Iraq's academics restock Mosul's barren bookshelves

Nearly 100,000 books have been donated from other colleges and non-governmental agencies inside and outside Iraq.
Saturday 18/05/2019
Iraqi men sort out books at the new library of Mosul University in Iraq's northern city of Mosul, April 17. (AFP)
Global donations. Iraqi men sort out books at the new library of Mosul University in Iraq's northern city of Mosul, April 17. (AFP)

MOSUL - Watheq Mahmud is pursuing an advanced engineering degree but the textbooks he needs are often missing in his native Mosul, the Iraqi city where jihadists burned volumes and destroyed libraries.

To track down the books, he has had to travel 400km south to Baghdad and even a further 600km to Basra.

"Everything is reversed today. Mosul used to be the hub for students and researchers from all across Iraq and the Arab world," said Mahmud, 33. “Today, Mosul's people are forced to leave their city in search of education, books and resources."

For centuries, Mosul was known for its artists and writers, for libraries brimming with books in multiple languages and for housing Iraq's first printing press but when the Islamic State (ISIS) seized the city in 2014, it banned any texts deemed un-Islamic and burned treasured archives.

Although Mosul has been back in government hands since 2017, its academics see the barren bookshelves as part of ISIS's dark legacy.

"It's extremely hard for a researcher to complete his dissertation because there are so few resources available," said Abdulhamid Mohammad, a 34-year-old pursuing a doctorate in history.

Roa al-Hassan, who is studying food science, said she fears much of her city's written riches will never be recovered. "Some books were never digitally available and now they'll be lost forever," she lamented.

One of Mosul's most prominent literary hubs was the Central Library, erected in 1921 in the eastern Faysaliyah quarter. It housed books ranging from donated novels to rare volumes, fragile manuscripts and old blueprints.

The library even held books in the Syriac language, produced in the 19th century by Iraq's first printing press, across the Tigris River in western Mosul.

Mosul boasted several large government collections, a library of religious texts, the Mosul University library, dozens of archives linked to churches and mosques and even more private bookstores along Nujaifi Street, nicknamed "Culture Boulevard."

Those gems were destroyed in February 2015 when ISIS fighters looted the Central Library and systematically eradicated other collections, despite howls of protests.

Some experts said ISIS set aside precious manuscripts to sell on the black market, along with ancient artefacts retrieved from heritage sites it had destroyed.

The Iraqi government's recapture of Mosul in 2017 facilitated support to restock the libraries, with donated volumes arriving from all over the world.

"We had 16,338 books before the library was looted and ruined," said Jamal Ahmad Hesso, the associate director of the Central Library. The library has received 11,758 volumes but is missing more than one-quarter of its previous content, he said.

Mosul's main religious archive once housed approximately 58,000 books. It now has 48,000, its keeper, Shamel Lazem Tah, said.

"Among them were 4,361 rare and important manuscripts that were all stolen by Daesh," said Tah, using an Arab acronym for ISIS. They included "al-Muhit al-Burhani," a key text in Islamic jurisprudence that dated back 900 years.

Mosul University, too, was ravaged by ISIS's 3-year rule over the city, said agriculture Professor Mohammad Abdallah.

"The university library lost more than a million scientific and academic books, including more than 3,500 valuable prints," he said. "Manuscripts, periodicals more than 300 years old, copies of the Quran dating back to the ninth century, all of them were looted or burned."

Around 90-95% of the library's contents were lost.

Slowly, the university is restocking. Nearly 100,000 books have been donated from other colleges and non-governmental agencies inside and outside Iraq.

"The university is determined to rebuild its library so it can be what it once was -- a rich resource of knowledge and academia," Abdallah said.

While most of the current stocks are donations, some volumes remain from Mosul's original archives -- survivors of ISIS.

"More than 3,000 books were saved. We have also stored away the remnants of another 4,000 destroyed books," said Mosul University librarian Omar Tufiq.

Abu Mohammad, 33, was one of the Mosul residents who contributed to the rescue effort. "[We] rescued more than 750 books, one of my friends and I," he said.

He hid the literary treasures in the cellar of an abandoned home.

"When the library was being burned, we carried them away in small bags, despite it being dangerous," Mohammad said.