The librarian of Baghdad, rebuilding Iraq's rich history one book at a time

Octogenarian novelist Safira Jamil Hafidh has opened part of her Baghdad home to the public in hopes of helping to revive Iraq's rich cultural history

For Iraqi writer Safira Jamil Hafidh, books have the power to change lives. Her new library in Baghdad, a city left weary by war and a series of crises, should have the power to change many.

Situated on the top floor of her home, in the high-end district of Karrada, takes up two rooms and has a private entrance.

It provides a snapshot of Iraq's rich history and includes Ms Hafidh's private collection of fine arts and antiques.

Hafidh, 88, opened the library to the public last week amid political uncertainty and months of deadly anti-government protests.

She hopes the move will help rebuild the country’s devastated cultural scene, one book at a time.

"Reading a book will change your life," she told The National. "I have always wanted to open a library."

She wants to remind Baghdad, a city once known as the global centre for culture and learning, of its roots and revive a love for reading after decades of hardship.

A mother is like a school, she wants her children to learn, read books and seek education

The library is also a tribute to Hafidh's mother, Aisha Abdel Fattah, who came from a prominent Iraqi family that cherished the importance of literature and education.

She named the library Shams Al Omoma, which means "motherhood's sunshine" – and refers to mothers as a source of knowledge and as a guiding light for children, as well as the country's future generations.

“I opened the library to pay homage to mothers everywhere. A mother is like a school, she wants her children to learn, read books and seek education,” she said.

“My mother used to encourage my brothers and sisters to read at all the time,” she said.

The practice obviously worked – her siblings went on to become judges, lawyers, artists and musicians.

Hafidh, whose dream is to read all of Iraq's books, said the library was also part of an effort to preserve what was left after thousands of documents and books were lost or damaged during the US-led invasion in 2003 and the civil war that followed.

Shortly after the invasion, a fire destroyed Baghdad's National Library and its centuries-old manuscripts, books and archived newspapers.

The United States, at the time, admitted that it had been caught unprepared by the widespread looting and destruction of antiquities.

The country's cultural heritage suffered another terrible blow when ISIS seized the northern city of Mosul in 2014 and destroyed the city's university, central library and iconic landmarks.

Hafidh's library is Baghdad's first privately owned facility of its kind.

It took four months to set up, with the help and support of local writers and journalists.

On its shelves are hundreds of books, in English and Arabic, from her personal collection that are divided into different sections.

“I want the library to become a cultural hub in Baghdad for people of all ages and backgrounds to learn and develop from,” she said.

For Hafidh, reading books, as well as buying and discussing them are the defining pleasures of being a Baghdad intellectual.

She said there had been recent signs of a resurgence of the city's literary community, and with her collection, she hopes to give it a boost.

But the capital is still not a normal city. Thousands have been out on the streets since October, demanding an overhaul of the political system and better public services, in protests that have often turned violent.

"Despite the hardship that our country is going through, Safira wanted to give back to the community with her dream of opening a public library," a close friend of Hafidh said.

Hafidh is also a prolific writer, having started her career in the 1950s. She worked as a journalist in a local newspaper before branching out to novels and short stories.

She took part in literary debates and was a well-known writer at a time when the country had few women authors.

One of her more famous books, prize-winning novel Children and Toys, was published in 1956 and questioned the meaning of freedom from a woman's perspective while touching on societal issues.

Hafidh also had a prominent role in establishing the country's women's rights movement and was elected to the Central Council of the General Union of Iraqi Writers in 2005.

“I hope the collection will enrich people with valuable ideas that will have a vital role in the future of Iraq,” she said.