After more than three decades of dedication to books and libraries, Alia Muhammad Baqer, Basra’s famed librarian, died on August 13 of complications from Covid-19. She was 69.
Baqer, who was the chief librarian of Basra’s Central Library, saved an estimated 30,000 books from destruction during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by a coalition of U.S., British and other forces. That was a turning point in Baqer’s life.
Hassan Nadhem, Iraq’s minister of culture, tourism and antiquities, lamented Baqer’s death. “Our sincere condolences to the family of Mrs. Alia Muhammed Baqer, the former chief librarian at the Central Library in Basra,” Nadhem tweeted. “Baqer was a good example of honesty and patriotism during her career. She helped save 30,000 books and manuscripts from being lost during the British forces’ incursion into Basra.”
Saving Basra’s Books
Haunted by stories of the horrors of libraries’ destruction when the Mongols sacked Baghdad in A.D. 1258, Baqer fearfully watched the imminent danger of the 2003 war threatening her library and seaport city in southern Iraq. (See a related article, “Rebuilding Mosul’s Library, Book by Book.”)
Baqer’s pleas to move books to safety were ignored by officials of Saddam Hussein’s government. When government offices moved into the library and an anti-aircraft gun was placed on the roof, Baqer took the risk and started to smuggle books out of the library, filling her car each day, and taking the books to her house, where she stacked them in every available space.
“Baqer used to find herself among the books and see them as her sons. She wept a lot because she could not save the rest of the books. … She was very proud of what she did and that many of her ‘children’ survived the fire.”Mish’al Hashem
A journalist from Basra
As British troops occupied the oil-rich city on April 6, government buildings were evacuated, street fighting erupted, and the library’s furnishings were looted. Baqer persuaded the owner of a nearby restaurant, local residents, and some neighbors to smuggle the remaining books into the dining room of the restaurant.
For nine days, Baqer and her friends rescued 70 percent of the library’s collection: 30,000 English and Arabic books, a Spanish-language Koran, and a rare 700-year-old biography of Prophet Mohammed.
However, the library was set on fire the next day. Many books were lost and Baqer suffered a stroke.
“Mrs. Alia was a great, brave woman who managed to rescue thousands of books,” said Mish’al Hashem, a journalist from Basra who had met Mrs. Baqer in 2005. “She told me that a day before the library was burned, there was a British tank stationed nearby, but it withdrew without warning. She felt afraid and moved rare books and manuscripts to a next-door restaurant, and then to friends’ and her home.”
“Baqer used to find herself among the books and see them as her sons,” Hashem added. “She wept a lot because she could not save the rest of the books. … She was very proud of what she did and that many of her ‘children’ survived the fire.”
“Her story is an example to teach pupils and students about one’s loving home, dedication and being responsible. She was a respectful colleague.”Qahtan Al-Abeed
Director of the Basrah Museum
In 2004, the library was rebuilt and Baqer was reinstated as chief librarian.
“Nothing but illness and retirement prevented her from keeping her life’s passion,” Hashem said. “Baqer inspired many men and women alike.”
An Untold Story in Iraq
Baqer’s bravery was first highlighted in a New York Times story. Then she became the heroine of two graphic comics for children: “The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq” by Jeanette Winter (2005), and “Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq” by Mark Alan Stamaty (2010).
While her story became a source of inspiration to children in the United States and Europe, few Iraqi children might have heard of her courage.
“Baqer risked her life to save the books in secret,” Qahtan Al-Abeed, director of the Basrah Museum, told Al-Fanar Media. “Her story is an example to teach pupils and students about one’s loving home, dedication and being responsible. She was a respectful colleague.”
In a 2019 interview with Al Jazeera, Baqer, who spent 33 years as a librarian in Basra, said that job considerations were not the motivation of that mission. “I was motivated by my humanity, morals, education, and responsibility towards my society, to save books from being lost.”
However, she lamented the little notice she got from the government. “I did not find support and attention, apart from a few news articles and nongovernmental organizations’ activities,” she said. “Government officials promised to erect a monument that embodies that mission, and to reprint copies of the Arabic translation of the graphic comics, but they did nothing of that.”
“She was fond of her city’s heritage and was planning to collect books on Basra. To show our gratitude, we launched a campaign to name a street after her, preferably the one by the libraryShehab Al-Hmed
A presenter at Al-Rasheed FM radio station in Basra
Shehab Al-Hmed, who has known Baqer since childhood, agrees.
“Unfortunately, Mrs. Alia did not get the due appreciation. She got nothing more than appreciation shields of 25,000 Iraqi dinars ($17) from Basra’s local authorities,” said Al-Hmed, a presenter at Al-Rasheed FM radio station in Basra. “We demanded to call a street or a hall in Basra’s library after her in vain. Many officials have not heard of her and nobody remembered her after she retired. She got more appreciation abroad, and even in Egypt.”
Baqer helped improve Al-Hmed’s reading skills as he used to frequent the library in Al-Ma’qil District, where he grew up.
“She was fond of her city’s heritage and was planning to collect books on Basra,” he said. “To show our gratitude, we launched a campaign to name a street after her, preferably the one by the library.”
Almost three years ago, Baqer retired and moved to live in Karbala, southwest of Baghdad.
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Al-Abeed said he contacted Baqer several times “to benefit from her experience as we are about to establish a library at the Museum of Basrah after receiving a collection of books from the British Academy. We needed her to help us classify and organize the books. She was ready to help.”
“She was a dedicated, distinguished, ambitious librarian looking for foreign references to bring them to Basra despite the miserable situation of the old neglected library’s building,” added Al-Abeed. “Unfortunately, we lost her.”