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what a superb piece - reminder of history and culture, not alone devastation... thanks again to Gerri Haines, physicians for Social Responsibility. best, f. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/04_01_02/art3.htm Daily Star (Beirut) January 4, 2002 Lebanese news Historic Baghdad street hit hard by sanctions Booksellers forced to sell private collections to stave off hunger Dania Saadi Daily Star staff BAGHDAD: On the Ottoman street of Al-Mutanabi, Baghdad stands out as a stark capital of contrasts, where the accumulation of 12 years of sanctions is forcing well-read Iraqis to sell their books next to Pokemon stickers. The Mutanabi quarter was always famed for its Friday vendors ‚ once full of booksellers who boasted the finest volumes printed in the Middle East. But as Iraqís economy plummeted, the street changed from a vintage bookshop to a flea market for used books, and vendors have been forced to sell their private book collections to stave off hunger. Today, flashing neon lights advertise the latest ad for German Staedler pencils. Nearby, thick dust has accumulated on a McGraw Hill series of books, while their salesman ‚ probably the holder of a diploma or degree ‚ vainly tries to entice customers with Pokemon paraphernalia. Mutanabi Street, in a-not-so-surprising twist of fate, bears the namesake of a pre-Islamic megalomaniac poet who allegedly considered himself a prophet. Long known for their near-prophetic pride, Iraqis these days ‚ once branded as the Arab worldís foremost readers ‚ buy and sell their used books and vast collections, making the saying ìwritten in Egypt, printed in Lebanon, read in Iraqî seem all the more distant. Traces of Iraqís enduring book-learning tradition are all too clear at the tail end of Mutanabi Street, where a printing press-turned-cafe dating back to the turn of the 19th century still houses many intellectuals. ìMutanabi Streetís love affair with printing goes back to the Abbasid era,î said Mohammed Khazem Khashili, the proud manager of the printing press-cum-Shahbander cafe since 1963. ìBack in the Abbasid era, it used to contain paper-makers.î Following the Abbasid era, the street developed into a book market, and during the Ottoman period bore the name Al-Khamaneh, the Turkish word for the army barracks facing the cafe. Intellectuals chatting in the cafe can still peer into the old barracks, which is now stacked with booksellers. The Turks had such a fondness for the street that they built their Qoushle, the official winter seat of government, on the corner facing the cafe. During the British Mandate, the Qoushle contained all facets of colonial rule, from ministries to courts of law. The Qoushle is replete with Iraqi history. At its far end, the Iraqis crowned their first king, Faisal Abdul Aziz. And there is still a youthful picture of the king on the walls of Shahbandar cafe, which also houses a collection of antique nargilehs and urns. In 1917, the cafe was renovated and officially renamed the Shahbandar cafe, recalling its ownersí long history of serving in the Turkish customs house nearby (ìshahbandarî in Persian means customs officials). About the same time, Mutanabi Street began to flourish as the official bookselling district for downtown Baghdad. The cafe harks back to the days when Iraqís intellectuals gathered to exchange philosophies. The intellectuals have almost disappeared ‚ as has the Shahbandar family, who relocated to Lebanon. The Iraqi fondness for reading is as deep-rooted as their adoration for Lebanon, which is close to the heart of the Mutanabi quarter. Lebanese printers were, and still are, the main suppliers of books to Iraqis, who long for freedom similar to Lebanonís. ìOur relationship with Lebanese printers goes as far back as 1945, when Lebanon acquired independence,î said Khashili. ìIraqis have long vacationed there and are familiar with its printing tradition.î Lebanon boasts some of the oldest printing presses in the Middle East; Iraq is said to be the birthplace of Gilgamesh, the worldís first known written epic. ìI have long been an avid reader, but when hunger hit home, I had to become a bookseller, and I started with my own 5,000-book collection,î said Sabah, who preferred not to use his family name. A professor of Arabic literature, he only has time to teach once a week at the university, while he tends to his bookshop. ìIf the Iraqis were not such avid learners, we would have run out of books a long time ago,î he said. Sabahís Arabic literature teacher from his school days is one of the intellectuals who still visits Shahbandar cafe for tea and a chat with his old friends. Meanwhile, the young-at-heart intellectuals and booksellers along Mutanabi Street browse through the latest Windows operating manual as they huddle inside a century-old building. These buildings overlook a street decked with Chinese double-decker buses and dotted with an occasional passerby wearing a T-shirt from the Hard Rock Cafe in Paris. ìThe Pokemon stickers are pretty popular with children,î said one bookseller, browsing through the latest collection of Winnie the Pooh stickers, calendars of London Bridge and IOU slips. A used novel today costs as much as a Pokemon bag ‚ about 3000 dinars ($1.50). Walking along Mutanabi Street, it is only natural to see a 1,000-page Webster stacked against an interpretation of a certain style of Islamic thought or a popular Egyptian series on Ways to Please Your Husband. ìAlthough religious books remain most popular,î said Hussain, 27, ìthese booklets are gaining ground ‚ particularly those about sorcery and genies.î An engineering student, Hussain has been selling and buying books since his college years, when he had to swap old books for required reading. ìThere isnít much money to make from this business,î he said. ìIím only in it because I love learning and I love books.î __________________________________________________ Do You Yahoo!? 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