BAGHDAD, Iraq – This year marks a decade since a car bomb ripped through Al-Mutanabbi Street, this city’s cultural and intellectual oasis, killing 30 people and wounding many more.
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Once teeming with philosophizing poets, vociferous activists and erudite scholars, the book-laden street was left charred and desolate for months to come.
After almost two years of towering blast walls and restrictive checkpoints, the street – named after the 10th-century, Iraqi-born poet – was officially reopened in December 2008, breathing life back into a corner of Baghdad that had been deemed unsafe.
Iraq has since undergone huge changes, including the official withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 and the violent occupation of much of the north by the Islamic State in 2014.
Here, leisure reading is considered an act of indulgence more frequently reserved for those who are not confronted with the trials of war. And in Iraq, where violence has become an all too common backdrop to people’s lives, evading reality is not as easy as delving into the pages of a novel.
“There’s no intellectual scene left in Baghdad,” lamented 61-year-old bookkeeper Badeea Hyawee. “Before, we were busy selling and reading, now we have too many issues.”
According to Hyawee, who was raised by his bookkeeper father on Al-Mutanabbi Street and runs one of seven family-owned bookshops, the saying “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads” is no longer applicable to Iraq.
“If you want to destroy a country you need to hit its intellectual scene and make the country uneducated,” he explained, pointing a finger at the U.S.
“I used to print 5,000 books a year, now it’s 500 a year,” estimated Mr. Hyawee’s colleague, 71-year-old Sabah al-Anbari, a soft-spoken shopkeeper and publisher of law books. “All of the cities are fighting, so they’re not reading books.”
According to the two men, more than half of Iraq’s books were once sold to residents of Mosul. “Now they can’t even breathe,” said Mr. Hyawee.
But while older generations are disillusioned with the decay of Iraq’s literary scene, hope for revival comes in the unexpected form of a petite 28-year-old, Baghdad-born, female entrepreneur, who is set on reviving the country’s dormant intellectual arena and disrupting a society steeped in male chauvinism. Just a short distance away from the historic Al-Shabandar Café, a 100-year-old gathering place frequented by Baghdad’s literati, Baraa al-Bayati sits in her tiny air-conditioned bookshop, Al-Baraa. She is Al-Mutanabbi Street’s only female bookstore owner, publisher and journalist.
“I needed to give something [back] to the community,” explained Bayati when asked why she chose to open a bookshop.
After graduating university in engineering in 2012 with a passion for books, she was confronted with the widespread unemployment that haunted Iraq and the bleak realization that despite her degree and determination she might remain jobless. Her brother, she explains, had been largely unemployed 10 years.
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“Is this the future I want? To sit at home, maybe get married and do nothing?” she recalled. “I didn’t do it because I needed money, I did it because I needed something of my own.”
Inside her shop, the wall-to-wall shelves are laden with neatly placed books – colorful Korans sit opposite classics like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and history books on the coexistence of Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. Unlike her male colleagues’ businesses, Bayati’s shop is bright and airy and decorated with flowers.
After two years of work at a bookshop in exchange for reading material, Bayati asked her father for financial help. Believing in his only daughter’s business plan, the 70-year-old former state employee funded it out of his own pocket. In February 2017 Bayati finally carved out her own literary nook in a male-dominated neighborhood industry.
“My father was really supportive, even now he comes to the shop and helps me,” she said. On Sundays, her day off, she takes time out to drink coffee with him and discuss their latest read, a ritual she has grown to love.
“A lot of people supported me other women were saying, ‘You mean something to us.’ It’s a big responsibility when young women say that to you,” she said. But while most bookstore owners and clients proved receptive to the newly opened Al-Baraa, not everyone welcomed the energetic new tenant. Many took to social media to discredit and insult her. One man went as far as verbally harassing her once a week for four weeks in a row.
“Each Friday [he] would come to the shop and yell: ‘You have a degree, you opened a bookshop, what else do you want?’ I wanted to tell him that I’d like to become a better painter or learn to play the guitar,” recalled Bayati. “I would just laugh. I kind of miss him now,” she added with a little laugh.
No clichéd narrative
Although Bayati doesn’t go in for sometimes clichéd narrative of the struggling Arab woman in a male-dominated society, she appreciates the importance and symbolism of her role on Al-Mutanabbi. “The community says women should sit at home [but] I wanted to give [women] something important to be educated, because they’re the ones who are raising the new generations,” she said.
“Even those who wear the mask of being educated, when they see a woman practicing her freedom they’ll comment,” she said. “Even though we’re strong, we can’t do anything to stop the negative comments,” she added, especially on the internet.
The young bookseller knows her clients well and takes pride in choosing which books are likely to sell best. Her wide range of clients sees her investing in all sorts of genres, from children’s books to Russian literature.
Unlike her older colleagues, Bayati exudes optimism for the future of Iraq’s intellectual scene. However, she does so with the pragmatism of those who have lived through war.
“Despite everything the situation is better than [it was] in 2007,” she said. “Iraqis are very strong.”
Down the road from Al-Baraa, shielded from the harsh midday sun, Badeea Hyawee continues reminiscing about Al-Mutanabbi’s better days, blaming what he calls the government’s indifference to literature and exorbitant export taxes.
High cost of war
The high cost of the war against ISIS and tumbling oil prices have strained an already weakened economy, forcing some booksellers to shut down their businesses and search for new jobs, further depleting Baghdad’s literary life.
But in a country where continuous change seems inevitable, the rebirth of Iraq’s intellectual community is by no means impossible and even the most hardened Iraqis can sense that – especially with the arrival of a new, younger generation of book vendors.
Beneath his cynical exterior, a streak of encouragement and good neighborliness emerges in Hyawee when he is asked about his female colleague, Baraa. “We really welcomed her, we’re very proud – especially because she’s a woman,” he said. “I have also encouraged other women to open bookshops.”