Assad Library, Access to Information

December 2, 2007 at 4:22 pm 1 comment

We spent two wonderful evenings with Raghda and Faraj, another of UNC’s terrific group of 2004 Humphrey Fellows. Faraj works as a consultant based in Ramallah, and, as many Palestinians, is “stateless.” He has no passport, and has to work out “coordination” with other governments in order to travel abroad–a bit of a challenge to anyone, especially a consultant who works internationally. The Syrian government refused his recent request, so to see him, we decided to go to Amman again, where he was training teachers in new reading techniques.  When Faraj returned to the West Bank, we left for Damascus.

In addition to the Turkish newspaper published in 1930s Antakya (currently housed in the Antakya public library–I’m still awaiting Turkish government permission to read it) there was also an Arabic newspaper. Hoping to get access to at least one of the newspapers, I took a taxi to Assad National Library, directly opposite the Opera and down the road from the University. I showed my passport to the guard at the security gate, and walked into library, a very modern four-story building. The woman who took my bag sent me to the second floor, where the reference librarian used a computerized catalogue to find not only al-Uraba, the newspaper, but a variety of other books and documents about Antakya, Turkey, and the French mandate.

I had a bit of trouble finding the microfilm collection around the construction of the fourth floor, and when I arrived, the librarian looked at the print-out from the reference desk. She unlocked a microfilm reading room, set up the reader, and told me what kind of information they would need if I wanted copies (3 l.s. a page). I was disappointed to find that the newspaper (which the French shut down in early 1938 after only 117 issues) had many editorials but little actual news and no photographs. I gave the librarians a list of the pages I wanted copies of, and asked where I might find the two other items I was interested in. Sawsan, one of the librarians (the great majority of the library staff is women) walked me from floor to floor, staff member to staff member, trying to help me find out how I could find the materials. When we finally got to the right reading room, the librarian told her that I needed a card.

Oh, no! After repeated requests and months of waiting over the years for permission to use various libraries, I feared this had been too easy. Now they were going to ask me for an application and tell me to wait.  Instead, the library manager, another woman, filled out a slip of paper, told me I could copy some pages but not entire books, and sent us back to the reading room.  Sawsan left me (I was quite grateful for all her help!), the library staff soon brought the books, and I worked for a few hours.

damascusu3.jpg 

I wanted to make sure I got to visit the history department at Damascus University, but when the driver let me off, I was very unsure which way to go. I asked directions from a young woman wearing a pink coat, white pants, a pink headscarf and sandals (the weather in Damascus has been warm and beautiful!). Hiba is a student in the English faculty, right next to the History faculty, and she took me all the way into the building and up the stairs. There I met a young professor, Mahmud, who teaches Ottoman history, Ottoman paleography, and modern European history. He offered me tea, explained that the rest of the faculty members had already left for the day, and suggested I return the next day, when he took me to the library, found me an MA thesis on my topic, and introduced me to some colleagues.

damascusu1.jpg damascusu2.jpg

Damascus University is enormous, many thousands of students spread over both academic and professional schools. There seem no real gathering places except an outside park in the center of campus, which was alive with small groups of students walking, sitting, and talking. I am quite grateful to the two women and my new colleague for their help getting through the day.

I have found myself musing intermittently over the past few months on the nature of open societies and police states. Now I have another confusing example: democratic Turkey tightly controls access to information, even published information in public libraries. Syria, on the other hand, allows free public access to published information in public libraries. Turkey blocks wordpress blogs, while Syria blocks blogspot blogs (and for a few days recently also facebook and skype).

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Entry filed under: Middle East, Syria, Turkey.

Ruwwad Miracles

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