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Iraqi bookstore on wheels arouses suspicions in the streets of Baghdad

The mobile bookstore is the latest in a series of efforts by the 25-year-old to share his passion for reading and revive a love for books in Baghda – once the literary capital of the Muslim world but now better known for bombs than poetry.
Ali Al Moussawi, right, the owner of a mobile book lorry, arranges his books on a street in Baghdad, Iraq. Karim Kadim/AP Photo
Ali Al Moussawi, right, the owner of a mobile book lorry, arranges his books on a street in Baghdad, Iraq. Karim Kadim/AP Photo

BAGHDAD // The Iraqis guarding Baghdad’s many checkpoints, on the lookout for car bombs and convoys, don’t know what to make of Ali Al Moussawi when he pulls up in a lorry displaying shelves of glossy books.

The mobile bookshop is the latest in a series of efforts by the 25-year-old to share his passion for reading and revive a love for books in Baghdad — once the literary capital of the Muslim world but now better known for bombs than poetry.

It began with Iraqi Bookish, a Facebook group for readers that launched in 2015. Eventually, he moved on to organising book clubs, contests, signing sessions and writing seminars held at cultural centres and cafes.

“I adore reading,” said Mr Al Moussawi, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English translation. “I have long wanted to meet people like me, so I was thinking of creating something where all readers could gather at any time, regardless of where they are.”

He eventually took to selling books to finance the cultural activities, opening a bookstand in a Baghdad mall that offers a delivery service and designing bookshelves and other book-themed gifts.

Now he finds himself steering a bookstore on wheels through Baghdad’s snarled traffic, past its checkpoints, barbed wire and blast walls. Security forces often insist on searching his lorry, for fear that it could contain explosives, and finding somewhere to park can mean prolonged negotiations.

The world’s greatest poets flocked to Baghdad after it was established as the capital of the Abbasid Empire in the 8th century AD, but its cultural flowering ended with the Mongol conquest of 1258. Iraq’s modern education system, richly financed by oil wealth in the 1970s, was subsequently decimated by years of war and sanctions.

The city still takes pride in its literary heritage. The Al Mutanabbi market in central Baghdad, named after a 10th century poet, hosts a bustling second hand book fair every Friday.

The Shahbandar cafe, in the heart of the bazaar, remains a popular haunt for writers and intellectuals, who gaze upon black and white photos from more peaceful times.

Mr Al Moussawi has found plenty of customers. He says his business brings in a monthly income of up to US$4,000 (Dh14,700) and that he has hired four paid workers.

But he must change the books on offer depending on where he goes in the city, which is still deeply divided by the sectarian violence that erupted after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Sunnis and Shiites gravitate toward their own religious texts, and in Sunni areas biographies of Saddam Hussein remain popular.

He recalls a time in the Sunni neighbourhood of Azamiyah when a man in his 50s ran up to the lorry and grabbed an Arabic translation of Saddam: The Secret Life by the British journalist Con Coughlin. The man’s eyes filled with tears as he kissed the cover.

Many Sunnis still revere Saddam — who was executed in 2006 — and blame the violence and chaos of recent years on the American invasion and the Shiite-dominated government that was established in its wake.

One recent afternoon, Mr Al Moussawi drove to an upmarket neighbourhood and parked at a mall near the University of Baghdad. There the clientele was mainly students, so he put out textbooks, novels and poetry in different languages, and celebrity biographies.

Salma Abdul Karim, a 25-year old student, said her passion for reading came from growing up in a family of poetry lovers, but on that afternoon she opted for a biography of Oprah Winfrey.

“I love biographies because they tell you about the experiences a person went through so you can benefit from it,” she said.

* Associated Press

Updated: April 18, 2017 04:00 AM

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