid rations. Books fill an old refrigerator. Pull aside a window curtain, and there is no view, just more books." Books on the history of Iraq’s civilizations, on Islam and literature, on "the finer points of Arabic grammar and the art of telling time."
The Librarian of Basra begins with a quote from Alia: "In the Koran, the first thing God said to Muhammad was ‘Read.’" With this as an article of faith, Alia recounts how her library was a meeting place for the discussion of ideas both temporal and spiritual. The atmosphere changed with the threat of invasion, prompting the discussion of more immediate questions: "Will planes with bombs fill the sky? Will our families survive? What can we do?"
Alia worried that the library will be destroyed. She begs a local bureaucrat for permission to move the books; he refuses. Alia, however, will not be deterred. She begins to smuggle books out of the library. As "the whispers of war grow louder," the government occupies the building and an anti-aircraft gun is placed on the roof. Shalia Dewan in her July 27, 2003 article for the Times states that "Ms. Baker and others said that this was a calculated plan by the government, which assumed that the library would be spared bombing, or if not, the bombing would generate ill will against the allied forces."
As the invasion became inevitable, and Basra was immersed in fear, Alia despaired of being able to save the books. She may have recalled how in the 13th century the Mongols burned the magnificent libraries of Baghdad. Iraqi legend has it that so many books were flung into the Tigris, the river ran blue from their ink.
Next, the book draws the reader into the chaos and devastation of total war. Aerial bombing sets much of the city of over one million ablaze. Tanks troll the streets, and the ensuing destruction seems random. Why is this happening? Silhouettes of terrified civilians flee the downpour of bombs from a swarm of planes and the crackle and hiss of gunfire, desperate for shelter that does not exist.
As I read this part of the book with my five-year-old daughter, Shiori, we paused to discuss why militaries are formed and whose interests they serve. The book illustrates some of the reasons why we took to the streets, as a family, to protest the aggressive violence of the U.S. government. While a children’s book about war is challenging and some of the images overwhelm, the overall message is one of abiding hope. I am also happy to share with my daughter a book whose protagonist is a strong, intelligent woman, who takes direct action.
Soon the library is abandoned. Alia calls to her neighbor, Anis Muhammad, who owns a restaurant, for help. Alia, Anis and other neighbors and relatives spirited the books out of the library and over a wall into Anis’ restaurant. There they stayed hidden as the British forces occupied Basra. Nine days after the books were moved, the library burned to the ground.
In the final section, Alia hires a truck to move all the books, many of them hundreds of years old, to her house and the houses of friends. Alia waited and dreamt of peace. She waited and dreamt of a new library.
In an interview with Michele Norris on National Public Radio, Jeanette Winter quoted Alia speaking about her motivation: "I spent my life taking care of books and those masterpieces of great authors and writers as if they were my own children. I treasure every name, every word of them. I gave books my whole attention, my whole respect. I always encourage others to borrow books, stories, novels, because I know deeply inside what a great change the reader will have in mind, in conduct and in dealing with life. All those who destroyed and ruined the library were ignorant and are not of our good people. Basra is well-known for its goodness, kindness, its high concern of old and modern history and its great understanding of what books mean for humanity."
This review originally appeared in the March-April 2005 issue of The Catholic Worker, 36 East 1st St., New York, NY 10003
Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, April 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution