Baghdad book market turns the page on a new Iraq

When Maher Abu Hissam started his Baghdad bookshop two decades ago he was selling up to 40 books a day, such was the hunger for literature in the days of Saddam Hussein, even though the regime banned anything it did not like.

Censorship was lifted when a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam in 2003 but far from an upturn in sales these days Hissam sometimes sells just a few books at his shop on Mutanabbi Street.

The street on the banks of the River Tigris where dozens of booksellers have shops and traders used to ply books from trolleys is in some ways a symbol of the city’s shifting fortunes.

Iraqi women shop for books at Mutanabi Street in Baghdad, June 22, 2018. 

Since 2003, the market has seen a boom in new shops, books and publishers. It even recovered from a bomb attack in 2007 that killed around 30 people.

Filmmakers, musicians and painters flock there on Fridays, gathering at the market near a statue of Mutanabbi, a 10th century poet.

Baghdad’s security has improved since a sectarian war in 2006-2007 but many people have more pressing needs than books. Surviving economic hardship and inflation caused by Iraq’s loss of oil revenue and procuring fuel for generators are higher priorities.

“In 2003, business was booming. New book shops sprang up and books from abroad arrived,” said Hissam, sitting in his one-room shop amid books about politics, religion and academic subjects.

“Now people have no time to buy books,” he said.

In addition, higher customs duties to offset lower oil revenues has raised the cost of book imports and uncertainty following elections in May has hurt business, booksellers said.

“The number of people buying is not the same as before the election,” said bookseller Ahmed Hawi Ismail.

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