In the winter of 1258 AD, Mongol hordes swept out of the east to lay siege to Baghdad. They laid waste to the city, slaughtering thousands. But that was not enough. The conquerors had to destroy the soul of the city. The mob instinctively understood the power of knowledge so it destroyed the libraries, the symbols of the civilisation that had raised Baghdad to pre-eminence in the region.
The greatest loss was the House of Wisdom which had been founded by Caliph Harun Al Rashid (786-809) and by the middle of the ninth century had the largest selection of books in the world and had become a magnet for scholars. Its books and ancient manuscripts were so valuable that they were sometimes seized as war booty, more valuable than gold, jewels or silver.
The Mongols hurled so many books into the River Tigris that it was said a horse was able to walk from bank to bank on them, while other accounts tell that for seven days the water ran black with scholars’ ink and red with the blood of the slain.
History repeated itself in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq by western forces when looters — possibly with the connivance of Saddam Hussain — descended on the University of Baghdad’s library, burnt it to the ground and stole 70,000 books in what was deemed as “a catastrophe for the cultural heritage of Iraq.”
The library building has been rebuilt but it is a sad shell devoid of the very thing it is designed for — the books, the archive of tens of thousands of manuscripts and newspapers. The tragedy devastated Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal but inspired him to team up with the fund-raising outfit Kickstarter to replace the books. His idea, both simple and life enhancing, is to persuade the public to buy books with white covers and blank pages so that new books for the library can be acquired. He has staged shows with shelves of the blank books entitled 168:01 which refers to the seven days — or 168 hours — in which the books were left to decompose in the Tigris.
“The extra one is that second when I imagine the books turned white and drained of knowledge,” Bilal explains. “It is that first moment when grief is transformed into a call to action, signalling the beginning of a struggle to move forward from the ashes of ruin.”
He owes much of his own knowledge to the hours he spent in the University of Baghdad library.
“Libraries for me meant a lot. That is where I discovered that books are just like windows in a wall,” says Bilal, who now lives in the United States, where he is an Associate Arts Professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“When I was a boy I lived in a very small house with seven brothers and sisters as well as my parents and the only place I could find to read was the public library,” Bilal says. “Every morning I would get up early, have breakfast and then walk to the library for half a day and then go back to school. It used to be one of best fine art institutions in the Middle East, if not the world, and it was the beginning of my love for literature and books.”
Bilal left his homeland in 1991 after the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam in 1990. “I was a student at the of University of Baghdad and I raised my voice against the invasion. There was no room for me to stay. I walked from Baghdad to Kuwait and ended up on the border for about 45 days before I was transferred to a Saudi Arabia refugee camp where I stayed for two years.
“At end of 1992 I was lucky to be allowed to leave the camp and come to the US to settle. I did a master’s degree at the Arts Institute of Chicago and I started teaching in New York.”
His work has reflected the dichotomy between his life in the “comfort zone” of the US and his awareness and concern for the “conflict zone” in Iraq. He explored the destruction of his homeland through his photography series Ashes for which he built miniature reconstructions of scenes depicted in the press.
In another work, Domestic Tension, he “imprisoned” himself in a gallery space and encouraged people to watch him on the internet and contact him or “shoot” him with a paintball gun.
He recorded his feelings about this often alarming experience in a memoir Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun, which also reflected his own suffering as a refugee and the hardship endured by millions of Iraqis.
All of this adversity came together to galvanise his books project which again, is inspired by his student days.
“When I left Baghdad there was no internet and only limited TV and that was controlled by the regime. A book was the only way to acquire knowledge. There was a street full of book shops in Baghdad called Al Mutanabbi where we young college students used to browse. Sometimes you could get books not allowed by the regime but it [Al Mutanabbi street] was also blown up in a suicide attack.
“Then we used to go to the British Council in Baghdad because it had become really well known that they were purposely encouraging people like us to steal their books. There was no security and we would see next day that the same book was back on show. It was a kind of knowledge exchange. Nobody talked about it, especially when it came to books that the regime did not like and could not be bought in stores. The British Council understood our mentality. They knew we had a culture of book exchange in Iraq and they knew we would not take the books to sell them but because we wanted to read them.”
He started thinking about replacing the library’s book in 2010 and held his first an exhibition in the Art Gallery of Windsor in Canada. It featured a 24-metre bookshelf holding 1,000 blank white books.
Playing on the notion of exchange, the idea was that anyone could pick one up, pay $25 for it on Kickstarter, which charges five per cent for its services, and know that a real book would be on its way to Baghdad.
“I’m hoping that by me stepping in it will be a reminder that this community of artists, students and academics still exists. I want this project to usher a new era in Iraq, even if only in a symbolic way,” Bilal says.
There are various ways the project will help fill the shelves of Baghdad’s library. A list of required books is available online and can be bought on Amazon and sent automatically to Bilal or a gallery where he is holding a show.
Well-wishers cannot just send in any book. If they wish to donate, it needs to be verified as useful before it can be sent to the gallery as a donation. The simplest way is to donate the money and a book will be sent — again, once they have been verified.
“We have to make sure the books that are brought in are on a list that is approved by our librarian who makes sure the books are in perfect condition and verifies that it is the right choice or that it is from a wish list of approved books.”
To encourage donors and make them feel part of the project three versions of the blank books are available such as a limited edition signed, and numbered by Bilal or for £50 they receive two books with a letter from the curators as well as the signature of the artist.
Every contributor receives a white book to remind them of their gift and in Baghdad the library gets a ‘real’ book with a name stamped inside — just like a traditional library stamp.
“It will make the library’s shelves become saturated with knowledge and vibrancy,” he says with the poetic passion worthy of an alumnus of the House of Wisdom itself.
The artist who has shows coming up in New York, Taiwan and Canada, and is currently showing in Liverpool where 500 books are ready to be acquired, admits that one of the difficulties facing the project is deciding which books are needed.
“We need an index,” says Bilal. “I asked the Baghdad librarians if there were any records of the original books. They said no, they were all burned. And not only the books and manuscript have gone but even the records of them have been lost too.
“Now we are going to start in a different way by encouraging students to submit titles for the new library. We will draw up an index to decide what books are needed and what we should deliver and that will create a collection worthy of a fine arts library. Our librarian, Judith Frangos, here in the US, is verifying each book and building a digital catalogue, which we will deliver along with the books.
“We are also asking the faculty itself to submit suggestions for books. I don’t want to impose them on the students. My approach is to send titles based on student requests whether they are technical books, art, history, or a mix of how-to-do books.”
He is surprised by the success of the project. “I never thought it would be possible but at the rate it is going I think a new library is achievable.”
Two thousand books have been dispatched and are waiting on the Iraqi border for a custom official’s signature allow them in.
“It is the hardest thing to wait,” he says. “I am in touch with the Culture Minister who is really helpful but there is huge bureaucracy in the country. Everything takes time.”
One of his main aims was to make sure the library had a new reading room and he raised $5,000 for Berlin architect Wei Cai to design a simple, uncluttered space. The materials, the timber and the lighting are ready to go to Iraq but the faculty has decided they want the books first and would rather wait for the building.
“I would have loved to have had the room in place,” he says. “But that’s the order they wanted it and we have to listen to them. In fact, they have the manpower but not the resources so the moment the books arrive we can start the rebuilding,” he says. “There are interior designers at the university and a nice woodwork and metal shop. The students have the tools and the skills so it is nice for them to assemble the room — that way they become part of the narrative.
“It is a small project but it will have a huge impact. People are already talking to each other about the loss and the rebuilding of culture,” Bilal says. “The communication of students and faculty with people outside the country means more to them than is imaginable.”
It may be a small project but for Bilal, the people who buy the books, the students and professors of Baghdad university are standing up to the same barbarian forces that burnt the Maya Codices by the Spanish in the 15th century or Hitler’s destruction of ‘degenerative’ literature in the 1930s and more recently the ransacking of Mosul’s library by Daesh.
Books and learning have always been the enemy. That’s why the Mongols had to destroy the House of Wisdom. They feared those who understood literature, music and mathematics. As George Martin, creator of the TV series Game of Thrones was to say many centuries later, “a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”
Bilal is sharpening that whetstone.
He says: “This is turning an act of destruction into a fresh start for Iraq’s next generation.”
Richard Holledge is a writer based in London.