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NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Saad Eskander on Rebuilding Iraq

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HINOJOSA: Hi, everyone. It's good to be with you. Today we have a fascinating interview. We're talking to Dr. Saad Eskander. The director of the Iraq National Library and Archive. The library, which was heavily looted and damaged during the U.S. Invasion in 2003, reopened in December 2006. Dr. Eskander also writes a blog. A diary on the website of the British Library, that details the daily hurdles of keeping Iraq's central library open. The entries relate the bombings, blockades, shootings, threats, shortages, and petty frustrations that make up every day life in Baghdad. Saad Eskander joins me now by phone, mobile phone in fact, from Baghdad. Welcome to our podcast, Dr. Eskander.

ESKANDER: Thank you. Thank you very much.

HINOJOSA: Now, it's important for our listeners to know that you lived in London. Where you studied at the London School of Economics. And you lived in London from 1990 to 2003.

And then you're asked to come back to reopen the National Library. And you make a decision in the middle of a military action to move back to Baghdad. When you got there, what did you—what were you expecting? What in fact did you find?

ESKANDER: I knew from the news when I returned to Baghdad in November 2003 that the security—situation—wasn't—that good. But I didn't expect that the security situation would deteriorate sharply after November 2003. Despite that, I decided to stay. And the—and the situation went from—bad to worse.

HINOJOSA: You actually are extraordinarily lucky, Dr. Eskander. Because you could actually leave Baghdad today, and you would have a job and a place to go back to in London.

And yet, you choose to stay and run the National Library. Why? Some people might say, save your life and get out. Why stay?

ESKANDER: If all the people who've been in your era. In the Democratic liberal and peaceful Iraq leave the country, youknow, the—the enemy of the country, the enemy of the people who win this war. Who want that the enemies to destroy all the beautiful things about Iraq. We want to—to eliminate the negative legacy left by the dictatorship. Now we facing a new destructive forces coming across the border. So we have to fight them. I fight them with culture. With books. With publications. With preserving the historical memory of my country.

HINOJOSA: But you're doing so much with so little. And you're also challenging a lot of what's going on in Iraq right now. One of the things that you're doing is that you're promoting many women with the National Library.

And for in Iraq right now, that could be scandalous. Even—even could bring threats to your life. Because of the fact that you feel so strongly about promoting women. So you're not only staying. You're pushing the limits there.

ESKANDER: I do believe that Democratic or not to establish an Iraq by making changing of the—of the top, you have to start with from the people. You have to intro—introduce a new culture, a culture of equality. But we need the people to be changed. That's why I introduce some changes in the administration of the National Library. We have elections to elect—representatives of the library and an archivist.

We have the women's society that defend women rights. We are trying to be a—a mirror of for wider society. And to be an—just an example to be followed by others.

HINOJOSA: You know, most of the time in the United States, people are reading about attacks, about numbers of deaths. We don't really get a sense of what else is being battled for there. You talk about a battle for culture. Why is the battle for culture so important for you? I mean, you're essentially prepared to risk your life for this.

ESKANDER: The social and the cultural and the political issues at the moment are—entire connected, are interacted in Iraq. Unfortunately all politicians—have studied not all my interest to culture. And don't see it as an important tool to help the passage of from dictatorship to democracy.

HINOJOSA: You talk about your leaders there in Iraq. What do you think about the role of the Americans in terms of supporting this rebirth and the keeping alive of Iraqi culture in the middle of—in the middle of a war essentially. Are you getting a lot of support from the Americans?

ESKANDER: The military didn't play a positive role. In fact, they were responsible for what happened. I don't believe and I don't say the—that the Americans looted the National Library. Or the National—Museum. But they allowed the criminals to loot and destroy a lot of cultural institutions like ours. The coalition provisional authority, they tried to help. But—culture was at the bottom of their priorities. The American NGOs and their transcultural institutions, the Library of Congress. They started to help.

HINOJOSA: When you took over the library, essentially it—it was bombed out and looted. Now you have rebuilt this library into a modern institution. It has 400 employees, 140 computers, an on-line catalogue.

People can look at the pictures of your rebuilt library before and after. And it—and it looks amazing. And some people might say what an uphill battle to try to transform this library. How did you do it? Where did the money come from? And how did you find people who were prepared to take jobs in a—in a place like a library that essentially had been looted and destroyed.

ESKANDER: I—I started with people. I—people are who makes changes. Not one director. So I—I first—what I first did is to change the culture inside the National—National Library and Archive. And in the past the dominant culture was the culture of taking orders. I tried to secure the culture of taking initiatives. And I used to make everybody involved—in the rebuilding of the National Library and Archive.

Apart from that, I didn't rely on our budget. Our budget is very limited. So I needed support from all side Iraq because I—it's—it's only believe that Iraqi culture is part of the world culture. And I'm—I'm not ashamed to ask for outside support to rebuild our culture.

HINOJOSA: So I'm just wondering. What's a regular library visit to the Iraqi National Library like?

ESKANDER: Sometimes extremely difficult, and we're located in a very bad area. Sometimes we receive just a single reader. And when the situation is fine, we receive a lot of people.

HINOJOSA: In fact, March 5 was a very difficult day. There was a bombing in an area close to where the library is based. And—and this part of Baghdad again, for many Americans, we just don't have these images. But you talk about this area of Baghdad as being a—a part of Baghdad where the intellectuals, the bohemians, the artists, the writers, the booksellers, all get together and hang out.

There was a horrible bloody scene there. Talk to us about that part of Baghdad. The whole intellectual life of Baghdad that we, as Americans, we don't get any clue about that existence of that part of Iraqi culture.

ESKANDER: This part of Baghdad represent the heart or the center of all cultural activities, even during the Saddam—era. By the passage of time it becomes a symbol of the new Iraq. The serious liberal books after the downfall of Saddam that appeared in that six weeks.

HINOJOSA: Soon after the bombing that took place close to—where your based, your journal entry says, "our technicians began to repair a number of windows which had been broken as a result of Monday's car attacks." Then you say, "at last I was able to sign an important memorandum between the Library of Congress and the National Library in Iraq. We can now have cooperation between these two institutions on world digital library projects."

On the one hand you're talking about repairing windows that have been bombed out. And on the other hand you're talking about, you know, becoming a world digital library. It seems like two completely different worlds that you're living in. And somehow you make—and somehow you're able to live in both of them.

ESKANDER: This is our life here in Iraq. One minute I will talk with my technician about restoring the electricity, and even clean water. The next time sending an e-mail to a foreign institution. So I have to work on both on the basic needs, and on the most important needs.

HINOJOSA: Dr. Eskander, are you scared every day? Not only because of where you work and where you live, but because of what you do? Do you essentially walk around thinking, I have a target on my head, and at any moment something could happen. Or do you say, nothing's going to happen to me, and full steam ahead, and nothing will stop me. What's—what's your attitude like every day?

ESKANDER: Usually I don't think about these things. I just switch off my senses. And—get on—with the things I do. Is extremely vital that we just not think about the negative things we face every day. And even when I get home I—I forget all the bad things that happens in the initial library. Like the killing of my staff. So I have to be strong. I have to be—adaptive. And I have to be optimistic. Even I watch children. And every day they go to school. Though they know that the terrorists will attack the schools, hospitals, and so on.

HINOJOSA: And yet at the same time you felt so strongly about documenting the toll that the violence takes that you actually published a chart of one year of sectarian violence among the staff members of your library. It included four assassinations of your employees; two kidnappings; 66 murders of relatives of your staff members; 58 death threats; and 51 displacements. You felt it was important to put numbers next to these very human dramas.

ESKANDER: Yes. I thought it was very important to know the effect of violence on—on the people of Baghdad, and to show the difficulties and the chaotic situation we are facing here in Iraq.

HINOJOSA: In—in fact, on Sunday one of your own librarians was kidnapped? Do you have any information about that happened to this person?

ESKANDER: Yes. I have—contradictory information. According to the authority's information that the U.S. Army—arrested my—librarian. Then the day after I got—new information that it was the—Iraqi National Guard who arrested my librarian. Then the family of the librarian started to question the whole issue, and now they fear that ordinary criminals kidnap the librarian.

HINOJOSA: The big news here in terms of—of coverage is that we've learned that about 3,000 Iraqis visited the American run National Iraqi Assistance Center that's located inside the Green Zone. They went looking for missing relatives. The number of 3,000 Iraqis looking for missing relatives, that's essentially triple the monthly traffic of last Spring. And it's an increase of 50 percent just from this December. So people are disappearing in Iraq, and people just can't find them?

ESKANDER: That's true. A—a lot of incidents go unreported. People are afraid of reporting the missing of their—children, or husbands, or wives because security police infiltrated by the extreme elements.

HINOJOSA: One of the things that's incredible about your diary. Your blog essentially is that you really bring us into—to daily life. And there's a—an entry where you are having a—a discussion with your wife. Your wife is upset because you went to one part of Baghdad. And she went to another part of Baghdad. And you said, "My wife is suffering from a typical illness here in Baghdad. It's called the double standard illness where essentially everyone is thinking that they're safe, but no one feels safe." Tell me a little bit more about how you manage this with your wife and your baby who's ten months old.

ESKANDER: People always think of—of others. I think of my wife. She thinks of me. So when I go outside she will be worried. When she goes out—outside, I'll be worried about her. And a lot of Iraqis bought—mobile phone not because they have money to buy, but they want just to make sure that their relatives are safe. For example, yesterday a big bomb exploded—near the Ministry of Finance. I have a friend—who—who lives in that area. I quickly—rang him to—just to make sure he's—alive.

HINOJOSA: So we're now entering the fifth year of this conflict. Here in the United States there are debates about withdrawing U.S. Combat forces as early as 2008. So, what do you think needs to happen?

ESKANDER: If the U.S. And the British—would withdraw their forces from Iraq. The extremists, Shiite extremists and Sunni extremists, will prevail. They will dominate the country. So it's not as simple as people think in the West that the—the withdrawal of the U.S. Forces and the British forces will solve the problem.

In my o—opinion, Iraq will be a fundamentalist state and will be a world—threat and will affect the interests of all countries. Especially Western countries. I don't support the occupation. I never supported. But it happened. It liberated Iraq from the brutal dictatorship. But we need the occupation for a period, and after that, when we have a strong Army, strong police, we have a strong political system, then we will ask the American to leave.

HINOJOSA: If you needed to point a finger. I—I hear when you said that you didn't support the occupation to begin with. But if there was finger-pointing to be had then, where would you point your fingers?

ESKANDER: We inherited a lot of our problems from the past. The Sunni Shiite conflict, it's old. The Kurdish question we inherited from the past. But the occupation policy adopted by the Americans, who were totally wrong, they thought it was easy for them to run Iraq.

The Americans totally ignored the—the Iraqi political and the educated class. For example, in—in—when I was appointed Director General, I faced a lot of problems from the Americans. When I wanted to adopt a different view from theirs. They wanted to dictate and not to listen. That was the biggest mistake made by the Americans.

HINOJOSA: Dr. Eskander. I'm making plans about what I'm going to do with my family this weekend, what museums I'm going to take my kids to this weekend here in New York City. I'm wondering for you, as you look forward to a weekend with your family. What do you plan? What's a normal weekend for you with your—with your wife and family?

ESKANDER: Most time I stay at home writing. And apart from that, to visit my close friends. And sometimes I just go to look for a new house to move to because I need to change my house of—once every year for security reasons.

For—for example, today when I finished my work I went straight to my cousin asking him if he find a new house for me. So its mic—mixture a lot of—a lot of things.

HINOJOSA: Dr. Eskander, thank you so much for spending time with us from Baghdad.

ESKANDER: You too. Thank you for having me on your program.

HINOJOSA: For photographs of the Iraqi National Library. before and after it was rebuilt you can visit our website at You'll also find excerpts from Dr. Eskander's diary at Our program was produced by Karin Kamp. I'm Maria Hinojosa. And we'll talk to you again next week on NOW on the News.

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