I could smell the acrid soot a block away. The library at the University of Mosul, among the finest in the Middle East, once had a million books, historic maps, and old manuscripts. Some dated back centuries, even a millennium, Mohammed Jasim, the libraryâ€™s director, told me. Among its prize acquisitions was a Quran from the ninth century, although the library also housed thousands of twenty-first-century volumes on science, philosophy, law, world history, literature, and the arts. Six hundred thousand books were in Arabic; many of the rest were in English. During the thirty-twoÂ months that the Islamic State ruled the city, the university campus, on tree-lined grounds near the Tigris River, was gradually closed down and then torched. Quite intentionally, the library was hardest hit. ISIS sought to kill the ideas within its wallsâ€”or at least the access to them.
On a rainy day this spring, I walked the muddy and eerily deserted university grounds, in eastern Mosul. I turned a corner and saw the library, a block-long building,Â charred blackÂ and its shell strewn, inside and out, with splintered glass, burnt beams, heat-warped furniture, toppled shelves, and mounds of ashes. In December, as the Iraqi Army pushed into Mosul, ISIS fighters had set the library alight. TheÂ books had served as kindling.
â€œMy lifeâ€™s work,â€ Jasim said, when we spoke by telephone two weeks ago. â€œIâ€™d rather my house be destroyed, not the library. All my memories, all the people we helped thereâ€”we helped develop the city and the country. Whenever I speak about the library, itâ€™s as if Iâ€™m putting my hand on an open wound.â€
Despite enduring dictators, an extremist rampage that reconfigured Iraqâ€™s borders, and three long wars over the course of four decades, Iraqis are known for their intellectual curiosity and literacy. Thereâ€™s a famous saying in the Middle East: â€œBooks are written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon, and read in Iraq.â€ For centuries, private home libraries were considered a sign of class. After the University of Mosul was founded, in 1967, sixty of the cityâ€™s largest private libraries donated their historic collections to the new campus library, Jasim told me. Those volumes areÂ all gone now, too.
ISIS had already destroyed Mosulâ€™s central library, the other major resource center in Iraqâ€™s second-largest city, which was once a cosmopolitan melting pot of disparate religions and ethnicities. Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO,Â calledÂ it â€œthe systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people. Burning books is an attack on the culture, knowledge and memory.â€
The future of the university, especially its library, is a microcosm of the challenge facing Iraq after the ouster of ISIS fighters and the end of their pseudo-caliphate. Itâ€™s one thing to erect four walls to rebuild shattered homes; itâ€™s another to re-create institutions.
As I walked the university grounds that day, the only sounds were from bombs, mortars, artillery, and automatic rifles across the Tigris, in western Mosul. Every building on campus was damaged. The main boulevard had been bombed by the U.S.-led coalition, one of many streets in Mosul hit preÃ«mptively to slow the potential advance of ISIS suicide bombers from university grounds. One of the bombs had left a huge crater spanning the street. The only other people on campus were members of a small demining team from the Iraqi Army. One of its heavy armor-plated vehicles had gotten stuck in the mud trying to get around the crater.
The previous day, the demining team had dismantled thirteen booby-trapped bombs left by ISIS in classrooms, hallways, offices, even wastebaskets, Captain Ahmed Hamid Jebur told me. The workersÂ had defused six more bombs the morning before we met. The team showed me the translucent trip wiresâ€”as thin as dental flossâ€”connected to shells from a fifty-seven-millimetre anti-aircraft gun.Â The bomb has been crudely improvised from disparate parts, hence the name improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, now the hallmark of extremist movements across the Middle East and South Asia. Jebur showed me videos on his cell phone of his team finding, then dismembering, the bombs. This footage wasÂ the only official record. He had lost several men clearing out I.E.D.s left behind by ISIS.
Jebur and his men volunteered to take me through several buildings that they had cleared, including the science department. ISIS reportedly used theÂ labs there to work on basic versions of chemical weapons. The Iraqi Army had just removed the last I.E.D.s in the departmentâ€”or so the team believed. With no electricity on campus, the only light inside any of the buildings was from our cell phones.
The demining team was bolder than I in its movements. Â As we maneuvered through heapsÂ of debris, I worried about trip wires. â€œCome,â€ Jebur encouraged me.
The hulking library was the most haunting of the buildings. Jebur and two of his men, rifles slung over their shoulders, led me through it. The only sign of what it had been was an occasional scrap of paper from a book, its edges burned brown, on the ground. Chronicles and records of Mosulâ€™s rich pastâ€”which dates to antiquityâ€”perished along with the books. Jebur kept shaking his head as he surveyed the scorched facility.
The University of Mosul, which enrolled forty thousand students in peacetime, wants to reopen for the new school year in October, the universityâ€™s president, Obay al-Dewachi, told me by phone. After the ISIS blitz into Iraq from Syria, in mid-2014, many faculty members and students fled Mosul, mainly to northern Kurdistan. In exile, staff organized makeshift classes in motels, in Kirkuk and Dohuk. The obstacles of returning to Mosul are daunting: tens of thousands of families have to decide whether to go back to a city that is physically ravaged, politically dysfunctional, and lacking a working economy or electricity. At the university, parts of the campus will require a massive cleanup. â€œWindows and doors are broken even in buildings not destroyed,â€ Dewachi told me. Other departments will have to be rebuilt from scratch. Security will be an issue, too. The growing fear in Mosul is that ISIS will sneak suicide bombers back into the city, as it has done to other parts of Iraq under the control of the government in Baghdad.
Then, thereâ€™s the problem of books. On May 25th, students organized aÂ book driveÂ outside the gutted library, even as battles between the Iraqi Army and ISIS militants echoed from across the river. Four young musicians performed in front of the library steps. Three students pinned their photographs of people and places and life in Mosul on a long clothesline and recounted the stories behind them. Four painters displayed their work, propped on easels. The event was the brainchild ofÂ Mosul Eye, a pseudonymous historian and blogger who chronicled life under ISIS rule until he fled Iraq, last year. (He spoke on the condition of anonymity, since he still has family in Mosul.) Before the ISIS invasion, in 2014, he spent long hours in the library each week doing research, he told me. From abroad, heâ€™s now trying to coÃ¶rdinate a cultural rebirth in Mosul, beginning with its university.
The price of admission to the student festival was a book. The kids collected severalÂ dozen volumes, Tahany Saleh, a graduate student in economics and one of the organizers, told me by phone. The library still has a long way to go.
A few international groups have offered to help. In Europe, the groupÂ Solidarity and CoÃ¶peration in the MediterraneanÂ (Entraide et CoopÃ©rationÂ en MÃ©diterranÃ©e) pledged fifteen tons of books and a container full of tables and chairs. â€œWe get universities from all over France to contribute,â€ Mohamed Hermi, a Tunisian-born lawyer in Marseilles, who runs the volunteer organization, told me. In the United States, theÂ Iraqi-American Reconciliation Project, headquartered in Minneapolis, has been in contact with Mosul Eye about contributing books, too. Boston University has also reached out, as have smaller groups in Britain.
â€œWe have only promises, frankly speaking,â€ Jasim cautioned. He fears that the library will be a dumping ground for outdated materials that will make foreign donors feel good but fail to recreate a credible resource center at one of the Middle Eastâ€™s most important universities.
Another issue is just getting goods to the war-torn city. Shipments to the southern port of Basra have to be transported overland six hundred miles to northern Mosulâ€”a journey slowed by inefficiency, corruption, government dysfunction and, still, the war. Where thereâ€™s a will there isnâ€™t always a way.
â€œPeople are asking me, â€˜When are we going to start?â€™Â â€ Hermi said. â€œWe could startÂ tomorrow. But I want a guarantee that the books will not get stuck in Basra.â€
Mosul Eye recalled the tense early days of ISIS rule on campusâ€”and the debate over Shakespeare. ISIS wanted to ban the Bard. â€œOne professor argued thatâ€™s how we teach English,â€ Mosul Eye told me. â€œISIS asked us, â€˜But what could Shakespeare teach Muslims? He canâ€™t teach them how to fight.â€™Â â€
The historian added, â€œOur message about the library is not only about books but to tell ISIS that we are alive and that you canâ€™t kill us or ideasâ€”by Shakespeare or anyone else.â€