Journey to Baghdad

(Above photo) Dr. Saad Eskander, former Director-General, Iraqi National Library and Archive

The imperative of my performance work Immortal (2013) had its basis in the collective evocation and transformation of the names of Iraqis who perished in the 2007 bombing on Baghdad’s Al-Mutanabbi Street, performatively inscribed in Arabic by my collaborator Ghada Masri. Fifteen months hence, my ultimate task was accomplished: the packing and shipping of the resulting performance artifact and related documentation to the Iraqi National Library and Archive (INLA) under the leadership of Dr. Saad Eskander. My connection to this Iraqi Kurdish academic and researcher, dedicated to maintaining INLA as the primary source of information and data on Iraq’s political, social, economic, administrative and cultural life,  was made possible by my friend Jeff Spurr, a scholar, writer and longstanding friend of the Al-Mutanabbi Street project. In an email to Dr. Eskander, I described my intention and purpose in doing the performance. Within 24 hours, he sent me a document containing the names of 51 Iraqis that perished – primary content without which Immortal could not have been realized.

To know that the performance artifact from Immortal was soon to enter the collections at INLA, along with other artist books under Dr. Eskander’s caring stewardship, was of great personal significance. Sadly, for me and for countless others around the world, in February 2015 Saad announcing the forcible ouster from his post at the INLA, a consequence of “corrupt elements within the hierarchy of the ministry of culture.”

The monumental significance of Dr. Eskander’s work at INLA is reflected in: Memory, identity and grassroots democracy at the Iraqi National Library and Archive.

Jeff Spurr, who facilitated my connection to Saad Eskander, has written extensively on the subject of the fate of libraries and archives in countries subjected to conflict, and devoted many years to documenting, publicizing and endeavoring to ameliorate the condition of those institutions in Iraqi. His perspectives are well-articulated in SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone) , in which he writes about his involvement with the Al-Mutanabbi Street project as well as Dr. Saad Eskander’s pivotal role in INLA. Other principal contributions to a wider understanding include: Iraqi Libraries and Archives in Peril: Survival in a Time of Invasion, Chaos, and Civil Conflict, A Report (July 2007), and Indispensable yet Vulnerable: The Library in Dangerous Times. A Report on the Status of Iraqi Academic libraries, and a Survey of Efforts to Assist Them, with Historical Introduction (July 2005).