Baghdad’s historic bookselling and culture-rich Mutanabbi Street has lost its literary glow over the last few years with an ever-declining rate in book sales and readership, Arabic thinker Hamza Mustafa wrote.
Time didn’t change the street, though, even when it suffered an infamous 2007 bombing, which killed some 30 shoppers and destroyed Baghdad’s popular Shahbandar Cafe. The quick rebuilding of the area can be credited to an initiative launched by then-Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, Asharq al-Awsat reported.
Bookstores and stalls run along the street - named after the 10th-century classical Iraqi poet Al-Mutanabbi - on both sides. Booksellers put their books on display every Friday, a tradition upheld since the 1980s.
What distinguishes books displayed on the street is a variety of both old and modern writing, as well as a difference in prices. More so, Mutanabbi Street has often been referred to as the heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community.
Rare books or books that have run out of print in the market can often be found in Mutanabbi Street.
Despite the ever crowded street, vendors complain of a decline in book sales.
Salah al-Murhej, one of the oldest booksellers on the street, who as been working there since the 1990s, told Asharq Al-Awsat, “The problem we are facing now is that Mutanabbi Street lost its prime identity, of buying and selling books, to other enterprises.”
Murhej explained that the opening of a cultural center led to the organization of a series of events, conferences and symposiums. Several demonstrations have also been staged in the area.
All of this attracted large crowds, but most of the people were not interested in buying books as much as they were interested in taking part in whatever event was being hosted in the area, he added.
Dar al-Mada, a publishing house that boasts a library and newspaper, organizes workshops at Mutanabbi Street every Friday.
Al-Mada newspaper editor-in-chief Ali Hussein told Asharq Al-Awsat that the publishing house “has taken it upon itself to organize every Friday events that tackle cultural or artistic issues that attract the participation of specialists.”
“What distinguishes Mutanabbi Street today from the previous regime is the freedom to display and sell any books, including those that existed during Saddam Hussein's time,” said Satarr al-Shammari, who often frequents the street.
He explained that books revering Iraq’s executed leader are being put up for sale in today’s market, compared to a time when restrictions and censoring were imposed.
“At that time (during the Saddam regime), we could only obtain opposition books through very secretive ways,” he recalled.