Alia Muhammad Baker

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Alia Muhammad Baker (also spelled "Baqer") was the chief librarian in the Al Basrah Central Library, Basra, Iraq. Baker saved an estimated 30,000 books from destruction during the Iraq War, including a biography of Muhammad from around 1300.[1]

Baker had worked at the library for 14 years.[2] As a child she was told the story of the burning of Baghdad's Nizamiyah library and was horrified.[3]

As war with the US and UK loomed, government officials denied her requests that the books be moved to safety. When government offices moved into the library and an anti-aircraft gun was placed on the roof, she started to smuggle books out of the library.[1]

With a Shi'ite population relatively unsupportive of the Hussein regime, Basra was one of the first targets in the 2003 invasion of Iraq beginning in March. Coalition forces met with more resistance than expected. Most of the invading American troops moved northwards, leaving Basra under a multi-week siege led by the British.[4][5] The city was soon suffering from a "humanitarian crisis" in which residents lacked both water and electricity.[6][7]

The invading forces (including the Royal Australian Air Force) used bombing and psychological warfare during the siege.[8] Eventually, a large column of Iraqi tanks was destroyed by RAF bombs and 300 prisoners were taken in a battle outside the city.[9][10][11] British troops occupied the city on 6 April.[12]

After the government employees vacated the building and the library furnishings were looted, Mrs. Baker convinced Anis Muhammad, the owner of the restaurant Hamdan, to help.[13] Baker enlisted the help of locals to smuggle the remaining books over the library's seven foot wall and into the dining room of the restaurant next door. Before the library was destroyed, Baker had rescued 70% of the library's collection: 30,000 books, including English and Arabic books and a Spanish language Koran.[1][14]

Mrs. Baker and her husband rented a truck and distributed the books among library employees, friends, and their own home after things settled down in Basra.[3] The library was rebuilt in 2004 and Baker was reinstated as chief librarian.[15]

The story of how Baker rescued the library books has inspired two children's books: Alia's Mission and Jeanette Winter's The Librarian of Basra (Harcourt 2005). Some of the money raised from sales has been donated to the library.[16]


  1. ^ a b c "After the War: The Librarian; Books Spirited to Safety Before Iraq Library Fire". The New York Times. July 27, 2003. Retrieved March 8, 2013.
  2. ^ Jardine and Naqvi, "Learning not to Speak in Tongues" (2008), p. 640.
  3. ^ a b "Alia Muhammad Baker - Chief Librarian of Al Basrah (Iraq) Central Library, Cultural Heroine - Middle Eastern Culture". Retrieved 2018-08-21.
  4. ^ Keith B. Richburg, "Basra standoff raises concern about Baghdad", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 30 March 2003.
  5. ^ Richard Sanders, "The myth of 'shock and awe': why the Iraqi invasion was a disaster", The Telegraph (UK), 19 March 2013.
  6. ^ Karen MacPherson, "Residents in Basra could die of thirst without relief supplies", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 28 March 2003.
  7. ^ Shaoni Bhattacharya, "Catastrophe looms as Basra remains without water", New Scientist, 25 March 2003.
  8. ^ James Dao, "British seek revolution in Basra", Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 2003.
  9. ^ Tim Butcher, "Battle for the streets of Basra", The Guardian, 31 March 2003.
  10. ^ "British attack column of Iraqi tanks near Basra", PBS, 27 March 2003.
  11. ^ Tom Newton Dunn, "War Watch: Iraqi tank column breaks out of Basra", The Guardian, 31 March 2003; pooled report quoting Major Mick Green.
  12. ^ Rosalind Russell, "British tanks shoot their way into Basra", IOL News, 6 April 2003.
  13. ^ Dewan, Shaila K. "AFTER THE WAR: THE LIBRARIAN; Books Spirited to Safety Before Iraq Library Fire". Retrieved 2018-08-21.
  14. ^ Rebecca Knuth, Burning Books And Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence And Cultural Destruction; Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006; p. 195; ISBN 9780275990077
  15. ^ "Alia Muhammad Baker - Chief Librarian of Al Basrah (Iraq) Central Library, Cultural Heroine". Bella Online. Retrieved March 8, 2013.
  16. ^ Jardine and Naqvi, "Learning not to Speak in Tongues" (2008), p. 644.


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