BAGHDAD. Protesters in Baghdad hold a sit-in to demand the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Detachments of counter-terrorist groups patrol the streets. A federal court is considering confirming the results of the parliamentary elections two months ago.
But on the territory of the Baghdad International Fair, almost no one cares about all this.
Inside is the Baghdad International Book Fair. It’s not even the larger book fair of the same name that the Iraqi government has sponsored for decades. But it’s still a book fair.
There, visitors enjoy the opportunity to browse rows of paperback and hardcover books stacked on tables in pavilions from different countries. Pose for a selfie in front of fake volumes glued together, folded so that the word “book” is spelled out. To revel in what for many Iraqis is the true, tenacious character of Baghdad, far removed from political turmoil and security concerns.
“There is a big gap between the people on the street and the political elite,” said Meisun al-Demluji, a former deputy minister of culture who attended the fair. “People on the street are not too interested in what is happening in politics.”
Ms Demludji, an architect, described a mini-renaissance in Baghdad’s culture, fueled by increased security and young people seeking to connect with the world.
“New generations are faced with ideas that were rejected by previous generations,” she said. “There’s so much going on here.”
In the fairgrounds in the fashionable Mansour district, some of the pavilions commonly used for trade shows have been converted to old Baghdad. Buses take out children in school uniforms on class trips. Groups of friends sit in the winter sun drinking Arabic coffee and espresso in street cafes.
Inside the pavilions, offerings from printers from all over the Arab world and beyond are presented. The Iranian publishing house offers sumptuous coffee tables that recount the wonders of the country’s culture.
At the kiosk of a Kuwaiti publishing house, psychiatrist Zainab al-Juri paid for books on ancient Mesopotamia and for a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, translated into Arabic. Most of the books in the counter were paperbacks.
“Reading is my therapy,” said Dr. Juri, 30, who works at a mental hospital.
Paperbacks are a distant second in the smell and feel of the old books that Dr. Juri loves the most. Still, she has been looking forward to the book fair for several months.
“It’s just nice to visit this place, even if I don’t buy any books,” she said.
Iraqis love books. “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads,” says an old proverb.
In the 1990s, my first reports in Baghdad were in a closed country. This was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – difficult to get into, and once you are there, difficult and dangerous to explore beneath the surface.
The United States has just expelled Saddam’s troops from Kuwait, and the United Nations has imposed massive trade sanctions against Iraq. In a former wealthy country, the shock of sudden poverty made the city and its inhabitants more difficult.
But in those rare glimpses behind the closed doors of people’s homes, books were often found – some houses have beautiful built-in wooden shelves, they were all readable, and almost every book treated its owner as a longtime friend.
Iraqis pride themselves on their ancient heritage as the heirs of the world’s first known civilizations along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The earliest known form of writing, cuneiform writing on clay, appeared in southern Iraq more than 5,000 years ago.
In the ninth century AD, in Baghdad – then the largest city in the world – translators at Bayt al-Hikmah, or the House of Knowledge, a huge library and intellectual center, were tasked with translating all important existing works into Arabic and promoting them further development. intellectual discussions. Scientists from all over the Abbasid empire, stretching from Central Asia to North Africa, came to the institute to do research and promote scientific progress.
Twelve centuries later, on al-Mutanabi Street, the love of books and ideas lives on in the Friday market, where vendors display used books for sale on the sidewalk in a tradition that is the heart of Baghdad’s traditional cultural life.
At a book fair in Baghdad, two booksellers sat under fairy lights hanging from the ceiling, next to a huge inflatable plastic snow ball with Santa Claus inside.
Hisham Nazar, 24, has degrees in finance and banking, but voluntarily works for Cemetery of Books. A prominent place on the shelves of exhibitions presented by the publisher is “American Nietzsche”, which tells about the influence of the German philosopher on the United States.
Mr. Nazar, 24, declared Nietzsche “the second greatest mind in the entire history of mankind.” The first, according to him, is Leonardo da Vinci.
He said the publishing house’s best-selling books are those of Iraqi writer Burhan Shawi, who has written a series of nine novels, including Baghdad Morgue, set against a backdrop of violence in post-war Baghdad. The turbulent and violent history of Iraq since the 2003 US invasion has been rich food for writers.
“The war has given the Iraqis a lot of material,” said Dr. Juri, a psychiatrist, adding that most of the visitors to the fair were young.
During the worst times in Iraq, books have been a source of comfort.
When the Islamic State took over part of Iraq in 2014 and declared the city of Mosul the capital of its caliphate, life in the country’s second-largest city, as the Iraqis knew it, virtually ended. Almost all books were banned, as well as music. In fact, women were attached to their homes. In the nearly three years that ISIS occupied the city, many people stayed at home and read surreptitiously.
At the First Reading Festival following the liberation of Mosul from ISIS, thousands of residents came to an event in a park that was once used to train militant children. Families with children, the elderly, young people all want to be able to read openly again.
Mr. Nazar, a bookseller at a fair in Baghdad, said that while many people now read e-books, he and many others prefer to hold books in their hands.
“When you open a paper book, it’s like a writer’s journey,” he said. “There is the soul of a writer in a paper book.”