Getting To Know: Dr. Taher Khalaf Jabur Al-Bakaa
It’s fair to say that Dr. Taher Khalaf Jabur Al-Bakaa’s experience in academia has been unlike most scholars. In the mid- 1990s, when he was chair of the history department at Al-Mustansiriya University, the second-largest university in Iraq, it was not unusual for scholars to disappear if they criticized the regime of Saddam Hussein.
After the war in Iraq started in 2003, the United States appointed Al-Bakaa president of Al-Mustansiriya, a position that required six full-time bodyguards. A year later, he was named minister of higher education for the new government, putting him in charge of Iraq’s centralized university system. It was in this post that he survived an assassination attempt.
Al-Bakaa is one of more than 1,000 Iraqi professors who have fled that country since U.S. troops invaded. While most scholars go to neighboring Arab-speaking nations such as Jordan, the Scholars at Risk Network has had 100 requests from Iraqis to come to America. Al-Bakaa recently immigrated to the United States with his young son and is now a visiting scholar at Harvard University.
More than 200 professors have been killed during the war. Some were scientists killed for purportedly working on weapons of mass destruction. Others were killed in sectarian violence, while others have been murdered for criticizing the United States, the Sunnis, the Shias or Iraq’s current government.
Like many Iraqi professors, Al-Bakaa welcomed Hussein’s demise and had high hopes for the United States’ efforts in his native country.
“They came to us with ideas of democracy, and we welcomed it. But how can you have democracy without the institutions that protect it? There was no police force. The borders were open and free. There’s no power of authority to protect democracy,” he says through a translator.
Iraq has a long history of higher education, with universities dating back 500 years. However, these institutions have been virtually isolated from the rest of the world since the 1990s; many have outdated textbooks, few supplies and little information about greater advancements in respective disciplines. University buildings and infrastructure have been destroyed, and almost nothing has been repaired or replaced since the war began.
Al-Bakaa intends to use his time in the United States to educate American professors and students about Iraq. He wants to start an Iraqi research center that focuses solely on resolving the war in Iraq and improving U.S.-Iraqi relations. But, as a newcomer to the United States and speaking little English, Al-Bakaa says he sometimes feels a bit overwhelmed.
“Life without hope has no value,” he says. “He who loses hope cannot live. But to be optimistic you always have to see a light in the end of the tunnel. Despite our long nightmare, I am still in touch with my hope to see even a little sparkle of light in the end of the tunnel.”
If you’d like to contact Al-Bakaa, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— By Christina Asquith
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