BAGHDAD – Protesters in Baghdad hold a sit-in and demand that US troops leave Iraq. Terrorist forces patrol the streets. A federal court is considering certifying the results of the parliamentary elections two months ago.
But on the Baghdad International Fair grounds, hardly anyone cares about that.
Inside is the Baghdad International Book Fair. It’s not even the larger book fair of the same name that the Iraqi government has sponsored for decades. But it is still a book fair.
There, patrons enjoy the chance to browse the aisles of paperbacks and hardcovers stacked on tables in pavilions from different countries. Posing for selfies in front of the fake books glued together and arranged to spell the word ‘book’. Enjoying what for many Iraqis is the true, enduring nature of Baghdad, far removed from political turmoil and security concerns.
“There is a big divide between the people on the streets and the political elite,” said Maysoon al-Demluji, a former deputy culture minister who attended the fair. “People on the street aren’t that interested in what’s happening in politics.”
Ms. Demluji, an architect, described a mini-renaissance in Baghdad culture fueled by improved security and young people eager to connect with the world.
“New generations are being exposed to ideas that previous generations were denied,” she said. “So much is happening here.”
At the fairgrounds in the city’s fashionable Mansour district, some of the pavilions normally used for trade shows have been transformed into old Baghdad. Buses spit out children in school uniforms during school trips. Groups of friends sit in the winter sun drinking Arabic coffee and espresso on terraces.
Inside, the pavilions feature offerings from printers from around the Arab world and beyond. An Iranian publisher has luxury coffee table books about 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 in the booth were paperbacks.
“Reading is my therapy,” says Dr. Joori, 30, who works at a psychiatric hospital.
Paperbacks are a distant second to the feel and smell of the old books where Dr. Joori loves the most. Yet she has been looking forward to the book fair for months.
“Just visiting this place gives me satisfaction, even if I’m not buying any books,” she said.
Iraqis love books. “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads,” goes an old saying.
In the 1990s, my first reporting assignments in Baghdad were to a closed country. It was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—hard to get into and, once you got there, hard and dangerous to explore beneath the surface.
The United States had just expelled Saddam’s troops from Kuwait and the United Nations had imposed sweeping trade sanctions on Iraq. In a formerly wealthy country, the shock of sudden poverty gave the city and its inhabitants a tougher head start.
But in those rare glimpses behind the closed doors of people’s homes, there were often books—in some homes, beautiful, built-in wooden shelves, all read and almost every book treated by the owner like an old friend.
Iraqis are proud of their ancient heritage as heirs to the world’s first known civilizations, along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The earliest known form of writing, cuneiform symbols engraved in clay, originated in southern Iraq more than 5,000 years ago.
In the ninth century AD, translators from the Bayt al Hikma, or House of Knowledge, a huge library and intellectual center, in Baghdad – then the largest city in the world – were tasked with translating and intellectually translating all the important extant works into Arabic. debate. Scholars from all over the Abbasid Empire, stretching from Central Asia to North Africa, traveled to the institution, conducting research and furthering scientific progress.
Twelve centuries later, on al-Mutanabi Street, the love of books and ideas lives on in the Friday market where vendors offer used books for sale on the sidewalk in a tradition that is the beating heart of Baghdad’s traditional cultural life.
At the Baghdad book fair, two booksellers sat under Christmas lights draped from the ceiling, near a huge inflatable plastic snow globe with Santa in it.
Hisham Nazar, 24, has a degree in finance and banking but optionally works at the Cemetery of Books publishing house. Prominent on the shelves of the publisher’s offer on the stock exchange is ‘American Nietzsche’, about the influence of the German philosopher on the United States.
Mr. Nazar declared Nietzsche the “second greatest mind in all of human history.” The first, according to him, is Leonardo da Vinci.
He said the best-selling books were from the publishing house of Iraqi author Burhan Shawi, who has written a nine-part series of novels, including “Baghdad’s Morgue,” set against the backdrop of the violence in post-war Baghdad. Iraq’s turbulent and violent history since the US invasion in 2003 has provided writers with plenty of fodder.
“The war has provided the Iraqis with a lot of material,” said Dr. Joori, the psychiatrist, adding that most of the clients at the fair were young.
In Iraq’s worst times, books have been a comfort.
When the Islamic State took over parts of Iraq in 2014 and declared the city of Mosul the capital of the Caliphate, life as Iraqis knew it came to an end in the country’s second-largest city. Almost all books were banned, along with music. Women were essentially confined to their homes. In the nearly three years that ISIS occupied the city, many people stayed at home to secretly read.
During the first reading festival after Mosul’s liberation from ISIS, thousands of residents flocked to the event in a park once used to train child fighters. Families with children, the elderly, the young – all hungry to read openly again.
Mr Nazar, the bookseller at the Baghdad Stock Exchange, said that while many people now read digital books, he and many others prefer to hold the books in their hands.
“When you open a paper book, it’s like entering the writer’s journey,” he said. “A paper book has the soul of the writer.”