Writing a new chapter in Baghdad's intellectual life

Books are for sale on the street, but opinions, stories are beyond price

Postcard: Baghdad

January 11, 2004|By James Rupert | James Rupert,Newsday

BAGHDAD -- On a Friday morning in Baghdad's old city, Bassam Janabi arranges aging books for sale on a plastic sheet spread on the asphalt of Mutanabi Street. A dusty French edition of former President Jimmy Carter's memoirs, dog-eared American political science texts, books in Arabic on Egypt's Arab nationalist icon, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Janabi erects a large poster with his hand-lettered, weekly commentaries, some of which promote his view that Iraq should govern itself by restoring the monarchy that ruled here from 1921 to 1958.

By 9 a.m., a heavy crowd is milling among the stands of booksellers like Janabi who gather here. He makes few sales, but his newspaper-on-a-board holds a steady knot of readers. Up the block, vendors sell posters of Abdulkarim Qassim, the Iraqi nationalist army officer who overthrew the monarchy. Or of Hussein and Ali, grandson and cousin of the prophet Mohammed who are considered martyrs by Islam's Shia sect.

As Iraq considers its future after Saddam Hussein, Mutanabi Street is resuming its role as one of the capital's main marketplaces of ideas. If the daily violence in much of Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit and other areas illustrates ways in which the U.S. occupation is failing to improve Iraqis' lives, Mutanabi Street's Friday morning book market is an exhibit of the political and intellectual revival under American rule.

Because much of Iraq lacks good stone, Baghdad is missing the ancient monuments befitting a city that, in the eighth century, ruled the world from North Africa to Central Asia. "Old" Baghdad, including Mutanabi Street, consists mainly of buildings dating only to Ottoman Turkish rule, which ended a mere 83 years ago.

Since Baghdad's days of imperial glory, both the city and Mutanabi Street have repeatedly built and lost intellectual life. Chinese soldiers captured in 751 taught the Arabs how to make paper, a specialty that began the street's vocation as the city's book market. In 1258, Baghdad was sacked by a Mongol army and spent centuries as a provincial outpost of other empires, Persian and Turkish.

The Ottoman Turks built their Baghdad power base -- an army barracks and the Qushla, or government headquarters -- on the bank of the Tigris River, at the foot of Mutanabi Street. After World War I, Britain replaced Turkey as foreign overlord and installed the monarchy, whose first king was crowned in the Qushla.

'Iraqis love books'

Baghdad's appetite for books grew with its new status as a national capital. "We used to be a big market for all the publishers in the Arab world -- in Beirut, Cairo, Tunis," said Sahi Khalaf Nassir, 75, who sells legal texts from a kiosk on Mutanabi. "Iraqis love books."

Like Janabi, Nassir remembers the monarchy and the turbulent years thereafter as the modern high point of Baghdad's intellectual life. Mutanabi Street's cafes drew a mix of professors, artists and political activists.

In the 1970s, Saddam Hussein crushed intellectual life, forcing Mutanabi Street's alternative ideas and books underground. Secret police informants infested the cafe tables, ready to overhear whispers of dissent. But six months after the U.S. occupation, Mutanabi is again in ferment. In particular, Shia religious texts have blossomed amid a new debate of Shia ideas. Saddam Hussein feared and ruthlessly suppressed the Shia, who form a majority -- perhaps 60 percent -- of Iraqis.

Mutanabi Street also offers a toehold for liberal thinkers open to Western ideas -- the kind of voices the United States hopes to see prominent in forging a new Iraq. "We want to take a democratic, multiparty path, in which we do not differentiate between Sunni and Shia," Janabi said.

But he said Iraqis' psyches are too badly damaged by the civil wars, repressions and communal rivalries of the recent past to achieve this on their own. Shifting from bullets to ballots as the means of resolving political issues will require outside mediation, he says, a view expressed by many Iraqis in recent weeks.

"Will the Americans build an Iraqi army that will defend our unity, and ensure that there is no civil conflict?" he asked.

Nassir voices the gratitude of nearly all Iraqis for the U.S. soldiers' ouster of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. But he laments that the Americans did not try to prevent the looting that accompanied their arrival. Like many, he suspects this was deliberate, a step to show Iraqis and the world what a bestial state this society had fallen to, and thus to justify whatever actions the Americans might take.

Looted books resurface

Mournfully, Nassir showed a visitor that the Qushla, and the former Turkish barracks, which in recent years housed the courts, have been stripped of their furnishings. Only damaged walls and roofs remain.

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