At The New Yorker, Robin Wright reports on how the Mosul University Library — once home to books and documents dating to antiquity and destroyed by ISIS militants — is becoming the epicenter of Iraq’s cultural rebirth as the homemade mines are removed, Mosul University is rebuilt, and the book drives begin.
I could smell the acrid soot a block away. The library at the University of Mosul, among the finest in the Middle East, once had a million books, historic maps, and old manuscripts. Some dated back centuries, even a millennium, Mohammed Jasim, the library’s director, told me. Among its prize acquisitions was a Quran from the ninth century, although the library also housed thousands of twenty-first-century volumes on science, philosophy, law, world history, literature, and the arts. Six hundred thousand books were in Arabic; many of the rest were in English. During the thirty-two months that the Islamic State ruled the city, the university campus, on tree-lined grounds near the Tigris River, was gradually closed down and then torched. Quite intentionally, the library was hardest hit. ISIS sought to kill the ideas within its walls—or at least the access to them.
“My life’s work,” Jasim said, when we spoke by telephone two weeks ago. “I’d rather my house be destroyed, not the library. All my memories, all the people we helped there—we helped develop the city and the country. Whenever I speak about the library, it’s as if I’m putting my hand on an open wound.”
Then, there’s the problem of books. On May 25th, students organized a book drive outside the gutted library, even as battles between the Iraqi Army and isis militants echoed from across the river. Four young musicians performed in front of the library steps. Three students pinned their photographs of people and places and life in Mosul on a long clothesline and recounted the stories behind them. Four painters displayed their work, propped on easels. The event was the brainchild of Mosul Eye, a pseudonymous historian and blogger who chronicled life under ISIS rule until he fled Iraq, last year. (He spoke on the condition of anonymity, since he still has family in Mosul.) Before the ISIS invasion, in 2014, he spent long hours in the library each week doing research, he told me. From abroad, he’s now trying to coördinate a cultural rebirth in Mosul, beginning with its university.