Reveling in the Joys of Books, and Reading, at a Baghdad Book Fair

Reveling in the Joys of Books, and Reading, at a Baghdad Book Fair 1

Iraq is home to literary traditions ancient and modern, and to legions of avid readers who find a new book more meaningful to them than a new government.

BAGHDAD — Protesters in Baghdad hold a sit-in demanding that U.S. troops leave Iraq. Counterterrorism troops patrol streets. A federal court ponders whether to certify results of parliamentary elections two months ago.

But at the Baghdad International Fair grounds, almost no one cares about all that.

Inside is the Baghdad International Book Fair. It’s not even the bigger book fair of the same name that the Iraqi government has sponsored for decades. But it’s a book fair nonetheless.

There, patrons savor the chance to browse aisles of paperbacks and hardcovers stacked on tables in pavilions from different countries. To pose for selfies in front of the fake volumes glued together and arranged to spell the word “book.” To revel in what to many Iraqis is the true, enduring character of Baghdad, far removed from political turmoil and security concerns.

“There is a big gap between the people in the street and the political elite,” said Maysoon al-Demluji, a former deputy minister of culture who was visiting the fair. “People in the street are not that interested in what happens in politics.”

Ms. Demluji, an architect, described a mini-renaissance in Baghdad culture fostered by improved security and young people eager to connect with the world.

“New generations are exposed to ideas that were denied previous generations,” she said. “So much is happening here.”

Laura Boushnak for The New York Times
Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

At the fairgrounds in the fashionable Mansour district of the city, some of the pavilions normally used for trade shows have been transformed to look like old Baghdad. Buses disgorge children in school uniforms on class trips. Groups of friends sit in the winter sunshine drinking Arabic coffee and espresso at outdoor cafes.

Inside, the pavilions have offerings from printing houses across the Arab world and beyond. An Iranian publisher features luxurious coffee table books of the country’s cultural wonders.

At the stall of a Kuwaiti publishing house, Zainab al-Joori, a psychiatrist, paid for books about ancient Mesopotamia and a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson translated into Arabic. Most of the books at the stall were paperbacks.

“Reading is my therapy,” said Dr. Joori, 30, who works at a psychiatric hospital.

Paperbacks are a distant second to the feel and the scent of the old books that Dr. Joori loves best. But still, she looks forward to the book fair for months.

“Just visiting this place is satisfying even if I don’t buy any books,” she said.

Iraqis love books. “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads,” goes an old saying.

In the 1990s, my first reporting assignments to Baghdad were to a closed country. It was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — difficult to get into and, once you were there, difficult and dangerous to explore beneath the surface.

Laura Boushnak for The New York Times
Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

The United States had just driven Saddam’s forces from Kuwait and the United Nations had imposed sweeping trade sanctions on Iraq. In a formerly rich country, the shock of sudden poverty gave the city and its inhabitants a harder edge.

But in those rare glimpses behind the closed doors of people’s homes, there were often books — in some houses, beautiful, built-in wooden shelves of them, all of them read and almost every book treated by its owner as an old friend.

Iraqis are proud of their ancient legacy as heirs to the world’s first known civilizations, along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The earliest known form of writing, cuneiform symbols inscribed in clay, emerged in southern Iraq more than 5,000 years ago.

In the ninth century A.D. in Baghdad — at the time the biggest city in the world — translators at the Bayt al Hikma, or House of Knowledge, a huge library and intellectual center, were tasked with translating all important works in existence into Arabic and furthering intellectual debate. Scholars from across the Abbasid empire, stretching from Central Asia to North Africa, traveled to the institution, engaging in research and fostering scientific advancement.

Laura Boushnak for The New York Times
Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

Twelve centuries later, on al-Mutanabi Street, the love of books and ideas lives on in the Friday market where sellers lay out used books for sale on the sidewalk in a tradition that is the beating heart of Baghdad’s traditional cultural life.

At the Baghdad book fair, two booksellers sat under fairy lights draped from the ceiling, near a huge inflatable plastic snow globe with Santa Claus inside.

Hisham Nazar, 24, has a degree in finance and banking but works, by choice, at the publishing house Cemetery of Books. Prominent on the shelves of the publisher’s offerings at the fair is “American Nietzsche,” about the German philosopher’s impact on the United States.

Mr. Nazar declared Nietzsche the “second greatest mind in the whole of human history.” The first, in his estimation, is Leonardo da Vinci.

He said the publisher’s best-selling books were by the Iraqi writer Burhan Shawi, who has written a nine-part series of novels, including “Baghdad’s Morgue,” set against the backdrop of violence in postwar Baghdad. Iraq’s turbulent and violent history since the U.S. invasion in 2003 has provided rich fodder for writers.

“The war has given Iraqis a lot of material,” said Dr. Joori, the psychiatrist, adding that most of the customers at the fair were young.

In the worst of times in Iraq, books have proved a comfort.

Laura Boushnak for The New York Times
Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

When the Islamic State took over parts of Iraq in 2014 and declared the city of Mosul the capital of its caliphate, life as Iraqis knew it in the country’s second-biggest city essentially stopped. Almost all books were banned, along with music. Women were essentially confined to their homes. In the almost three years that ISIS occupied the city, many people stayed home and secretly read.

In the first reading festival after Mosul’s liberation from ISIS, thousands of residents came to the event in a park once used to train child fighters. Families with children, older people, young people — all hungry to be able to read openly again.

Mr. Nazar, the bookseller at the Baghdad fair, said that while many people now read digital books, he and many others prefer to hold books in their hands.

“When you open a paper book it is like entering into the writer’s journey,” he said. “A paper book has the soul of the writer.”

Laura Boushnak for The New York Times