Memories of Mosul’s Libraries

Novelist Mahmoud Saeed and poet Faiza Sultan remember Mosul’s libraries in the 1950s and 1990s:

Mahmoud Saeed

Novelist Mahmoud Saeed was born in Mosul in 1939, and depicts Mosul of the 1940s and 50s in his autobiographical novel, The World Through the Eyes of Angels, trans. Samuel Salter, Zahra Jishi, and Rafah Abuinnab. Here, he writes for us about his memories of the Central Library in Mosul:

msaeedThe public library in Mosul is what has made me a writer. It was located in the most beautiful place at that time, in the forties and fifties, on the right bank of the Tigris, near the King Ghazi iron bridge. The building overlooked the river.

Temperatures in Mosul got up to 55-56°C in July, and there weren’t then air coolers or conditioners, so the Iraqis used traditional methods to limit the heat. They put thistle between two sheets of wood clamped together, put it outside the rooms, and hung above it perforated pipes to enable water to moisten it. When the air blew through it, it became so cool and refreshing inside of the rooms that the library visitor could read satisfied.

Then, the Mosul library was among the best of Iraqi libraries and the richest in the variety of different books.


Because the municipalities’ annual financial allocations to buy books were limited, and usually these allocations were not enough to buy new books. Books were often printed in Cairo and Beirut, and so it was expensive, and there were not enough municipal allocations to purchase all the good books. They entirely neglected to buy magazines, either literary or scientific or public-information magazines, because they had no money. This was true of all Iraq’s libraries at the time except Mosul; the library in Mosul got most of the new books.

I grew up in Mosul, which had this wonderful tradition that does not exist in the rest of Iraq’s cities. I do not know who started it, whether it was at the request of officials or a decision by some intellectuals, but Mosul found an ideal solution for poor students like me, who could not buy expensive books, and who were rushing to the public library to read.

Wealthy readers, and most middle-class professionals such as doctors and engineers who were able to buy books, would read their new book, but then they wouldn’t keep it in their own libraries in their homes. Instead, they put it in a closet in public library and wrote their names on the closet. After that, the book or the magazine was accessible for all readers to read and see.

I remember one of the big closets under the name of the late Saeed Qazzaz, who was the acting “conservative” in Mosul, who later became the Minister of the Interior. His personal collections contained books that were government-backed. These private collections provided new books to read and provided two revolutionary services that no other library offered to the readers in all of Iraq.

First: The private closets had modern magazines, which were imported from Egypt and Lebanon and presented in the same week for the reader. This provided us poor readers an impossibly invaluable service. It was as if we were getting a lottery prize. Access to such magazines was almost impossible for the cost of it.

Second: Some of these readers were very educated and had a deep faith in democracy. They were buying various books regardless of trends, and this was impossible to find in other libraries. For example, any books about communism, socialism, sex, were forbidden from trade in Iraq. But the personal collections contained a lot of these books.

I read the book Mother by Maxim Gorky, Marx’s Capital, and the novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and others. I read books by Salamah Moses, and the Thousand and One Nights, which was forbidden for its licentiousness, and also many other books.

This the central library in Mosul was the richest library in Iraq, with the exception of the Central Library in Baghdad.

My friend assured me about the safety of the Mosul Public Library, but this doesn’t mean that they won’t destroy it in the future, everything is possible under those savage gangs. But if it happens, it will be a great loss to the people of Mosul, and also the Iraqi people as a whole. For me, it will make me feel like they’re destroying part of my childhood and youth.

Faiza Sultan

Faiza Sultan is a poet and the publisher of Dar Safi. She attended university in Mosul in the mid-1990s.

The University of Mosul’s basketball team in the early 1990s. Faiza Sultan is in the front row left.

I graduated from University of Mosul in 1994, and the university has one of the greatest and biggest libraries in the Middle East. It was my sanctuary when I studied, and where I got all my resources. ISIS burned many books from this library too a couple months ago.

Mosul is where my late father came from, and I still have all my father’s side living there. The city is rich with diversity, where Kurds, Arab, Turkumans, Muslims, Yazidis and Christians live together for many years in peace and harmony. I still have many friends there. …  The books that we lost are priceless, and we may not be able to replace them. These books were our national treasure.  History is also telling us that Iraqi people are like the phoenix; we will survive this and rebuild our nation again. ISIS can burn everything around us, or even us, but they cannot burn our spirits and beautiful memories in this city.

Dr Safi will work on collecting books from now to rebuild this library again for the city of Mosul. We all owe the children of this great city, and they should know that they are not forgotten. ISIS will be a dark page in our history, but it will not be all our history.