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The Long Commute
“I’m trying to give the city knowledge and awareness, so it can heal from Isis. After that, we can build a healthy community and a better life in Iraq.”
Sayf Al-Ashqar dreads his three-hour daily commute. The road between Mosul in northern Iraq and Duhok in Kurdistan is dangerous and accidents are common. It’s time that could be better spent in the Central Library at the University of Mosul - which re-opened in February this year after it was burned by Isis then bombed in the battle to liberate the city - or at home, with his wife and daughters, who he hardly sees due to a hectic work schedule that eats into evenings and keeps him answering emails on weekends.
But he won’t stop making this drive, even though his wife wishes he would, and even though it brings back painful memories of loved ones lost when Isis occupied Mosul. “I’m trying to give the city knowledge and awareness, so it can heal from Isis. After that, we can build a healthy community and a better life in Iraq.”
When he told university colleagues about his mission to rebuild the Central Library, people laughed and said it couldn’t be done. Five years later, the structure stands complete but much remains to be done to fulfil Al-Ashqar’s mission of making this a place of free-spirited inquiry that breaks down barriers and liberates learning for the people of Iraq. “This work is my responsibility. I know I will miss many moments of my life but I will not stop,” he says.
He was at the university when the militants entered the city on 10 June 2014. “I had just returned from a trip to Malaysia, it seemed like a normal day,” he says. His morning was taken up with the usual administrative tasks required by his role as secretary general of libraries at The University of Mosul. In the afternoon, everyone was sent home. “We asked why but they said don’t ask, the university is now closed.”
At home, other members of his family, also academics, had come back too. Confusion reigned. “We had no idea what was going on – the government had given us a guarantee that Isis would not get into Mosul and actually we trusted in the Americans to do something.”
Through the windows, they watched Iraqi soldiers change out of their army uniforms and into civilian clothes. “They abandoned their guns and their cars and left,” Al-Ashqar says. Troop shortages, in-fighting and insufficient weapons had left the army ill-equipped to defend Iraq’s second-biggest city. Residents watched in horror as the militants seized Mosul in a matter of days.
The period after that is a time Al-Ashqar tries to forget as Isis rampaged through the city, rounding up rivals and executing them en masse. Al-Ashqar’s family fled to Duhok, joining an 18-hour traffic jam to reach the Kurdish city, but they couldn’t escape the agony unfolding in Mosul. Teaching in class one day, someone knocked to tell him there was a call. It was his brother with news that Isis had booby trapped the door to his father’s house. “I drove like mad to get home but he was already dead,” Al-Ashqar says.
It’s a few moments before he can continue. Al-Ashqar’s father remains an important figure in his life – a symbol of the dedication that drives his decisions. “If you ask anyone about my father, they will tell you how committed he was to society. I think this is one of the things I get from him,” he says.
Most days he doesn’t even stop for lunch. By 6am he’s leaving the house, preoccupied with the tasks ahead. He returns 12 hours later, hungry and tired, but still with work to do before he goes to bed. “I spend time with my girls when I can – they still need me. But I’m trying to build a better life for them.”
The gleaming façade of the new library, which rises proud and prominent over a campus that’s gradually recovering from Isis rule, is testament to what can be achieved. In the aftermath of the nine-month battle to liberate Mosul from Isis in 2017, efforts to rebuild the city were slow and residents felt they were being punished, despite all they had endured. But Al-Ashqar could not abandon the students and community he cared so much about.
In 2017 he drove back for the first time since his father had died. “It was difficult, I felt very sad to see Mosul again. My father had passed, my city was destroyed, and the library was burned.”
Later, he picked his way through the blackened columns of what had been among the Middle East’s largest libraries. Before Isis, this building housed one of the region’s most important collections, numbering over a million books, including many rare and ancient manuscripts. Now, the few volumes that remained lay charred and scattered under rubble and ash.
He has kept these volumes to display in the new library, as a reminder of what was lost and where Mosul was at that stage. Since then, tens of thousands of books have been donated from countries and organisations around the world, including Ideas Beyond Borders, which also gave 40 computers and printers to support Al-Ashqar’s plans to make the new library a bridge connecting the people of Mosul to the outside world.
Many people in the city have “lost trust,” and feel they have been abandoned or branded terrorists by the outside world, he says. The library, which was funded largely by the United Nations Development Program, is designed to assure Maslawis that this is not the case - right down to the décor. “I asked the designer to make it colourful inside, which is very unusual – no institutions in Iraq have colour, they are all brown,” Al-Ashqar says.
The contractors had to ship colored furniture from Europe, adding to the time and cost of the project, but he was determined to create a beautiful place that pulsed with positive energy. And he has succeeded. Yellow bookshelves reflect sunshine, green walls symbolize nature in the computer lab and a blue carpet is designed to resemble the ocean of knowledge inside. There are quiet spaces and reading corners, exhibition areas and discussion zones. “The library is not just to store books. It’s a place of humanity and knowledge, of meeting, reading, learning, sharing, discussion and dialogue,” Al-Ashqar says.
It hasn’t been easy. A weary expression comes over Al-Ashqar’s face as he looks back on the relentless challenges they faced during the reconstruction process, not least of which was the Covid pandemic, which delayed the work for months.
But with the backing of a dedicated team, including the president of the university, Kossay Alahmady, they pushed the project through to completion early this year. The grand opening in February was attended by dignitaries from embassies and political offices across Iraq. A picture of Al-Ashqar outside the library the day after the opening, shows him with a beaming smile before a magnificent black façade. “I felt proud but I am very tired in that picture,” he laughs.
In many ways, his work has only just begun. He travels often, building relationships with international institutions to support his vision of the library as a place that connects Iraqis to the world. “Iraq is a resource-rich country but without knowledge we can’t rebuild and move forwards,” he says. In Mosul, he wants people to learn and share knowledge, “so that they will protect the city if anyone tries to destroy it again.”
These days, where he makes his daily commute into Mosul, Al-Ashqar feels happy, full of hope for the next phase of his plans. “They tell me I am a positive man,” he says. He has reason to be. The library is built, the shelves are filling up and people come in and out all day. “When I see people sit in here and study, I think how many of these people will change something in society,” he says. “There are 70,000 students at The University of Mosul, and every day 1,000 enter my library. That will make a difference, that will change something.”