Muslim Librarians Visit Germany

The Catalogues of the Queen of Sheba

From the Duchess Anna Amalia Library to the National Library: Franziska Augstein accompanied 22 Muslim librarians and government representatives on a study trip in Germany

From the Duchess Anna Amalia Library to the National Library: Franziska Augstein accompanied 22 librarians and government representatives from the Islamic world on a study trip in Germany

Old books (photo: dpa)
The IFLA organized a weeklong trip to German libraries for a delegation of 22 librarians and government representatives from 13 countries in the Islamic world

​​It is February and snow is falling in the state of Thuringia. The trees to the right and the left of the motorway are covered in snow to their last sprigs. White fields on the horizon indiscernibly fade into the white-grey sky. Saad Azzahri is thrilled with the view. "My daughter would die to be able to see this," said the Saudi. His daughter is eighteen and studying chemistry in Riyadh. He would not object if she were to study in the USA.

Saad Azzahri attended an American university himself, in Indiana. That's where he learned to speak English. Until recently, he served as president of the Arabic Federation for Libraries and Information. As a member of staff at a library in the Saudi Oil Ministry, he is also knowledgeable about oil fields. The Russians, Chinese, Spaniards, and Italians are currently searching for new gas reserves. "Perhaps they'll find some," he says, "Inshallah."

His weeklong trip through Germany was made possible by an organization that is virtually unknown in Germany. The IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, is a worldwide body representing thousands of libraries in around 150 countries.

Promoting international relations

In 2007, a German by the name of Claudia Lux was elected president of the association for three years. She used her presidency to organize three study trips for foreign librarians and their respective government colleagues in state ministries.

In 2007, the IFLA invited a delegation from Eastern Europe to Germany, followed by an Asian delegation in 2008. This year, 22 guests from 13 countries of the Islamic world were taken on a sightseeing tour of nine German libraries and special collections. An effort was made to invite a librarian and a government representative from each participating country in the hope that upon their return, the latter would press the cause of libraries with their ministers.

Spirits are high on the tour bus throughout the drive to Leipzig, Halle, Weimar, and finally, Berlin; the passengers tell each other stories. The preferred language is Arabic, although the guests, who come from various countries in Asia and North Africa, make an effort to avoid their regional dialects in order to remain comprehensible to each other.

The monotony of perfection

Fire rages through the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in September 2004 (photo: AP)
The visitors saw nine German libraries and special collections including the Duchess Anna Amalia Library, which was almost completely destroyed by fire in 2004

​​They don't talk much about their own libraries, perhaps because the perfection of the German libraries quickly overwhelmed them to the point of intimidation. It is almost like a school outing, where the pupils don't particularly want to talk about school. Yet, instead of school, the topics to avoid are the German library system, the opulent German bookcases, and the sophistication of the systematisation, registration and cataloguing of the massive book collections. The Muslim librarians feel something akin to the monotony of perfection.

Only the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar broke this monotony. It wasn't only the splendour of the rococo architecture that amazed the guests; nor was it the world's largest Faust collection or the library's significant Shakespeare holdings; it was the fire.

The only visible relic of the devastating fire that almost completely destroyed the library in September 2004 is a single charred timber beam. The collection re-opened its doors in 2007. This sounds like a German fairytale to the Islamic librarians and is one apparent manifestation of culture shock; the guests are all familiar with destruction, but not with such a rescue operation.

Difficult conditions

Sami Batrawi, who is responsible for libraries at the Ministry of Culture of the Palestinian Autonomy Authority, has a number of large heaps of rubble in his portfolio. All of the public libraries in Gaza have been destroyed. Things are not very good at the remaining Palestinian libraries either. Every book acquisition first has to be approved by the Israeli military. "Decisions are completely arbitrary. Sometimes, we aren't allowed to buy a single book on our lists, and other times we are given permission for a hundred," says Batrawi.

What can a lobby organization such as the IFLA do in such cases? The hope is that the international recognition will have an effect back home. Electronic access to digitalized material cannot replace a library, but it can be helpful for certain projects. The library of the Martin Luther University in Halle co-ordinates MENALIB, a virtual specialised library that collects writings on the Middle East and North Africa in digitalized format.

Culture shock

After a tour of the actual library, the Saudi guest Saad Azzahri poses a question. In America, he often heard people speak of Martin Luther King; here in Germany, a man by the name of Martin Luther appears to be much respected. He would like to know who this was.

A woman reads a book in the restored Duchess Anna Amalia library (photo: AP)
The visitors were astonished by the speed of the restoration of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library: they are all familiar with destruction, but not with such a rescue operation

​​This is a pretty simple question to answer. More difficult to explain is the rather risqué depiction of naked boys decorating the walls of the hall where the guests are listening to a presentation about MENALIB. It may be well and good that the children are portrayed as working with hatchets and hammers, but why do they have to be naked?

Two gentlemen from Yemen find this disconcerting, but as they don't wish to appear impolite, they don't approach their German hosts about the matter. Driss Khrouz, the head of the Moroccan National Library, overheard their expressions of irritation in Arabic.

As the only participant in the group that openly drinks beer, he regards the malcontents as a couple of narrow-minded Islamists – the type of people he simply can't stand. He reproaches them by commenting that they probably haven't noticed that these images serve as a socially critical manifesto against child labour. Driss Khrouz worked for a number of years as an organizer for the World Social Forum and is very familiar with the issue of child labour. It is questionable, however, that the same concern was felt by the Halle director of mining, the man who had the boys painted on the walls of his office so many years ago.

Lack of librarians

In contrast to the Palestinian Autonomous Territories and Lebanon, where the Israelis fired upon the national library in 2006, there is no library system to speak of in Afghanistan. Massuma Jafari is in her early thirties and studied library science in Iran. She stands out among the tour group in that she constantly keeps her hair covered.

In the cold German February, she pulls a knitted hat down over her headscarf. She is shy. If it weren't for the fact that her mother worked with books, she probably wouldn't have become a librarian. At present, she explains, there are only seven trained librarians in the whole of Afghanistan, five of whom live abroad.

The Taliban did not completely destroy the country's libraries. This is offset, however, by the fact that an efficient catalogue system does not exist in Afghanistan. The country's largest library is located in Kabul. It holds some two to three hundred thousand volumes. This is about the size of a well-equipped departmental library at a German university.

The books in Kabul are not indexed, nor do they carry any systematic signatures – they are just roughly sorted according to topic. As a result, it is almost impossible to find a specific book. The IFLA can offer assistance to the young Afghan librarian. Everything there is lacking, even self-confidence.

Networking on the bus

Things are getting increasingly cheerful in the bus. The permanently good-humoured Saudi recites his favourite poem. It is an extremely sad poem about a man dying of lovesickness. Yet Saad Azzahri recites the Arabic verses in such a way that all those in his vicinity laugh loudly.

University library in Weimar (photo: dpa)
Afghanistan's largest library holds some two to three hundred thousand volumes; this is about the size of a well-equipped departmental library at a German university

​​Then, a dispute develops about the greatest Arab singers. The guests from Malaysia and Indonesia don't show any interest, whereas those from the Middle East are evidently excited. After debating among themselves, Azzahri writes down the names of the four greatest singers and hands the list to me, the accompanying journalist.

All agree that the greatest singer of all was the Egyptian Umm Kakthoum, who died in 1975. It is said that she never married in order to keep an enamoured poet writing new lyrics for her. In the past, says Azzahri, it was typical for popular songs to be more than an hour in length. He grew up listening to such songs. Nowadays, a hit song is finished before it has hardly begun.

It is bitterly cold in Weimar and it is snowing. During the tour of the city, the participants quickly find a warm refuge in the Theatercafé. Ellen Tise, the designated new president of the IFLA, is extremely charming, full of energy, and has the ability to rattle off the details of the library system at breathtaking speed. A native South African, her grandmother worked as a domestic help for a white family. Her mother was a teacher.

The two Yemenis come closer, accompanied by Azzahri, who turns out to be a friend of the Koran, praising the book as a literary work of art. "There are many stories in the Koran," he explains.

Modern-day Queen of Sheba

Azzahri relates one of these stories. It tells how the Prophet Suleyman urged the Queen of Sheba to lead her people back to the true faith. The Queen turned to her advisors for help. It is quite possible that a war would have broken out if it hadn't been for the fact that the Queen's throne suddenly appeared in Suleyman's city. Seeing as her throne was already there, the Queen of Sheba decided to follow her throne to Suleyman's palace.

While Saad Azzahri tells the story, he is constantly interrupted by Ellen Tise. She finds it all too illogical, too drawn-out – but then she finally gets infected with the spirit of fun when Azzahri urges her to become the trip's "Queen of Sheba."

This was the minor high point of the four-day trip, which concluded with a conference in Berlin. Here, participants were lectured on the significance of digitalization and the value of setting up networks. A few good new connections were established. And what will the guests take back home from their German excursion? Perhaps the notion that it is possible to go overboard with sophistication.

The tour ended with a visit to the magnificent library of the German Bundestag. When it was founded after the war, a brand new and totally unique indexing system was developed for this library. It was so sophisticated and clever that it constantly perplexed the parliamentarians and their staff. They could never find the information they needed. As a result, the whole indexing system was revised in 1997.

Franziska Augstein

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2009

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