Business and Finance

The battle for Afghanistan’s libraries


After Najiba Hussaini was killed in July 2017 by a Taliban suicide bomber, her fiancé-to-be Hussain Rezai determined that the easiest way to honour her reminiscence can be to discovered a library in her title. The Najiba Hussaini Memorial Library grew into a group of greater than 12,000 volumes and a pc lab, serving to to supply training for youngsters — each female and male — in Nili, a metropolis within the central Afghan province of Daykundi, the place Hussaini, a 28-year-old civil servant, was born and grew up. 

The basis that Rezai established envisaged the creation of extra libraries in every of the provinces of Afghanistan. But on August 18, because the Taliban consolidated their maintain over the nation, the Najiba Hussaini Memorial Library was attacked; video footage reveals the constructing smashed and the gathering ransacked. Rezai, now in Italy, says he’s “devastated” at what has occurred: “Everything we have built has ended in a nightmare.”

In the favored creativeness, libraries are seen as protected and serene, locations the place examine is undertaken in an environment of quiet contemplation. Yet in Afghanistan at present, libraries and archives are underneath assault. Librarians are both unable to return again to serve their neighborhood or in concern of what the Taliban will inflict on them. Many have fled the nation or are within the technique of leaving, typically at nice private threat. 

The public library in Kabul and the National Archives there now have a restricted workers presence, however no providers are offered. University libraries are all at present closed, and the coed physique is being divided alongside gender traces. There are usually not many libraries exterior Kabul, and they’re closed: many authorities staff are unsure about their future. Female staff, such a energy of Afghanistan’s libraries, are usually not allowed to work.

The regime’s deputy minister of tradition, Zabiullah Mujahid, who has claimed Taliban accountability for suicide bombings over the previous 20 years, not too long ago informed his ministry to reopen buildings. But the place of girls, who’ve been a disproportionately excessive proportion of the workforce, is of big concern. Will they ever be allowed to return to their former roles? The Taliban regime has not too long ago confirmed its coverage of excluding women from excessive faculties — confounding those that predicted that the brand new authorities would promote a extra average stance on this elementary situation.

Three female students wearing headscarves read at a table in Kabul Public Library. A man is also studying at the table
Studying on the Kabul Public Library in 2019. In Afghanistan, libraries have been seen as protected locations for women and girls © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

The presence of feminine librarians inspired girls to return and use libraries, as they felt that libraries offered a protected place to review. Masuma Nazari, the previous director of the National Archives, informed me: “In Afghanistan, libraries are safe and good places for girls and women. Families allow their girls to visit libraries to read, meet and talk to their classmates and friends. In addition to reading and learning in libraries, they can laugh, cry and share their life experiences together. If this time the Taliban increase restrictions on girls and women, they lose this safe place, as happened in the first period of Taliban rule. Libraries should not be taken from Afghan girls.” 


In latest weeks, nice efforts have been made by cultural organisations within the Middle East, Europe and North America to assist Afghans working within the cultural heritage sector to go away the nation safely.

As Bodley’s librarian on the University of Oxford, I work along with colleagues to advertise studying and analysis, and the college’s Oriental Institute has quite a lot of scholarly tasks which have been lively in Afghanistan, counting on Afghan companions to assist their analysis effort, together with in archives. As a consequence, I’ve grow to be a small cog within the Oxford finish of a global co-operative effort, led by the Smithsonian Institution, the colleges of Pennsylvania and Chicago and a number of other NGOs, to attempt to present protected passage out of Afghanistan for 120 cultural heritage staff and their households — at instances a dramatic and nerve-racking expertise. 

People had been mobilised throughout the globe to assist this initiative, and I used to be capable of attain out to a colleague, Sohair Wastawy, the previous govt director of Qatar National Library, to deliver Qatari assist to the hassle to get these staff to the airport in Kabul, the place a aircraft had been chartered to fly them out. The suicide bombing of August 26 ended hopes of the airlift, which was as a consequence of embody an Afghan citizen — allow us to name him Max — who had been serving to Oxford researchers utilizing archives. Further efforts to get Max, his spouse and two-year-old little one to the airport then adopted, however he was caught, overwhelmed and his laptop computer and cash stolen on certainly one of these makes an attempt. The reality that he’s from the persecuted Hazara minority made his predicament much more harmful. 

Max then spent a number of weeks in hiding in Kabul, earlier than paying a smuggler to get him and his household to Pakistan. He is there now — protected for the time being — and efforts are at present centered on urging the UK authorities to supply him with the required documentation for asylum within the UK. We owe him this, as his work supporting British researchers has ended up placing him and his household in grave hazard. 

For probably the most half, nevertheless, colleagues within the library and archive sector exterior Afghanistan have been capable of do little greater than watch whereas the state of affairs deteriorates once more. The library sector’s skilled organisations within the UK have issued a statement of solidarity with our Afghan colleagues, insisting that the Afghan authorities adjust to their worldwide obligations underneath the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property and its protocols, in addition to the Unesco 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The commerce in unlawful antiquities will undoubtedly embody books and paperwork stolen from collections in Afghanistan within the coming weeks.

In the primary interval of Taliban rule, the nation noticed widespread assaults on tradition, symbolised by the destruction of the huge statues of Buddha in Bamiyan province in 2001. But libraries and archives had been additionally hit onerous. Reading of supplies in non-Pashto languages, particularly Persian, was forbidden. Eight of Kabul’s 18 libraries had been destroyed, seven extra transformed into spiritual buildings. 

A man stands by some shelves in Kabul university library in 2001. He is looking at a book, examining it to make sure it conforms to Taliban interpretation of Islam
At Kabul University library in 2001, through the Taliban’s first interval in energy, books are examined to make sure they conform to the group’s interpretation of Islam © Alamy Stock Photo

On August 12 1998, the Taliban drove as much as the doorways of the Hakim Nasser Khosrow Balkhi Cultural Center, on the coronary heart of which was an essential public library, armed with rocket launchers and machine weapons. Latif Pedram, its librarian, was powerless to cease its assortment of 55,000 volumes from being intentionally destroyed, together with main illuminated Persian manuscripts. Fazlollah Qodsi, the director of the National Library following the autumn of the Taliban, highlighted that each copy of Afghanistan’s authorized code was destroyed. Reading of the nice Persian epic, the “Shahnameh”, was brutally suppressed by the Taliban, via house-to-house searches for banned books. Librarians reminiscent of Pedram had been targets. “If they caught me, I would be executed immediately — on the spot,” he would later recall.


Over the previous few a long time, exterior funding and inner resolve had allowed the sector to get better a few of its means to function on behalf of the Afghan individuals. The Public Library of Afghanistan, relationship again to the mid-Nineteen Sixties, served the individuals with a small however rising assortment — however with inadequate funding to interchange all the assets destroyed by the Taliban within the mid-Nineteen Nineties. 

The National Archives of Afghanistan had, in recent times, acquired elevated funding and improved assist from the Afghan authorities. After the primary interval of Taliban rule, the National Archives had been reopened by the then president Hamid Karzai, and correct record-keeping practices had been launched. The archives have been attacked as soon as extra prior to now few weeks. The establishment was looted because the Taliban re-entered the town in August, forcing its present director to submit a plea to the Taliban on Facebook for safety, to protect Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. His cry for assist was not heeded, although the director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, issued an announcement later indicating that he and his workers had acquired assist from the Taliban to guard his establishment.

At Kabul University, the library had been probably the greatest in the whole area. Founded in 1932, with a constructing relationship from 1963, it had a group of greater than 200,000 volumes by 1992, using some 50 librarians. Scholars from Iran, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India and elsewhere got here to make use of the collections, and it had grow to be, by the point of the Soviet struggle in Afghanistan, the de facto nationwide library. Following the Soviet-Afghan struggle, the library was in ruins, and a undertaking was begun to rebuild the establishment, to reconstitute its historic collections and ship providers to the neighborhood as soon as once more. 

A man stands by a stack of books, holding a red volume with a picture of Lenin on the cover — a leftover from the days before the Taliban first took power in Afghanistan
A person in 1995 holds a ebook with an image of Lenin on the duvet — a leftover from the times earlier than the Taliban first took energy in Afghanistan © Getty Images

The Taliban regime on the finish of the Nineteen Nineties put a cease to that. The library was shelled and the director on the time, Abdul Rasoul Rahin, counted 25 holes within the roof, with lots of the historic paperwork discovering their means into the illicit commerce in historical books and manuscripts. In latest years, a concerted effort to re-establish the establishment had been made. However, its future has now been positioned doubtful once more; it has been closed because the center of August.

I spoke to a scholar at Kabul University, who informed me how he used the library: “I read books, I wrote, I defined dreams to myself. In addition, sometimes my friends and I would sit around a table and talk about developments and the current situation. We talked about our common dreams and what we can do for our country.” Despite the numerous issues with the college library — lack of Wi-Fi, the collections inadequate — “we were able to empower ourselves there by reading books. I read many books, learned and critiqued ideas within the books.”

The present state of affairs signifies that for the previous month he has been shut out of the college and can’t use the library: “I guess the Taliban are working on the curriculum to change it and the majority of the coming subjects are religious subjects. It makes me so worried. The library will be full of religious books and I prefer not to study them at all.”

The web has proved a vital lifeline for these inside Afghanistan who are usually not supporters of the Taliban. They depend on electronic mail and social media contact from buddies and colleagues each inside and outdoors the nation. A small-scale fundraising initiative referred to as The Airtime Project is making an attempt to make sure that mobile phone accounts for Afghans could be topped up. “Keeping Afghan voices connected to each other and to the world is more important than ever,” says Patrick Fruchet, a former UN help employee, who has been offering mobile phone credit score to Afghans because the day after the Taliban took Kabul.

A young woman wearing a headscarf is browsing at Kabul Public Library, reaching up to take a book from a high shelf
A younger lady pulls materials from the newspapers and magazines cabinets on the Kabul Public Library in 2019 © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

At the identical time, social media is getting used to doc and share footage of destruction and oppression. Unsurprisingly, web entry has been disrupted on quite a few events because the center of August, one other hallmark of authoritarian suppression. Some western libraries, such because the Internet Archive, are actively archiving Afghan web sites, so as to shield among the nation’s digital reminiscence and its digital witness to the numerous horrible scenes which can be unfolding.


It isn’t just residents who profit from quick access to information: oppressive regimes do as effectively. In historical Mesopotamia, record-keeping for the aim of elevating taxation was maybe the primary instance of complete surveillance of individuals. In Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, residents had been carefully monitored and documented intimately, and these paperwork would allow a fierce grip to be utilized. In Afghanistan, there are stories of residents destroying data of colleges, for instance, so as to stop documentation from falling into the arms of the Taliban, which could set off punishment killings. Bookshops are additionally destroying inventory that is perhaps thought-about heretical by the Taliban.

In the west we’re dropping our libraries and archives not via brutal assaults, however via neglect and underfunding. To Afghans reminiscent of Nazari, this case is scarcely plausible. “Governments can compensate for the budget deficit in other ways,” she commented to me. In a rustic with few libraries, those that run them are passionate concerning the constructive position they’ve for their communities, for the life probabilities of their fellow residents, particularly for their younger individuals. 

It calls to thoughts the destiny of the Great Library of Alexandria. That establishment, the most important and most well-known library within the historical world, had begun as one of many jewels within the Ptolemaic Kingdom, bringing not simply books and status however students reminiscent of Euclid and Archimedes, whose work within the library led to profound advances. A couple of centuries after they had been lively customers, the library had vanished, and its demise was not led to via the deliberate assaults that many accounts claimed. Rather than affected by vandalism by the hands of Muslim conquerors — an instance of Christian disinformation — the Alexandrian library was delivered to its knees by an extended, gradual technique of neglect and lack of funding. 

In Afghanistan, the ethos of libraries and archives that has developed over the previous 20 years has been progressive and open. They have been key establishments supporting training, particularly for women and girls, and the place a range of information could be accessed. Their archives, which must be pillars of open authorities and civil society, are being undermined. As Arezou Azad, director of the Invisible East undertaking at Oxford’s Oriental Institute, informed me, we should proceed to assist libraries and archives in Afghanistan nevertheless we are able to. “To continue preserving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and knowledge of its cultural history . . . is a fundamental basis for peace in the country, and for state building,” she mentioned.

The motto of the Afghan ministries answerable for information and tradition earlier than the Taliban takeover stays essential: “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.”

Richard Ovenden is Bodley’s Librarian and writer of ‘Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack’ (John Murray)

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