Revel in the joys of books and reading at a Baghdad book fair


BAGHDAD – Protesters in Baghdad are staging a sit-in demanding that US troops leave Iraq. Counterterrorism troops patrol the streets. A federal court is wondering whether to certify the results of parliamentary elections two months ago.

But at the Baghdad International Fair grounds, hardly anyone cares about all of this.

Inside is the Baghdad International Book Fair. It’s not even the biggest book fair of the same name that the Iraqi government has sponsored for decades. But it’s still a book fair.

There, patrons relish the chance to browse the aisles of paperbacks and hard covers stacked on tables in pavilions in different countries. Pose for selfies in front of the fake volumes glued together and arranged to spell the word “book.” To revel in what for many Iraqis is the true enduring character of Baghdad, far from political turmoil and security concerns.

“There is a big gap between the street people and the political elite,” said Maysoon al-Demluji, a former vice minister of culture who was visiting the fair. “People on the street don’t really care about what’s going on in politics. “

Ms Demluji, an architect, described a mini-renaissance of Baghdad’s culture fostered by improved security and young people eager to connect with the world.

“New generations are exposed to ideas that were denied to previous generations,” she said. “There is so much going on here. “

At the fashionable Mansour district fairgrounds, some of the pavilions normally used for trade shows have been transformed to look like old Baghdad. Buses disgorge children in school uniforms on school trips. Groups of friends sit in the winter sun and drink Arabic coffee and espresso in outdoor cafes.

Inside, the pavilions showcase offerings from printing houses from the Arab world and beyond. Iranian publisher presents luxurious tabletop books on the country’s cultural wonders.

At the booth of a Kuwaiti publishing house, Zainab al-Joori, a psychiatrist, paid for books on ancient Mesopotamia and a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson translated into Arabic. Most of the books at the booth were paperbacks.

“Reading is my therapy,” said Dr Joori, 30, who works in a mental hospital.

Paperbacks fall far behind the feel and smell of old books that Dr. Joori loves the most. Yet she has been eagerly awaiting the book fair for months.

“Just visiting this place is satisfying even though I don’t buy any books,” she said.

Iraqis love books. “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads,” says an old adage.

In the 90s, my first reporting missions in Baghdad were in a closed country. It was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – difficult to access and, once there, difficult and dangerous to explore below the surface.

The United States had just driven Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait, and the United Nations had imposed sweeping trade sanctions on Iraq. In a once rich country, the shock of sudden poverty has hardened the city and its people.

But in those rare glimpses behind the closed doors of people’s houses, there were often books – in some houses beautiful built-in wooden shelves, all read, and almost every book treated by its owner like an old friend.

Iraqis are proud of their ancient heritage as heirs to the world’s earliest known civilizations, along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The oldest known form of writing, cuneiform symbols inscribed in clay, appeared in southern Iraq over 5,000 years ago.

In the ninth century AD in Baghdad – at that time the largest city in the world – the translators of Bayt al Hikma, or House of Knowledge, a huge library and intellectual center, were commissioned to translate all of the important works in existence into Arabic. and to advance intellectual debate. Academics from across the Abbasid Empire, which stretched from Central Asia to North Africa, visited the institution, engaged in research, and promoted scientific progress.

Twelve centuries later, in al-Mutanabi Street, the love for books and ideas continues in the Friday market where vendors display second-hand books for sale on the sidewalk in a tradition that is the beating heart of the city. traditional cultural life of Baghdad.

At the Baghdad Book Fair, two booksellers sat under string lights draped from the ceiling, near a huge inflatable plastic snow globe with Santa inside.

Hisham Nazar, 24, has a degree in finance and banking but works, by choice, at the Cemetery of Books publishing house. On the shelves of the publisher’s offerings at the fair is a figure “American Nietzsche”, on the German philosopher’s impact on the United States.

Mr. Nazar declared Nietzsche the “second greatest mind in the history of mankind”. The first, according to him, is Leonardo da Vinci.

He said the publisher’s best-selling books were by Iraqi writer Burhan Shawi, who wrote a nine-part series of novels, including “The Baghdad Morgue,” against a backdrop of violence in Baghdad, according to him. -war. Iraq’s turbulent and violent history since the US invasion in 2003 has provided rich fodder for writers.

“The war gave the Iraqis a lot of material,” said psychiatrist Dr Joori, adding that most of the fair’s patrons were young people.

In Iraq’s worst times, books have proven to be a comfort.

When the Islamic State took control of parts of Iraq in 2014 and declared the city of Mosul the capital of its caliphate, life as Iraqis knew it in the country’s second largest city practically fell apart. stopped. Almost all books have been banned, as well as music. Women were mostly confined to their homes. During the almost three years that ISIS occupied the city, many people stayed in their homes and read in secret.

During the first reading festival after Mosul was liberated from ISIS, thousands of locals came to the event in a park once used to train child combatants. Families with children, old people, young people – all are hungry to be able to read openly again.

Mr. Nazar, the Baghdad Fair bookseller, said that while many people now read digital books, he and many others prefer to hold books in their hands.

“When you open a paper book, it’s like stepping into the writer’s journey,” he said. “A paper book has the soul of the writer.