Cultural heart beats again on Baghdad bookseller street

Wed Apr 6, 2011 8:39am EDT
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By Peter Graff

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - "We have a saying: Cairo writes. Beirut prints. Baghdad reads," says Abdul-Wahab Mizher al-Radi, proprietor of the House of Scientific Books, one of countless bookshops crammed along Baghdad's Mutanabi Street.

Reading books, buying books and discussing books are the defining pleasures of being a Baghdad intellectual, and for generations the life of the mind has orbited around this lane, the booksellers' market of the Iraqi capital.

Four years ago, in a blow felt deeply by Iraq's intelligentsia, a car bomb killed 26 people here. Now, the street is again open, guarded and seemingly safe, and jammed every Friday with students, professors and professionals.

The street begins, overlooking the Tigris, at a statue of Mutanabi, a 10th century poet and one of the towering figures of Arabic literature. It runs past ransacked Ottoman-era government buildings into the heart of Baghdad's old town.

"Mutanabi Street is the cultural catharsis point for Iraqis," says al-Radi. "Mutanabi is a place where intellectuals of Iraq come, not just to buy books but to see the new place, to see the statue of Mutanabi, to meet friends on a Friday."

The book business, which dwindled to nothing at the height of Iraq's sectarian violence from 2006-07, is now booming like never before, he says.

"There has been a jump forward in demand for buying books, from students, intellectuals, the youth. Young people are looking for youthful books. Intellectuals are buying cultural books. Professionals and students are buying reference books."

BLACK RIBBONS   Continued...

<p>Residents shop for books at Mutanabi Street in Baghdad April 5, 2011. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen</p>