- Culture and the New Iraq:The Iraq National Library and Archive, "Imagined Community," and the Future of the Iraqi Nation
The problem . . . [is] that culture is not a priority. . . . The Iraqi Cabinet did not pay attention to the importance of culture to the new Iraq. They think culture is something that's just not as important as education or the economic well-being of the country. So we need now to persuade the politicians that culture is extremely important for the transition from dictatorship to democracy.—Saad Eskander, director, Iraq National Library and Archive1
Dr. Rieux works steadfastly on. Around him, Oran falls prey to disease, despair, and death. As plague ravages his city, Rieux continues life much as he always has—ministering to the sick and providing some measure of comfort to the dying. Knowing that he is helpless in the face of monstrous disease and cut off from the world outside the city walls, he nonetheless works steadily through the long days during which he quite literally stares death in the face, powerless to provide any true relief, before returning home to sleep a few hours until he begins the cycle again.
Rieux, the protagonist of Albert Camus' 1948 masterpiece, The Plague (La Peste), stands as a modernist hero.2 Written as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France, The Plague details the absurdity of human attempts to maintain some semblance of a normal life in the face of absolute disaster. Rieux could buy or bargain his way out of Oran; he could join his wife abroad and wait out the plague before returning to his shining city; or he could sequester himself as much as possible within the city limits, quarantined away from the bloody rats in the streets and his fellow citizens dying around him. Of course, he does nothing of the sort. Without the delusion that he is actually making a difference in the lives of those he tends to, he simply does what he has been trained to do. He may be fighting what is ultimately a losing battle, and the reader [End Page 327] may look upon him with a mixture of respect and bewilderment, but Rieux creates for himself some semblance of meaning and structure amidst the apparent meaninglessness of the situation around him. He carries on simply because that is all there is to do.
It is perhaps not too much of a stretch to draw a parallel between Rieux and another man who could be considered a modernist hero. Saad Eskander, the director general of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA), would no doubt reject the term, and, though there are indeed similarities between him and the fictional Rieux, there are distinct differences as well. Like Rieux, Eskander is an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances, continuing to do what in a normal situation would be the most mundane of tasks. Like Rieux, he has repeatedly refused to leave his ravaged city—in this case, Baghdad—for the relative safety of Kurdistan or London. Like Rieux, he seeks no personal accolades while he struggles on in the face of very real danger and very present death. However, in contrast to the doctor, Eskander recognizes the wider importance of the work he does. He doesn't carry on merely because that is all there is to do, though one could be excused for thinking so, based on the accounts of the sometimes tedious daily life he has described in his diary.3 His day-to-day life in Iraq, spent slowly reconstructing the heavily damaged INLA, carries about it the air of something much larger than simply the absurdity of creating meaning for oneself in the face of despair. In staying in Iraq and rebuilding the INLA, Eskander is, in fact, undertaking a task that is in no small terms revolutionary—even, one could argue, mythical—in its scope. Out of the ashes of the burned manuscripts and looted antiquities, out of the darkness that was Iraq under the Ba'athist regime, and out of the destruction left in the wake of the U.S. invasion in 2003, Saad...