A cathedral of the mind in Afghanistan

Booknotes looks at a library surviving against great odds

Matiullah Wesa

Matiullah Wesa

The Panjwai Library operates in one of the most dangerous places on earth. Located just west of Kandahar, Panjwai — the birthplace of the Taliban — a region often described as “a living hell.”

It is synonymous with violence, death, mass graves, atrocities, and not all by the Taliban. In 2012 an American soldier shot civilians at random, killing 16; most of which were small children.

Although Canadian troops forced the remaining Taliban out of Panjwai in 2009, they still hold a strong psychological grip on the area.  Armed conflict still erupts, the landscape is still littered with land mines, and any NATO installed government has either been abusive of corrupt (one example is the “ghost schools” —  fake ones set up by officials who collected the funding and overseas aid for education but simply pocketed the money).

Despite all this, 22-year-old Matiullah Wesa has opened a public library out of the basement of his home. Just over 1,600 books, magazines, and newspapers overflow the makeshift shelves which wrap around the modest room. A small desk and a register sit beside a folded up mattress, hinting at what was once Wesa’s spare bedroom. The carpeted floor is the only place to sit, but there are ashtrays and even a spittoon (gross) for readers who chose to stay.

While there are no library cards to be given, there is a small ledger which records who took what books out and when. There are two inherit problems with this system. The first is that Wesa’s older brother is in charge of the ledger, even though he is functionally illiterate. So instead of book titles he only records how many books a persons has checked out.  He does however have an incredible memory, and can name off exactly who has borrowed what books. He also has no trouble walking great distances to someone’s home if their books are overdue.

The second problem is much more difficult. The Panjwai Library operates in a society which has a taboo on speaking or sharing a woman’s name in public. This makes it impossible to keep track of any female wishing to borrow a book. Unofficially, Wesa has made it known that any and all woman may use a pseudonym at his library, even though this will make them impossible to find if they forget to return their books.

Only open since January, the Panjwai Library has about five visitors per day.  This may seem sparse, but in an area of violence and destitution, it is clear the small library is vital and value service to those it serves. The majority of names to be found in the ledger are of young people, eager to read in a land with no schools. Some walk or ride their bikes more than 6 miles just to get a new book to read.

Twenty-two seems awfully young for Wesa to have accomplished something no governmental agency was willing or able to do, but he has been engaged in this type of work since he was only 14. It was then when he created an organization called Pen Path, which collected donated books and distributed them to schools all over Afghanistan that were destroyed by the war.

Leaving the Panjwai Library safely in the hands of his brother, Wesa has now opened similar basement libraries in towns hit hardest by war. It is often thought that public libraries are an impossibility in places without a stable government, but Wesa has been proving this is not so.

Journalist Caitlin Moran has stated that, “a library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead.” With this in mind, it is easy to see why the Panjwai Library continues to exist.


Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library

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