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University of Iowa News Release


March 31, 2008

UI writing programs assist doctoral student in Iraq

The writing programs at the University of Iowa are assisting the dissertation research of a literature student in Iraq by collecting books that will be shipped through Harvard University and the Sabre Foundation.

The book project began when the student sent e-mails to several UI faculty members, explaining the difficulties of locating literary materials in war-torn Iraq for research on "paranoia in the postmodern American novel."

"Of course, receiving an unsolicited e-mail from Iraq made me paranoid," says Robin Hemley, director of the Nonfiction Writing Program in the UI English Department. "If I answered, would terrorists start sending me Instant Messages? Would the FBI freeze my bank account?"

Hemley consulted with Christopher Merrill, director of the UI International Writing Program, who contacted the student. "Chris, English faculty member Loren Glass and I decided to help the student obtain these texts through Jeffrey Spurr at Harvard," Hemley says. "Along with his colleague Andreas Riddlemeyer, Spurr has been shipping books to the Balkans and Iraq for years. They have a done a great deal to rebuild the National Library in Sarajevo, and now Jeff has taken the lead in Iraq. I think this is a wonderful opportunity for us to help out in Iraq in a small but important way."

Merrill was acquainted with these book-supply efforts as a result of his time in the Balkans during the siege of Sarajevo, doing research for the book "Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars." "We all heard about the looting of the ministries and museums in Iraq, but libraries suffered a similar fate," Merrill says. "Spurr and Riddlemeyer have been quietly doing their heroic work for many years."

The Sabre Foundation, which describes itself as "Humanitarian Aid for the Mind," has sent more than 530,000 new books and CD-ROMs -- with a fair market value of over $19 million -- to Arab and/or Muslim countries since 2001. The foundation has shipped more than 35,000 new books to Iraq, selected by Iraqi universities, with a fair market value of more than two million dollars.

The UI effort is coordinated by Steve McNutt at the International Writing Program. For additional information, or to arrange to contribute books, contact him at or

The English Department is part of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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