The recent “off the cuff” remarks loaded with sarcasm by Donald Trump on aid to Afghanistan have made headlines. Reacting rather contemptuously to India’s proposed plan to build a library in Kabul, POTUS is said to have remarked “a library of all things! Who’s going to read?” Behind all this, of course, the US’s impatience with India’s aid efforts to Afghanistan now totalling $3 billion. “That’s just a few hours of what we spend.” More importantly, POTUS wanted to see a more visible sign of the Indian presence, “more boots on the ground” as the US prepares for a phased withdrawal of the 14,000 troops still left on Afghan soil. This is indeed very similar to the pressure mounted by the US on India to send troops to Iraq under the Bush administration. At that time, lucrative building contracts worth millions of dollars were offered by the Bechtel Corporation and others, if India would, but comply. Of course, India didn’t.
Now, it turns out that India’s aid development projects do not include a library (more’s the pity) but Trump’s remark “who’s going to read” is significant. Indeed, who? Why the people of course, and more importantly, the children of Kabul and its surroundings. POTUS may well be innocent of the crime of ever having visited a library or even of reading but surely the people of the beleaguered and war-torn nation can benefit with a library. Kabul does have a library and the Kabul Library built by King Amanullah Khan is one of the oldest and largest libraries in Afghanistan. It has about 220,000 books, most of them in Persian showing the very strong influence of Iran but also has significant collections in Pashto, Arabic, Urdu and more recently, Russian. But the Kabul Library’s holdings have no literature of interest to children and young people. And it’s they who need a library the most. To answer POTUS directly, it’s the young people of a strife-driven country like Afghanistan who would like to use the library
and read. It’s time world leaders paid attention to developing resources like libraries and promote reading habits among children in societies that need them the most.
But the need for libraries and for books are universal in all societies and very much so in conflict situations. A fact not very well known is that when 9/11 happened in New York, the authorities had a few precious minutes to evacuate people from the second twin tower after the plane had slammed into the first. Some of the people were taken out of the building by the underground subway tracks and emerged to safety at ground level and took shelter in a Borders bookshop. The people would simply have been too traumatised by their experience to think of reading but the sight of so many books around them would surely have had a calming and reassuring effect.
The history of imperial conquests shows that one of the first places of attack of the invading Army is the library. We have so many examples, the libraries of the ancient Nalanda University, the library of Alexandria, the great library of Constantinople at the time of the Ottoman invasion in 1453 and nearer home, the library of Jaffna in Sri Lanka during the civil war. The reasons why this is so may be obvious but what is not so obvious is when overt imperialism is on the wane, our libraries continue to be in a state of crisis.
The community libraries which were a great source of pride in almost every county in England are being shut down one by one. More often than not, this is due to budgetary reasons. But the library has become such an integral part of community life that the community says it would fund the library with its own resources; but sometimes even this desperate plea falls on deaf ears. Some years ago, the BBC had initiated a Big Read programme to promote the classics. It had trained actors read excerpts from the classics, quiz programmes on the classics and asked listeners to vote for their favourite classics over radio. The result was a resurgence of interest in the classics and both libraries as well as bookshops began stocking up on the classics. Many proactive librarians carried forward reading programmes on the classics among their patrons. I remember a visit to the Saratoga Library in the Bay Area in the US some years ago. They had a scheduled a visit by the author Toni Morrison to participate in a book discussi
on programme. If libraries are shut down, we will lack venues for these programmes.
A library is an integral part of the community and society. This was clearly brought home to us on a visit to the Uruyasu Public Library on the outskirts of Tokyo quite some years ago. We saw the library being actively used by readers from the age of four to 80. A group of children between the ages of four and five were actively being read to by their mothers. The children were deeply engrossed for the parent would more often suit action to words. They would become avid readers in the future. For members of the community too sick to come to the library, the Uruyasu Library would travel to them. A van loaded with books was organised as a mobile library. It would travel to homes and hospitals spreading cheer with the written word. We have no doubt that the therapeutic effect of books had as much to do with the patient’s recovery as the medicines!
To come back to Afghanistan. In the absence of a suitable library to cater to the needs of young people, individual initiative and entrepreneurship has taken over. To cater to the needs of the young, the Charmaghz organisation, a volunteer group, takes a bus filled with books to young children. The brainchild of Freshta Karim, who on her return from the University of Oxford, realised that people had a hunger for books but could not access them easily.”I got the idea a few years ago on returning from Oxford. Some people in my neighbourhood found out that I had brought some books back with me from England. Some of them came knocking at my door to borrow English literature. Others would come to my house just to read a few pages of a novel. I was astounded. Before this, I did not realise what a thirst people of Kabul had for knowledge and for books.” Thus was born Charmaghz. In Dari, the dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, the word means a walnut. And in structure, the walnut resembles a human brain.
Just five volunteers help Karim in her effort. The community wanted Charmaghz to help young people to read. Earlier the volunteers had to get down from the bus to tell the children about the books inside. Now the children throng the bus at the stops. Over 300 children visit the mobile bus everyday. Yet the volunteer organisation receives no official funding. It’s solely funded by private donations. A library here by an enlightened leadership would surely be welcome.
The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books