Book market reflects mood of Baghdad
BAGHDAD (AP) ” Dusty books lie on flattened cardboard boxes on a sidewalk buried in litter and building debris. Their vendors hunch their shoulders and sip hot black tea to fend off the cold. What matters is that they’re here.
The revival of the Mutanabi Street book market is a microcosm of today’s Baghdad.
The titles on display reflect a live-and-let-live mentality shared by Sunni and Shiite vendors. The wreckage, the deserted buildings and devastated Shahbandar coffee house are the scars from years of violence.
The ambitious facelift now under way on Mutanabi Street attests to a hope for better things now that violence in Baghdad is noticeably down.
Through Saddam Hussein’s oppression, the bite of Western sanctions, the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 and the bombings and shootings that followed, the Mutanabi market, named after a 10th century Baghdad poet, never ceased to be a favorite Friday hangout for intellectuals, artists and students ” a cultural wellspring deftly adapting to each change of fortune.
On March 5, many thought its days were finally over. A car bomb blamed on al-Qaida militants ripped the market apart, killing at least 38 people and wounding more than 100.
The bombing wiped out dozens of bookstores, stationery shops and presses. The stench of burned paper and human flesh hung in the air for days. But it did not stop Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish vendors from continuing to work here in harmony.
“The bomb did not change the way we feel about each other in the market,” said Atta Zeidan, who runs a secondhand book store. “What it did is make us all afraid for our lives.”
In response, authorities banned vehicular traffic from Mutanabi Street, put up blast barriers and checkpoints, and sent in U.S. troops in an effort to calm the panicked traders and assure them of reconstruction funds.
The shoppers who initially stayed away have since drifted back, though their numbers are still down.
“People must eat, so they will still shop at food markets that have repeatedly been hit by attacks,” said Zein al-Naqshabandi, a bookseller in his mid-30s.
“But people postpone buying books or go without altogether if they sense danger or are generally uncomfortable with security,” said the father of four and author of a “History of Coffeehouses in Old Baghdad.”
On the other hand, vendor Mohammed Hanash Abbas said, “Things are certainly much better this year.”
Abbas’ main income is from lending textbooks to students for a fee. “Hardly anyone attended classes last year because of the violence,” he said. “This year, it’s different.”
Hazem al-Sheikhli, who owns a stationery shop, defines the resilient spirit of Mutanabi Street.
He lost four brothers and a nephew in the March 5 bombing. His father, Mohammed al-Sheikhli, was dragged alive from under the rubble in the Shahbandar coffee house which he had run for 45 years.
“People were still searching for bodies when some of the booksellers returned to the sidewalks in search of business,” said al-Sheikhli, a 50-year-old father of three.
“Death has become a part of our daily life,” he said while tending his store in mid-December.
His mother had died that week. “The loss of four sons and a grandson took its toll on her,” he said.
Mutanabi vendors say at least 10 of them were killed in sectarian violence during a burst of Sunni-Shiite vengeance killings in 2006. However, they say interfaith relations on the street remain good, largely because the killers were generally viewed as outsiders, not market workers, and because those killed were known extremists.
Still, things remain unpredictable. Just a couple of weeks ago, an exchange of fire between army troops and members of a U.S.-backed neighborhood watch group sent shoppers scurrying for cover, according to witnesses.
An ambitious plan to restore Mutanabi Street and its historic buildings was recently launched, but traders complain that work is slow and sometimes shoddy. Salah al-Ardawi, a Baghdad municipal spokesman, denied the charge, but acknowledged that the work is sometimes disrupted by insurgent attacks elsewhere in the city.
Concrete structures damaged by the bombing and fire are being reinforced. The asphalt street is to be tiled over. The Shahbandar coffeehouse is being rebuilt virtually from scratch.
The ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was keenly felt at the book market. Shiite books, long banned by Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime, poured in from Iran and went on sale at discount prices next to books on Sunni Muslims. That has not changed, although bookseller Shaalan Zeidan notes that “The bookstores selling religious books belong to two camps.”
“Some have 90 percent of their books on the Shiite faith, while others have 90 percent of their books about Sunni Islam,” he said with a chuckle.
The market for books with titles such as “Saddam the Criminal” and “What They Said About Saddam” still sell well on both sides of the divide.
Mutanabi’s book trade moved onto the sidewalks during the crippling 1990-2003 U.N. sanctions slapped on Iraq to punish it for invading Kuwait. With the sanctions biting hard, middle-class Iraqis began to sell off jewelry, furniture, antiques. Those with books came to Mutanabi Street, and some stayed on to become regular vendors.
Abu Mustapha, a 38-year-old sociology major, brought his 50 books to the market in 1994 and is still here.
“I am a university graduate who sold books on the street because I did not want to join Saddam’s Baath party in order to get a job,” said the father of four with a hint of bitterness.
“I had hoped that would change when Saddam went, but the marginalization only increased and the injustices continued,” he said, alluding to the perceived failure of successive post-Saddam governments to improve the lives of Iraqis.
Still, he keeps at it.
On a recent Friday morning, the busiest day for the sidewalk vendors, Abu Mustapha, al-Naqshabandi and Zeidan brought their books from storerooms in cardboard boxes or on pushcarts. By 9 a.m., after a breakfast of tea and falafel, they were open for business.
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