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FW: Historic Baghdad Street Hit Hard By Sanctions

what a superb piece - reminder of history and culture, not alone
devastation... thanks again to Gerri Haines, physicians for Social
Responsibility. best, f.

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
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

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
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
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

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

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

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