Friday, March 21, 2008

Superhero of the Stacks: The Librarian of Basra: A True Story of Iraq by Jeanette Winters

"In the Koran, the first thing God said to Muhammed was 'READ.'"

As the threat of war drew near in the early spring of 2003, Alia Muhammed Baker, chief librarian of the Central Library of Basra, knew that her library, which held modern books and ancient manuscripts, including a 700-year old biography of Muhammed, was under a grave threat of destruction by the bombing and the fires sure to follow. Permission to move the books to a safe place was denied by Iraqi officials, and Alia knew that she was on her own in protecting her precious store of knowledge.

As the destruction of the initial "shock and awe" attacks began, her staff fled the city. Alia turned to her library's neighbor, Anis, whose restaurant was just on the other side of the wall surrounding the library. With his help over 30,000 books were passed over the wall and hidden inside the well-known restaurant, safe from the soldiers and from the looters who followed. Much of the library was moved before the building was completely destroyed nine days later.

Fearing that Anis' restaurant would meet the same fate, Alia hired a truck to move the books, bit by bit, to her own and others' houses in the suburbs.

In Alia's house books are everywhere, filling floors and cupboards and windowsills. Alia waits. She waits for war to end. She waits and dreams of peace. She waits ...and dreams of a new library, but until then, the books are safe, safe with the librarian of Basra.

While Winters' folkloric acrylic illustrations and soothing deep blue borders soften this account of war for younger readers, the terror of the attack, with warplanes in the sky and tanks in the street, is symbolically evoked by the orange and red hues of the sky over Alia's library as the invasion advances. Still the war is background to the central story of this brave woman, for whom books are "more precious than mountains of gold." Alia's courage and resourcefulness in spiriting her collection into safe haven in her home and those of her friends is the real matter of this story. Leaders, good and bad, and wars, just and unjust, come and go in human history, but Alia's belief is that libraries are the custodians of civilization and must be preserved for the future at all cost.

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq is aimed at school-aged readers. For older readers, Mark Allen Stamaty's graphic novel, Alia's Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq, tells the same story in greater detail with a bit more realistic impact.

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  • Ah, yes -- innocent, noble Iraqis, evil U.S. soldiers. Appropriate reading for our children, who must never believe that the American side is the right side. Everything is fuzzy and uncertain and contingent except this: That America is always wrong.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:28 PM  

  • You're full of xxxx!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:32 PM  

  • Anonymous, Have you read either book? I'm curious, because the review didn't seem to blame Americans for anything, and I wonder if the books are that one sided? I hope my local public library will order both books so that I can find out for myself.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:07 PM  

  • Thank YOU, Anonymous 11:07. The books are not anti-American, per se. As we know, some destruction in Basra was caused by our initial air attacks, and some was caused by looting and rivalrous factions of Iraqis.

    What Winters shows is that war is undeniably destructive of culture and human society, however well intentioned. This is not to say that war is always the greater evil, just that people should think long before engaging in it.

    By Blogger GTC, at 10:47 AM  

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