"People ran to save several thousands of books through the holes left by missiles"
Interview with Mohammed Jasim Aalhajiahmed, Director of the Mosul University Library and PhD student at the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting. He arrived thanks to the refugee programme run by the Fundació Autònoma Solidària.
Mohammed Jasim Aalhajiahmed, PhD student at the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting, directed the library of the University of Mosul in Iraq when Islamic State seized the city in 2014 and was forced to flee with his family. He contacted the UAB Solidarity Foundation (Fundació Autònoma Solidària) and, thanks to its refugee programme, he is now able to study his PhD at the UAB. Additionally, an agreement with the Castellar del Vallès City Council has allowed him and his family to settle down there.
What books were there in the Mosul Library collection?
It was one of the most important and ancient libraries in the region. It had almost one million resources, 600,000 in Arabic and the rest in English and other languages. Reference books (dating back to the 13th century), periodicals, etc. These were very rare and valuable materials. In addition, we had some 5,000 governmental publications dating back to the foundation of the Iraqi government in 1921. In addition to that, there were also 65 small private collections from academics, officers, civil servants, etc. who had decided to donate their books.
What happened when Islamic State seized the city?
First, they selected the materials that did not match their ideology and got rid of everything they did not agree with. There are several versions about what they did; some say they burnt everything that went against their ideology.
What were you able to save?
When Islamic State knew that the Iraqi forces were about to liberate the city, they burnt the library. Then it was bombed with missiles by the international coalition. The day after the city was liberated, groups of people rushed to the library to save the books by taking them out through the holes created by the missiles. This demonstrates how important the library is for the people of Mosul.
Maybe Islamic State was especially cruel with the library for its symbolic value?
Yes, because Islamic State represents darkness and they knew the library represented enlightenment, education. Most of the people of Mosul, a city with over three million inhabitants, know what the library represents. Some of the people running to the library to save the books were not even students, but they understood how valuable that place was for everyone.
Why did you leave the city?
Most directors, academics, doctors, politicians, security persons were targeted and chased by ISIS groups and no one was allowed to leave their alleged califate, as they called it. From the first moment, we were determined to leave because we were completely against them.
How did you contact the UAB’s Fundació Autònoma Solidària (FAS)?
Before 2014, I had been in contact with Dr Lucía Molina of the UAB Department of Translation and Interpreting and East Asian Studies. She agreed to supervise my research. I then kept in touch with FAS, I really appreciate their hard working especially Laura Riba and Jordi Prat, they worked hard to coordinate my incorporation into the UAB. It was not easy, due to bureaucracy, permits, etc. It was a long process, but finally I was given a grant and here I am. But I am still part of the University of Mosul and I try to coordinate the international support for the university and library.
What does your PhD thesis focus on?
I am working on the cognitive processes in simultaneous interpreting from English to Arabic and vice versa: problems and strategies in interpreting. My PhD thesis is directed by Marta Arumi and Anna Gil-Bardaji, they are truly wonderful persons.
Your wife is also studying a master’s degree at the UAB. Which one?
She is studying the master’s degree in Contemporary Arabic Studies. And she is acquiring experience by shadowing people, opening new horizons of knowledge and trying to get what is new in this programme as it is a very intensive programme. We believe that the University of Mosul is now in urgent need of qualified people who can contribute to its reconstruction and this is what we do, we try to apply what we learn here in Mosul.
What is being done to restore the University of Mosul?
Lots of work is being done. The University of Mosul is well represented globally and is one of the most important in the region. Now, almost all departments have opened again, there are about 55,000 students and most of the teaching centres are working. Life has returned to the University of Mosul. The new administration, led by Professor Kossay K. Al-Ahmady, is trying to establish new ties with universities abroad and we can see now the university participates in all aspects of social life in Mosul.
Is the library building being rebuilt?
The rehabilitation of the building began recently. The contract is sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme, which works in collaboration with the university’s administration. Hopefully, the building will be completely restored within two years as foreseen.
And in general terms, has the university system in Iraq suffered with these latest conflicts: occupation, civil confrontations, war against the Islamic State, etc.?
The university system was affected by Islamic State’s rule, which controlled almost one quarter of Iraq. What is positive is that everyone is now committed to helping bring life back to the university. For example, from the first days of city liberation in 2017, professors, students, employees, and volunteers started to clean and paint the classes to bring life again to the university and the city as well. The focus was to get the students back to classes and have the university function once again, which meant bringing the families back from displacement camps to the city. That was a very important step. Volunteer workers in Mosul have done a great job: they form groups to clean up the streets and buildings. It is very dangerous because before they left, Islamic State left many traps everywhere.
There have been demonstrations in Iraq in the past few months and it seems like the people are tired of the political leaders and corruption. How do you see the immediate future of the country?
The young people who have taken to the streets to protest against corruption is a very important movement. In our region, Islamic State was able to take over because of the corruption at all levels: military, governmental institutions, etc. Corruption is the other face of Islamic State: wherever there is corruption, Islamic State will flourish again. The protests try to transmit to the government that this is a new era for Iraq. Their slogan is “I am here to get my home back” because we do not want to be loyal to this side or that side, we want to live all together and eliminate corruption once and for all under the umbrella of Iraq which is the cradle of civilisations.
Would you and your family like to return to Mosul?
Right now we are here and we have three years ahead of us. We are happy living in Castellar del Vallès, this wonderful town and their lovely people make us feel as if we are home. I really appreciate the support of the Castellar del Vallès City Council. It is not easy to leave your people behind, especially in a time that you think you can make the change and apply what we are learning here.
This information is related to the following SDG
- Peace, justice and strong institutions
- Quality education