“Let us read and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.” The quote by French philosopher Voltaire is the motto of an Iraqi activist, who identifies himself as “Mosul Eye,” in his quest to revive Mosul’s Central Library. It was destroyed by the Islamic State (ISIS) for harbouring blasphemous books.
“The best answer to terrorism is to rebuild libraries and fill them back with books. This will also help reconnect Mosul, through culture and sciences, with the world around it, which we hope will contribute to the rebirth of its libraries,” said the activist, who recently launched an online book donation campaign called “Let it be a Book, Rising from the Ashes.”
“International participation in restoring libraries is a unique opportunity to arouse the world’s interest in rebuilding Mosul civilly but the most important thing is for residents to be aware that there is a book from every corner of the world inside their city, making it once again an example of the cultural pluralism that ISIS sought to destroy.”
Mosul Eye, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals from ISIS, which is still entrenched in the western part of the embattled city, said that ISIS targeted Mosul’s libraries with a clear message: “Any type of knowledge and sciences and the idea of diversity of cultures are forbidden.”
“They tried to impose their unilateral culture by banning people from accessing books or practising any kind of cultural activities,” Mosul Eye said.
The city’s libraries housed a treasure trove of UNESCO-registered rare books and precious manuscripts. In 2015, eight months after invading the city, ISIS ransacked the Central Library and burned more than 8,000 print copies and rare historical manuscripts for being blasphemous.
Mosul Eye’s initiative hopes to collect more than 200,000 books and all types of printed material — magazines, periodicals, newspapers, references, archives, and the like — in all disciplines and various languages.
“The idea is to have writers donate one of their books to Mosul. It will be so beautiful to have works of authors from around the world sitting in Mosul, which resisted deadly terrorism,” the activist said.
“We want to open wide the doors of our city to the outside world and help Mosul return to the international fold through culture and science… Our message to all is that we are not the inventors of terrorism but terrorism was incidental and hung over our necks without mercy.”
The destruction of Mosul’s knowledge and culture was “devastating” for the whole country as many valuable manuscripts may never be recovered, Mosul Eye said, adding: “I believe that ISIS was aware of the value of the documents and stole the most precious from the Central Library before the building was burned down.”
Among the documents that ISIS was believed to have stolen was Mussolini’s paper “Comments of the Year 1924 on ‘The Prince’ of Machiavelli.” Others, including archives of Iraqi newspapers dating to the early 20th century and books printed under the Ottoman rule, have been destroyed.
But Mosul Eye is adamant: “The best way to react to this carnage is by bringing back Shakespeare, Voltaire, Flaubert, Aristo, Plato, Descartes, Jane Austen and other writers and philosophers to Mosul.”
The book donation campaign received a wide response from the international community but the Arab response was relatively poor. Nonetheless, Mosul Eye said there are hopes Arab publishing houses and academic institutions will not fall short of restocking Mosul’s libraries.
About 200 books have been donated but many more are expected after a French association in Marseille pledged to dispatch 20 tonnes of books to Iraq.
The books are being collected in the relatively secure Iraqi city of Irbil, where they are sorted, labelled and prepared for a more peaceful time when the libraries can be rebuilt.
Iraqi writer Abdel Amir al-Majar said the destruction of Mosul libraries was another tragedy added to the calamity of erasing Iraq’s ancient and archaeological sites.
“It was bound to happen under ISIS’s obscurantist and radical approach which counters civilisation and modernism and seeks to eliminate the others by controlling their minds and lives,” he said.
“Iraq has lost a lot as a result of this extremist thinking which rejects life itself,” Majar said, calling on the international community and Arab countries to help reinstate cultural life in the country.
Mosul Eye admitted that people in his city have pressing concerns to deal with, such as food and shelter. “However,” he said, “there is an overwhelming desire among the people to reinvent the future of their city and create a good and comfortable environment through culture, music, modern science and literature.”
“ISIS has failed to destroy an enemy who is unusual for them… The others’ minds.”
To donate publications to the campaign, contact Mosul Eye via e-mail at: email@example.com.
Oumayma Omar, based in Baghdad, is a contributor to the Culture and Society sections of The Arab Weekly.