BAGHDAD (Reuters) - “We have a saying: Cairo writes. Beirut prints. Baghdad reads,” says Abdul-Wahab Mizher al-Radi, proprietor of the House of Scientific Books, one of countless bookshops crammed along Baghdad’s Mutanabi Street.
Reading books, buying books and discussing books are the defining pleasures of being a Baghdad intellectual, and for generations the life of the mind has orbited around this lane, the booksellers’ market of the Iraqi capital.
Four years ago, in a blow felt deeply by Iraq’s intelligentsia, a car bomb killed 26 people here. Now, the street is again open, guarded and seemingly safe, and jammed every Friday with students, professors and professionals.
The street begins, overlooking the Tigris, at a statue of Mutanabi, a 10th century poet and one of the towering figures of Arabic literature. It runs past ransacked Ottoman-era government buildings into the heart of Baghdad’s old town.
“Mutanabi Street is the cultural catharsis point for Iraqis,” says al-Radi. “Mutanabi is a place where intellectuals of Iraq come, not just to buy books but to see the new place, to see the statue of Mutanabi, to meet friends on a Friday.”
The book business, which dwindled to nothing at the height of Iraq’s sectarian violence from 2006-07, is now booming like never before, he says.
“There has been a jump forward in demand for buying books, from students, intellectuals, the youth. Young people are looking for youthful books. Intellectuals are buying cultural books. Professionals and students are buying reference books.”
Baghdad is still not a normal city: explosions hit somewhere in the Iraqi capital every day, usually around dawn. But the black-masked militiamen of three or four years ago no longer control its neighbourhoods and the U.S. armoured convoys are off its streets.
Families now stroll in its riverside parks. Crowds turn out for bingo night at the social club. But there is perhaps no better sign of the city’s hunger to return to what it once was than the rebuilding of Mutanabi Street.
At the Shabandar Cafe, a landmark at the street’s end, old men puff on water pipes, sipping thick tea and scouring newspapers below portraits of Iraq’s old royal family. Parakeets languidly tweet in wooden cages hanging from the ceiling.
Black ribbons on portraits on the wall commemorate people killed in the explosion, but otherwise, says Hussein Ali Ismail, it is the same as he recalls from his youth, before dictator Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s wars sapped intellectual life.
“This is not a place where you gather. Here, it is the place that gathers you,” he explains in soft-spoken English with a faint Texas twang acquired in years working as an oil engineer.
“You are happy to see a writer from the newspaper. You like his column. And you are happy to talk to him, to exchange ideas. Anything that’s on your mind. To see your friends. To see the latest book issued,” he says.
Hassan Abbas, 61, who has worked in the cafe fetching tea and tending the coal in customers’ water pipes for 30 years, was out running an errand when the bombers struck. He ran back and found the sons of the cafe owner lying dead in the street.
“It was a criminal attack against humanity, against culture, against heritage,” he says. Today, the cafe is again as busy as it ever was, although it now closes at 3:00 in the afternoon instead of 10:00 at night as in the old days.
Many of the Mutanabi Street bookshops also function as publishing houses, printing up copies of whatever they think will sell. Al-Radi points to the stacks of books produced so far in 2011 by his publishing house, now for sale in his shop.
“Economics, Arabic language, energy and security, history, politics, psychology. The authors are Iraqi and the books are being printed here,” he says.
In the early days after the fall of Saddam Hussein, there was a surge of interest in religious books, and the most lavish editions in Mutanabi Street are of multi-volume religious tracts. But at al-Qairawan bookshop, proprietor Abu Ahmed said sectarian war had sapped demand for religious books.
Interest lately was in secular subjects, such as human resources, development, politics, history and linguistics. He has noticed a surge lately in customers interested in Marxism.
Most of the books are still written by authors elsewhere in the region, but Iraqi authors are beginning to write too, especially exiled Iraqis writing abroad, he said.
Back at the Shabandar Cafe, Dr Nabeel al-Qaisi, a cardiologist who now lives in Australia but is visiting Iraq for a month, has come to soak up the life he remembers as a youth, amid the pictures of the old royal family on the wall.
“I feel like I am in old, ancient Baghdad, like before, when there was peace.... I have many friends. So many of them died. I am very sad that one day I will come here and I will be alone.” (Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary, Editing by Jeffrey Heller)