Destroyed by ISIS and coalition airstrikes, the university’s newly restored Central Library will be a place for ‘knowing, understanding and respecting each other’
For five years, Sayf Al-Ashqar despaired when he passed the Central Library at The University of Mosul, it’s charred remains a mocking reminder of the destruction Isis wrought on his city. Now, he looks at the new building completed last February and feels triumphant. “The reopening of the Central Library is a symbol of victory, not just for Mosul, but for Iraq and society as a whole,” he says.
As Secretary-General of Libraries at the University of Mosul, he made it his mission to rebuild the historic structure, which was one of the largest libraries in the Middle East – renowned for its rare texts and ancient manuscripts – before Isis ransacked the collection. “They took the important books and sold them on the black market then burned the others,” Al-Ashqar says.
The UN described it as “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history,” and a “new phase in the cultural cleansing” perpetrated by the group. But there was more damage to come. During the nine-month battle to liberate the city, seven missiles struck the library, then Isis set it alight, destroying what remained of its million-strong collection.
By that time Al-Ashqar was in Duhok, the Kurdish city where many university professors fled to escape the Isis witch hunt for academics in Mosul. The militants had already killed his father and his wife’s father. “When I heard the library had burned, something inside me died more,” he says.
On campus, Isis forced the remaining staff to teach a revised curriculum, closing faculties they deemed un-Islamic, including law, languages, social sciences and archaeology. Rifling through files in the university administration offices, they identified people with connections to study programs in America so they could persecute those with links abroad.
Restoring these ties so the university can reclaim its place in the international academic community has been central to the recovery process. Support has come from all over the world, with institutions from the UK, US and across the Arab world sending donations and sharing expertise. Boxes of books have been sent to restock the empty shelves, including 2,500 volumes from Ideas Beyond Borders, which also provided 40 new computers and printers for the library.
“They gave us a list of the specific books they needed for the various colleges, from Oxford dictionaries to an Introduction to Anatomy,” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Founder and President of Ideas Beyond Borders. With students unable to source the materials needed to study and whole classes often sharing one textbook, IBB set aside $186,000 to provide the books that were needed most. “Isis wants to destroy knowledge and culture while IBB’s main goal is to create a knowledge movement in Iraq and make information accessible in the Middle East,” Al Mutar adds.
Isis occupied Mosul for over three years – a period the city is trying to forget, despite visual reminders at every turn. When security forces took back the university campus, they found classrooms repurposed as barracks for Isis fighters and laboratories used to make chemical weapons, where reports later emerged of experiments on live prisoners. Everything looked scorched and grey with steel wires jutting from the frames of former faculty buildings and much of the campus reduced to rubble.
At the center of it all, the library lay in ruins.
Work to rebuild the city has been painfully slow but over time new buildings are restoring the spirit of learning on campus. 50,000 students are enrolled for the current academic year and the university is on a drive to attract Christian and Yazidi students after ethnic minorities fled the once-diverse city. On the street outside the university entrance, cafes and bookshops have opened up and the corridors of the faculty buildings buzz with the chatter of students once more.
In the middle of campus, overlooking a patch of grass where students eat lunch on sunny days, the new library stands as a proud testament to the victory of education over ignorance. An imposing black façade gives way to a colorful interior, with departments for rare books, exhibitions, and international studies. Al-Ashqar wants this to be a place that reinforces the connections ISIS tried to tear down, not just for reading books but “for knowing, understanding and respecting each other,” he says, pointing to an inscription by the entrance that reads ‘The Word Impossible Does Not Exist In Our Dictionary.’