"In the Koran, the first thing God said to Muhammad was `Read,' "
Alia Muhammad Baker
New York Times, July 27, 2003*
It's funny how things happen. I was at Barnes and Noble the other day doing research for some upcoming posts. It's not that I fancy myself a "real" journalist so much as I was curious about the number of ABC books there are in the world. To my surprise and amazement there are many. In fact, there is a whole website dedicated to this most basic of primers. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE ABC books. I can't tell you why. I just know I do. If I had a library in my house - you know, one of those big rooms you see in rich people's homes, lined with bookcases, with comfortable leather furniture, a big cherry-finished desk and fresh flowers on the table next to the window where a light breeze gently moves the sheer curtains - I'd have a whole section set aside for ABC books.
But, as often happens, I digress. While crawling around on the floor checking out the bottom shelves ( you can do this in the children's section and nobody thinks you are strange; it being the one place in the store where crawling is acceptable!). I came across a title that instantly captured my attention: The Librarian of Basra - A True Story from Iraq. I find anything that says "true story" in the title to be captivating. So, I picked it up and not only thumbed through the pages of brightly colored pictures, I sat right down on one of those child sized chairs and read the story of a remarkable lady and her dedication to not only her job but the preservation of her country's history.
We've all seen the news reports on TV. In fact, we've seen way too many videos of bombed out buildings, tank-strewn roads where children play soccer, punks carrying shoulder rockets and mothers carrying corpses. We've seen American GI's waving goodby to families at home, and we seen flag draped caskets lined up in the back of C130's. We've seen Saddam's statue fall to the ground, oil refineries burning and the President on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier telling us we're winning the war.
But seldom do we hear the stories of the people, the everyday people like you and me, not the soldiers, or terrorists, or politicians, but the people who must find a way to live and love and survive in a war zone. Mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. Doctors, nurses, teachers, shop keepers and, yes, even librarians. While I hate seeing the terrified brown eyes of a generation of children who are learning A is for AK-47, B is for Bomb, and C is for collateral damage, I'd like a truer picture than we get from either CNN or the President. I'm not saying that either side is telling lies, but I do believe the real truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Enter, Jeanette Winter, who, upon reading an article in the NY Times in 2003, took it upon herself to retell the story of Alia Muhammad Baker, the Librarian of Basra. In a nutshell, Alia, "who's library has been a meeting place for those who love books" fears that the war will "destroy the library along with the 30,000 books within it." 30,000 books! Some dating back 700 years. 700 years! What's a librarian to do?
Well, with the help of a neighbor she manages to move a good portion of the books to her own house. " In Alia's house, books are everywhere, filling floors and cupboards and windows - leaving barely enough room for anything else." And, as often happens in war-stricken areas, nine days later a fire burned the library to the ground. Alia wasn't able to save all the books, but she was able to save some. In doing so, she became a hero. She might not get a medal pinned on her chest, but Winters has written her story to inspire generations to come.
I encourage you to find youself a copy of this delightful book. Grab a cup of tea, sit in your favorite chair and read what it really means to love books. "A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to a fund to help rebuild the book collection of Basra's Central Library."
The Librarian of Basra, A True Story from Iraq, written & illustrated by Jeanette Winter, Harcourt, Inc., 2005
To read the original NY Times article written by Shaila K. Dewan go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/27/international/worldspecial/27LIBR.html?ex=1206849600&en=30ab0b177a1f5bf8&ei=5070