The marketplace of ideas in Iraq
The Chicago Tribune‘s Stephen Franklin reports on how life has changed for Baghdad’s booksellers: Up and down al-Mutanabbi Street, business was booming like never before. Buyers were bunched up in groups, studying piles of new and used books sprawled on the sidewalk or on carts. People wandered in and out of stores, carrying off several ...
The Chicago Tribune's Stephen Franklin reports on how life has changed for Baghdad's booksellers:
The Chicago Tribune‘s Stephen Franklin reports on how life has changed for Baghdad’s booksellers:
Up and down al-Mutanabbi Street, business was booming like never before. Buyers were bunched up in groups, studying piles of new and used books sprawled on the sidewalk or on carts. People wandered in and out of stores, carrying off several books at a time. A thick crowd of shoppers ruminated over Iyad Nowfal’s collection of used English and French historical and political texts, an eclectic assortment that included a worn paperback copy of Golda Meir’s autobiography. But the brisk trade failed to lift the spirits of the middle-age bookseller, a veteran of the street in a slightly decrepit Ottoman-era section of Baghdad that is famous for its printing presses, calligraphers, a coffeehouse frequented by intellectuals and an open-air book market every Friday. “Freedom is good and not good,” Nowfal grumbled, hunching his shoulders against a cold wind. “The good thing is that now you can express yourself. You can read whatever you want. But the bad thing is competition. There are a lot more bookstores, a lot more people selling books, and prices have gone down.” A few other veteran booksellers shared his dismay, recalling the days during Saddam Hussein’s regime when they got high prices for forbidden books about politics or Shiite Islamic topics. “Now you have bad people,” complained Hussan al Fadhli, a seller of maps, among them a large, colorful 1990 chart that showed Kuwait as an Iraqi province. Bad people, he explained with a scowl, are merchants who do not respect each other and offer price cuts to customers…. One day Sadek Khadir was arrested because he had let a popular Arab world newsmagazine slip into the offerings he usually spreads out on the sidewalk. But Khadir, a government engineer who moonlights at the Friday book market, was lucky. He spent only a day in the police station, while others were imprisoned for years for selling banned publications. Now his sales of newspapers and magazines have doubled, and he sells whatever he can get his hands on. Iyad Hamid similarly keeps running out of books for customers. He specializes in works written by Shiite scholars, books that he previously would have sold only to people he knew or who came with good recommendations. He was strict about such precautions because he didn’t want to join his colleagues in prison. With the regime’s fall, his prices have come down because it is easier to buy such books. But that doesn’t bother him because he sells so much more. His hottest items are anything written by or about Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, a revered Shiite cleric assassinated by the government in 1980. It is rare, he said, for one of those books to sit for more than a day.
Lest you believe that theological texts are the only things selling, let’s move on to this anecdote:
Amir Nayef Toma, a translator, English teacher and self-professed guiding spirit for al-Mutanabbi Street’s intellectuals, was studying an assortment of popular U.S. paperbacks. He was glad to see that they were cleaner than a few months ago. The books came from American troops, who got them full of flies and dust during their time at war in the desert, he explained. Toma and other customers persuaded the booksellers to clean them up. A lifetime devotee of popular American novels, Toma’s guru is Sidney Sheldon, and he has an ambitious dream for the new Iraq. He wants to open a Sidney Sheldon Institute for Modern English, where he will teach English to Iraqis and reveal to them the literary magic of the blockbuster American novelist.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and the author of The Ideas Industry. Twitter: @dandrezner
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.