Baghdad's street of books struggles to revive after war and pandemic

It is the living reflection of a street that Amar describes as "a cultural centre and meeting point for artists, intellectuals and poets"
Iraqi citizens

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At the beginning of the last century, illustrious thinkers, artists and avid readers walked endlessly along Al-Mutanabbi Street, an open-air bookshop in the historic centre of Baghdad that has suffered the ravages of sectarian warfare in the early 2000s and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

Amar Hussein, 52, sits behind the counter of the Al-Nahda bookshop, one of the oldest in Baghdad, waiting for one of the few passers-by to enter his historic shop, whose shelves are stocked with thousands of books of all genres.

The bookshop, open since 1957, is a living reflection of a street that Amar describes as "a cultural centre and meeting place for artists, intellectuals and poets", but which is now in the doldrums after the years of splendour that made Baghdad the most enlightened city in the Middle East.

Now "Al-Mutanabbi is at a standstill", laments the manager of this shop, which was born on the back of a nomadic trader who sold a few copies at Iraqi fairs and later established itself in this emblematic place.

Ciudadanos en Irak
AP/NABIL al-JURANI - Citizens in Iraq
Terrorism and pandemic

In front of Al-Nahda is a pile of cement sacks, bricks and tools that are being used to slowly rebuild Al-Mutanabbi, affected by the sectarian war that bloodied the country between 2006 and 2007, following the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein and the US invasion in 2003.

Amar says the street has suffered "crisis after crisis". It was completely destroyed by a car bomb in 2007 in an attack that killed dozens of people and forced the authorities to close the road for more than a year.

Al-Nahda was rebuilt first through "personal efforts" and then with government assistance, but its manager says that Al-Mutanabbi has not regained its glory since the years of terrorism and has also felt the consequences of the pandemic.

"The pandemic has caused a freeze" on many activities, including schools and universities, which has further reduced the number of students who once walked around Al-Mutanabbi, Amar recalls.

"The best time was before the fall" of Saddam Hussein in 2003, he says, because "people read more and there was no internet. Only books and reading.

Now he hopes that culture "will not die in Baghdad", but "it needs a renewal", as well as more security so that it can be reborn.

Ciudadano iraquí
PHOTO/AMEER AL MOHAMMED - Iraqi citizen
An ancient tradition

"Technology has affected us. Now, human beings live for the moment, they don't have a cause to defend," says Ahmed Mohsen, a 50-year-old bookseller who has been standing behind a book cart in Al Mutanabbi for three quarters of a century.

This fan of the German thinker Immanuel Kant collects in his shop window a wide repertoire of philosophy books, ranging from Socrates to Karl Popper, but says he does not sell them "because there is no demand" and "people don't read much anymore".

According to a well-known Arabic proverb from the last century, "Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads", but the salesman claims that this is a "paltry" statement because it reflects Iraqis "as mere consumers without creativity".

Ahmed contradicts this saying precisely with the origin of Al-Mutanabbi Street, named after the illustrious 10th century Iraqi poet and thinker, whose statue stands solitary with its back to the Tigris River, which flows at the end of the street.

For his part, Ali Mohamed, the 90-year-old owner of Shabandar, a printing press turned coffee shop that has been in business since 1917, presents a more optimistic scenario, saying that intellectuals still flock to the place because "culture is the food of the soul".

"The café is a cultural symbol that has never changed under any conditions. No matter how much Iraq or the world changes, this place never changes," he says.