Baghdad Book Market Endures
January 10, 2008
One of the signs that things are becoming safer in Iraq, are the number of marketplaces that are beginning to flourish. Initially, after the invasion of Iraq, the Iraqi citizens were afraid to leave their homes, for fear of being caught in the middle of a firefight. Once the insurgents moved into their neighborhoods, shop owners were afraid to open their shops, due to the constant threat from the insurgents, who often demanded high fees from the shop owners in order for them to continue to keep their businesses open. There was also the threat from the insurgents, if they were seen talking with American and Coalition Troops.
The book market located on Mutanabi Street in Baghdad has seen a revival. Books lie on flattened cardboard boxes on sidewalks. The shopowners, who are a mixture of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish work side by side in harmony. On March 5th, many wondered if the book market would continue to exist. That was the day that a car bomb, which was linked to al-Qaeda ripped apart the market, killing at least 38 people and injuring over 100 people. Dozens of the bookstores, stationery shops and presses that lined Mutanabi Street were destroyed.
“The bomb did not change the way we feel about each other in the market,” said Atta Zeidan, who runs a secondhand bookstore. “What it did was make us all afraid for our lives.”
After that fateful day in March, response of the authorities was to ban all motor vehicle traffic from Mutanabi Street and to install blast barriers and checkpoints. US Troops were sent in to help restore calm and assure the shop owners of reconstruction funding. Initially, shoppers stayed away, but they’re beginning to return, though the numbers remain lower than prior to the bomb.
“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 the market and author of a “History of Coffeehouses in Old Baghdad.” “But people postpone buying books or go without altogether if they sense danger or are generally uncomfortable with security,” he said.
Because of the increased security, sales have been improving according to one vendor, Mohammed Hanash Abbas. His main income comes from lending textbooks to students for a fee. One shop owner, Hazem al-Sheikhli, who is the owner of a stationery shop, is an example of the resilient spirit of the vendors on Mutanabi Street. He lost 4 of his brothers, as well as a nephew in the bombing on March 5th. His father, who owned and operated the Shahbandar coffeehouse for 45 years, was dragged alive from the rubble, in the aftermath of the bombing.
According to the vendors on Mutanabi Street, at least 10 booksellers were killed in sectarian violence during a burst of Sunni-Shiite vengeance killings that occurred during 2006. According to the vendors, the interfaith relations among the vendors on Mutanabi Street remains good, because the killers were considered outsiders and not market workers and also because those who were killed were known extremists.
With the fall of Saddam in 2003, books that were once banned, such as Shiite book, poured into the area from Iran. Those books went on sale at discount prices next to books about Sunni Muslims. Bookstores selling religious books generally concentrate on one or the other sect. The market for book that have titles, such as “Saddam the Criminal” continue to sell well on both sides of the religious divide.
“Some have 90 percent of their books on the Shiite faith, while others have 90 percent of their books about Sunni Islam,” said Bookseller Shaalan Zeidan, with a chuckle.
Despite their differences in faith, the booksellers still manage to work side by side in harmony. Perhaps some of their fellow Iraqi’s should look at them as an example of what a unified Iraq could look like. It’s great to hear this type of news coming out of Iraq, as it shows that with perseverence, determination and by working together, the citizens of Iraq can and will rebuild their country into something that can be beneficial for all members of the Iraqi society.