In his student days, Ameen Al Jaleeli spent many happy afternoons at the University of Mosul’s Library. “It was a landmark at the heart of the university. I used to go there and spend hours reading and living that experience, that calmness.” Now a professor at the university, Al Jaleeli shares these memories with new students curious to know what they are missing.
“Not having a library is a serious hindrance to the teaching and learning process,” he says, but it’s also a loss to the student way of life. “Students joining now can’t have that beautiful library experience. … They keep asking me what it was like and wondering whether the reconstruction will be complete before they graduate.”
It’s been almost four years since the Islamic State, or ISIS, was expelled from Mosul, but life is still far from normal at the University of Mosul, where students pass bombed-out departments on the way to class that have yet to be replaced. (See a related article, “Iraqis Watch Antiquities Take Hit After Hit.”)
The central library—once among the largest in the Middle East with over a million books in English and Arabic—has become a symbol of the devastation suffered by the whole city, its charred columns and scorched shelves a stark reminder of the education blackout imposed under the occupation by ISIS.
Now, a new drive to replace the books and rebuild the structure is bringing hope that the former landmark will recover its prestige and give Mosul’s students a chance to connect with the world of learning once more. (See a related article, “Rebuilding Mosul’s Library, Book by Book.”)
Unesco called the deliberate burning of the library’s books “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history.”
Until recently, lack of resources and bureaucratic hurdles delayed plans to rebuild the structure, which was further damaged in the battle to liberate the city. But reconstruction work finally ground into gear at the end of last year as diggers began clearing the rubble of the old library.
“We hope we can get up-to-date tools for the library to help society move forward again and remove the bad history of ISIS from Mosul,”Sayf Al-Ashqar
Secretary General of Libraries at the University of Mosul
Not Just a Place for Reading
Adel Ayad, a 21-year-old sophomore studying English, visits the site daily to monitor progress. “The absence of a central library at the university is a great disappointment to students,” he says, adding that’s it’s not just a place for reading and research, but also for “exchanging ideas among colleagues.”
Sayf Al-Ashqar, Secretary General of Libraries at the University of Mosul, estimates that the new library will be ready toward the end of the year, but efforts are already underway to start stocking the shelves and give students and researchers access to the books they need. “We hope we can get up-to-date tools for the library to help society move forward again and remove the bad history of ISIS from Mosul,” he says.
An international appeal to replace the books has so far met a patchy response, with foreign organizations donating books in multiple languages that fail to meet the needs of students and staff.
Gallery: A Library Rises From the Ashes
Many books end up untouched in storage boxes while students struggle to source the volumes they need to complete their courses, with entire classes sometimes sharing a single textbook. Books that are of use are temporarily housed in a disused sports hall, where there is no space to sit and read.
“Not all of the books I need are available in local bookstores, and even if I’m able to find a certain book, it costs a lot to buy,” says Harith Mohammed, a 24-year-old studying English.
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One organization, Ideas Beyond Borders, aims to address this by donating 2,500 books from a list provided by the university, prioritizing works required by different departments. The project, which is costing $186,000, will also supply 20 computers and 20 printers to “allow the library to access electronic books and journals from around the world and reconnect the university to the global community,” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder of the nonprofit, nongovernmental organization.
A Library for the City as a Whole
Set up in 2017 to translate Wikipedia into Arabic, Ideas Beyond Borders, or IBB, promotes the exchange of ideas that foster critical thinking and pluralism in the Arab world and represents the antithesis to ISIS ideology, says Al Mutar.
“ISIS’ main goal is to destroy knowledge and culture, while IBB’s main goal is to create a knowledge movement in Iraq and make information accessible across the Middle East.”Faisal Saeed Al Mutar
Founder of Ideas Beyond Borders
“ISIS’ main goal is to destroy knowledge and culture, while IBB’s main goal is to create a knowledge movement in Iraq and make information accessible across the Middle East,” he adds.
The books represent the start of a new era for the library, which will house a modern, up-to-date collection that serves not just the university but the Mosul community as a whole. Reading has always been important in Iraq—as the old saying goes, “books are written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq”—and this has never been truer than now, says Al Jaleeli, who heads one of the IBB student translator teams.
“I think that Mosul especially is witnessing a renaissance in which books and reading fall at the heart. … Young people now are hungry for reading, they want to know, to read, to be in contact with other cultures and societies.”
Harith Mohammed loves the atmosphere of libraries and worries that he’ll graduate before work is complete. “I’ll feel really frustrated missing the chance to experience searching and studying at the library. I’d love to relive this experience that my parents and uncles enjoyed when they were college students.”