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Deeply embedded in an article entitled “Iraqi elite pledge free nation,” the San Francisco Chronicle (April 16) allotted two brief paragraphs to the burning of Baghdad’s National Library and Koranic library. The article quotes Abdel Karim Answar Obeid, whom it identifies as “an administrator at the religious ministry, where thousands of Korans–many hand-written and some thousands of years old–were lost,” as saying that books which survived the 1252 sacking of Baghdad did not make it through the early days of the U.S. occupation of 2003: “If you talk to any intellectual Muslims in the world,” says Obeid “they are cyring right now over this.”
More than Muslims, of course, are crying at the scale and significance of destruction permitted within the past week by soldiers who, according to reporter Robert Fisk, stood aside while the libraries burned. But the editorial board of the Chronicle apparently considered the ruin of those undefended libraries just days following the looting of the National Museum too unimportant to merit an article or photograph of its own, and I suspect that the same is true elsewhere. If this could happen in Baghdad, then the pillaging of Mesopotamia’s archaeological sites is probably proceeding as I write–just as international archaeologists warned prior to the outbreak of war.
Like the social, economic, and long-term environmental costs of this war, the cultural loss is buried by prevailing triumphalism in U.S. mass media, as well as by Donald Rumsfeld’s assurance that the near total trashing of Iraq’s cultural resources was an unfortunate accident and a regrettable “untidiness.” And like the recent oil spill off the Spanish coast, I expect that even what has been reported will fade quickly from public consciousness as we in the U.S. move on to the next new thing. For those of us who use scholarly reseources, the loss is forever.
I would like to call on museums, archives, and libraries everywhere to hang black banners or bunting of mourning for a month from their buildings to remind the public of what has been forever and needlessly destroyed and to express the grief that we feel not only for those weeping Muslims but for our species. This is the very least that we can do to commemorate this exceptionally dark week in our common humanity.
Dr. GRAY BRECHIN is a Research Associate in the Department of Geography at U.C. Berkeley. He is the author of the acclaimed social and environmental history of San Francisco: Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.