Wednesday 20 April 2011

The Baghdad Book Collection : Miriam Halahmy

"Where they burn books they will also burn people." Heinrich Heine

In 2003 when the Allies invaded Iraq, Qasim Sabti, an artist and lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad, found to his dismay that the University Library had been looted. The library shelves had been ransacked and the books set on fire. "I felt like a fireman desperately in need of finding survivors," writes Sabti. Rummaging through the mess he found some books still intact but one of them collapsed when he picked it up and he was left just holding the cloth cover. Inside the cover were some Arabic verses scribbled in pencil and some notes from the librarian. "I was filled with a new sense of life and hope... Like the fireman realizing that some victims were still breathing, I began to gather together more covers..."

 Sabti took the covers back to his studio and created an amazing series of collages, "bringing back to life books whose texts had been completely destroyed."  Sabti's series of collages, Ashes to Art : The Iraqi Phoenix, can be seen in The Pomegranate Gallery in New York, owned by my brother-in-law, Oded Halahmy. The collages are a testament to the resilience of the Iraqi people and as Sabti writes, "They are also my attempt to gain victory over the destruction surrounding us in Baghdad."

One of the collages hangs on our living room wall in Golders Green, on loan from the gallery, a piece of Old Baghdad where my children's father was born.
As a child growing up in England reading books was the most important thing I did. My weekly visit to the library, through darkened streets, all by myself as a little girl, was almost a holy time. It would have been totally beyond my imagination to think that someone might burn a book.

So I wrote a poem about it.

Untitled, 2008
Qasim Sabti
Mixed Media Collage
8 by 12 inches

Eight years old I walk through softly lit
November streets, our little London suburb,
to the silence of the library and reading,

which came before everything
was the reason to be. Lost all day
with the Little Women, Dickon

at my side in our Secret Garden,
I sailed with Moonfleet to Treasure Island
lost in the fictional dream.

My mother and I sat reading
as coals burned red in the old living room.
Not even the tick of a clock

penetrated our reader silence.
I could not imagine burning,
stealing, destroying - books.


Qasim Sabti, artist, in agony as they looted
the Library, Baghdad, 2003.
books violated in the bewilderment of war,

collected broken spines,
shattered bodies, healed and repaired,
a book cover here, a torn page there,

made them into poems on canvas
painted  blue, red, white.
We have one hanging on our wall,

a piece of Old Baghdad in our London home.
It reaches a long blue finger all the way back
to your father's father's house beside the Tigris.

near the Shorja market and the pomegranates,
all the way to the room where you were born;
this broken book, this word, this blue.


catdownunder said...

Libraries should be sacred places. Anyone who thinks otherwise surely has no soul?

Sue Purkiss said...

Gosh - we don't know how lucky we are, do we? Lovely post and beautiful collages, Miriam.

Savita Kalhan said...

Great post, Miriam! And it is so true - we really don't know how lucky we are. Cherishing books is something that needs to be highlighted at every turn, in every place, and every mind.

Leslie Wilson said...

Wonderful poem, Miriam - and I'm so glad something of the books was saved!

hilary said...

Your poem is perfect.

An eight year old girl wrote to me not long ago, about the coming closure of her local library, and what it meant to her. She, from Buckinghamshire, would understand the loss of the library in Baghdad.

She contacts me via my website. Would you mind if I copied your poem on to there, so that she could read it?

Miriam Halahmy said...

Glad this post aroused some interest and many thanks for your comments, folks. Hilary - if you copy my poem could you please put the copywrite sign and my name at the bottom. Its not yet published - other than on ABBA! But yes, do put it up so that she can read it.