Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

New Lease of life for Capital's Book Market

Book enthusiasts returns to legendary Al-Muttanbi street, two years after bombing.
By Jinan Farhan
Hasan al-Timimie stands surrounded by piles of books strewn on the ground, arranged in categories covering everything from encyclopedias to copies of the Koran.



This is Al-Muttanbi street, a legendary centre of the book trade in Baghdad for hundreds of years.



“Al-Muttanabi is just like the sweet fruit after a fatty meal,” declared the bookseller. “When you eat it, you will surely benefit. Al-Muttanabi means culture, literature, originality, thinkers, scientists and literary men; it means all those beautiful things.”



The market, named after a classical Iraqi poet of the tenth century, seems to inspire such lyricism among many of its devotees.



But two-and-a-half years ago, the market was devastated by a bombing which killed some 35 people and wounded many more. In the months that followed, the street was nearly empty, its shops badly damaged and customers kept away by a daytime curfew and the poor security situation.



Only after extensive renovation by the Iraqi government, including new lighting and paving, was the market re-opened by Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki in December 2008.



Now, a year on, life has returned to Al-Muttanbi.



Writer and journalist Abbas Mahdie al-Mua’mn browses here every Friday – and said he would come every day of the week if he could.



For him, improved security in the capital – though occasionally breached with devastating effect – has been key to the renewed success of the book market.



“The reconstruction process is a real, blessed, and successful one,” he said, adding that he hoped it would also lead to a revival in the country’s literary and cultural life. “Arabic publishing houses in Beirut and Cairo should start branches in Iraq, especially in Al-Muttanabi street.”



Al-Muttanbi is famous for its huge selection of books covering many languages and disciplines, from the humanities to the sciences and including all kinds of fiction. After the Saddam era, during which many books were banned, a whole new variety of previously suppressed books appeared in the market.



Haidar Nadhim, who has a masters degree in philosophy, and who came to the street looking for study material, said that its recent history mirrored that of the country.



“The street passed through the crisis which Iraq has passed through in general, that is the well-known events after the fall [of Saddam Hussein], in addition to all the blasts and threats. Al-Muttanabi was one of the victims. But after the government’s efforts to destroy the armed groups, Al-Muttanabi is buzzing again, with all the books that mark it as a lively place again,” he said.



“Reconstruction has had a good impact as people started to come frequently, especially those who used to visit the street previously,” added bookseller Abdullah Abdul-Hadi Abdullah. “In addition to its beauty, the security improvement played an essential role in increasing visitors to the street.”



He said it was also once again an important cultural meeting point, “Most of the authors and cultured people in Iraq come to the street regularly, I think that the only day they feel alive is when they come here – as well as for artists, foreign visitors and the media.



“Most of the provincial council candidates came to Al-Muttanabi to promote their election programmes.”



But al-Muttanbi’s revival has been occasionally interrupted by sporadic violence. Horrific bomb attacks struck the city in August and, most recently, on October 25, killing and wounding hundreds of people.



Book venders complain that these bombings affected them too, even though Al-Muttanbi itself was not targeted.



Cars have not been allowed to enter the market since it was attacked in 2007, and security was ramped up further in the wake of the August bombings, and again following the October 25 atrocity.



All the streets within a two kilometre radius have been fully or partly closed to traffic, with the clampdown tightened on Fridays, when security forces fear attacks on crowded mosques.



Friday, however, is also the busiest day of the week by far on Al-Muttanbi, and the restrictions clearly deter customers.



Elias Ali, a civil engineering student, was looking for a book on Auto CAD design software, but security measures meant he had to park his car a couple of kilometres away and walk.



“I have to walk all that distance again to get back to my car and return home,” he said. “It is really crazy, I will never come here again.”



“Whenever there are bombs, our business gets worse,” said Salih Yaaqob, who runs a bookstall on the street. “If there were no more bombs, our lives would be good again.”



In the Dar al-Rawaq shop, books of all colour and sizes were packed on the ground and on shelves.



“Recently, they suffer from loneliness,” joked owner Raeid Fahmi. “They await their beloved readers, who prefer the security of their homes to seeking knowledge in this street.”



Fahmi, like other book vendors here, used to need to re-stock his shop weekly, but “not even one book has left my store since Bloody Sunday”, he said, referring to the October 25 bombing.



Nonetheless, many book enthusiasts continue to head for Al-Muttanbi, despite the threat of violence.



Twin seven-year-old sisters Hiba and Rand Jamal, dressed in matching jeans and orange T-shirts, often visit with their father.



“I will still come to this market,” insisted Hiba, “even if I have to walk around all the streets of Baghdad.”



With the improved security, women are beginning to return to the book market, often dropping in on the legendary Al-Shabandar café, a local landmark that has long served as a meeting place for prominent cultural figures, to drink tea.



Amal Hussein, a human rights activist, said that women were regular visitors to the book shops before the 2003 war, especially on Fridays. Since then, the fear of violence has kept them away, she said, and things are only now beginning to change.



Rasha al-Amiri agreed that security issues had kept women away. “With so few visiting, they are being denied knowledge and culture – which in turn is a loss for society. Al-Muttanabi is a rare treasure, and every cultured woman should aspire to visit often, especially after all the reconstruction that took place here,” said the journalist.



Some are not so impressed with the reconstruction, though. The bookseller Abdullah felt that the the refurbishments were mostly superficial.



The street, he said, “needs real reconstruction.., not a cosmetic one. Most of the buildings are ramshackle and about to fall [down]”.



On the other hand, Nadhim, a veteran customer, praised the “soft touch” of the restoration, which he said had maintained the character of the old buildings while making them even more beautiful.



But he added, “Al-Muttanabi remains the same whether it was built with marble or clay. It should be judged on its contents, not what it looks like. It is a place for culture.”



Al-Timimie agreed. “The books here are the most beautiful thing,” he said.



Jinan Farhan is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad. Abeer Mohamed, IWPR's senior local editor, based in Baghdad, also contributed to this report.