Those who can bear to read the news will already know that The libraries of Baghdad have been burned. Below is Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent, 15 April 2003, testifying to the loss, and to the holiness of the written word:
So yesterday 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 The National Library and Archives ad a priceless treasure of Ottoman historical documents, including the old royal archives of Iraq ad were turned to ashes in 3,000 degrees of heat. Then the library of Korans at the Ministry of Religious Endowment was set ablaze.Good question. Right now we’ve got a lot of our guys combing the country, still looking for those weapons of mass destruction. They’re not turning up. I figure they’re not going to turn up, because Rumsfeld is now suggesting that the WMDs were all spirited over the border into Syria.
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 ad flames 100 feet high were bursting from the windows ad 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 ad 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 ad soon to be Saudi Arabia ad 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,ad 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.
King Faisal 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 ad Winston Churchill gave him Baghdad after the French threw him out of Damascus ad 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?
And why shouldn’t he? With so many records destroyed, in the library and elsewhere, we can claim anything about Saddam’s regime; and who can prove us wrong? If we really wanted to know about weapons of mass destruction, we wouldn’t have blown Chemical Ali’s house to smithereenies. That’s where those records were kept. Or if we did happen to blow it to smithereenies, we would have gone in and secured the site and whatever remained. It wouldn’t have been difficult; a reporter for the Daily Telegraph walked into the house while it was still being looted by local peasants and little kids. But we didn’t do that either. Nor did we secure the government offices and the homes of other high officials to see whether their paperwork held any clues. Darned if the looters didn’t destroy all that data too.
And now Rumsfeld is saying the WMDs have gone over the border into Syria. This might have more credibility if he and his cronies hadn’t already let slip that Syria’s next in line for a regime change anyway.I’ll end here with a bit of the log file from a conversation I had in chat with a very knowledgeable friend:
Friend: The following is from Bush’s recent State of the Union speech: “Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent. In such quantities, these chemical agents could also kill untold thousands. He’s not accounted for these materials. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them. “ TNH: Oh, what [very bad word]!I want to put up ads all over America showing Rumsfeld’s and Bush’s grinning faces. Underneath them, it would say:
Friend: Still quoting: “U.S. intelligence indicates that Saddam Hussein had upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents. Inspectors recently turned up 16 of them, despite Iraq’s recent declaration denying their existence. Saddam Hussein has not accounted for the remaining 29,984 of these prohibited munitions. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them.”
Friend: Okay. Now there are no files or paperwork left showing what was or wasn’t around.
Friend: (This is now me talking.)
TNH: I can tell.
Friend: But … 29,984.
Friend: Where are they?
TNH: That’s a big stack, and a precise count.
Friend: Sixteen of ‘em showed up in an old bunker, covered with bird poop, crates unopened since the late ’80s.
TNH: Obvious inventory error.
Friend: That leaves, let’s see, 29,968?
Friend: One turned up this morning, and the preliminary test showed positive for chemicals. The secondary test popped negative.
Friend: That’s 29,967 left. Where are they?
Friend: Those aren’t hidden under the bed in Saddam’s Love Shack. Where are they?
Friend: 500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX is a big whacking pile. And you can’t just leave it lying around. The dead birds would give it away.
Friend: So, where is it?
Friend: (As to how we know exactly how much he’s got, that’s easy. We saved the receipts.)
Friend: Rumsfeld, today, is putting out that it’s all been moved to Syria.
Friend: I’m sure you want to know what Iraq was claiming as far as where all this stuff went, back before the war started. You do know, don’t you?
Friend: As you recall, Iraq was required to destroy all the stuff within 15 days at the end of Gulf War I.
Friend: Iraq has been claiming, right along, that they did in fact destroy it, right on time.
TNH: And you know, they might just be telling the truth.
Friend: But that the records of having destroyed it were kept at good ol’ “Chemical Ali’s” headquarters, in Basra, and were burned by mobs during rioting in that city when they broke into government offices and destroyed files.
TNH: [Very bad words.]
“Hi! I’m Donald Rumsfeld!” “And I’m George Bush!”
“We hold you in complete contempt! We think you’ll believe anything!”