x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Iraq's literary city turns over a new leaf

If the famous Huwaish book market in this holy city is anything to go by, a quiet liberal intellectual renaissance is under way in Najaf.

A Shiite religious scholar buys a book at a street stall in the Huwaish book market in Najaf, which was established about 750 years ago.
A Shiite religious scholar buys a book at a street stall in the Huwaish book market in Najaf, which was established about 750 years ago.

NAJAF, IRAQ // If the famous Huwaish book market in this holy city is anything to go by, a quiet liberal intellectual renaissance is under way in Najaf. The market, established about 750 years ago, is doing booming business of late, and increasingly the texts are scientific or political, rather than religious. Traders are even selling risque romantic novels, which are proving to be a hit with women.

"There are thousands and thousands of titles available here, everything from religion, science, history and novels," said Marwan Zyadi, a shop owner. "And they cover most subjects, everything from high culture and theory to books that talk about life, sex and love." With the Middle East more commonly associated with censorship, it might seem unexpected that in a revered centre of Islamic learning - Najaf is considered one of the holiest centres for Shiite Muslims - such an unrestricted wealth of reading material is available.

But it is firmly within the Huwaish tradition to sell controversial books. At the turn of the 20th century, Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species was often on the shelves, and a source of much discussion among Islamic scholars who were seeking to engage with the wider world and modern western scientific thought. A similar spirit exists in one of the main Islamic teaching academies in Najaf, near the famous Imam Ali shrine. The Hazamar al Ghawamir library has Arabic translations of both the Bible and the Torah, which Muslim theology students are expected to read to better understand Christianity, Judaism and, as a result, Islam.

"Huwaish has always been a place for young people and intellectuals, it is a place to get rare books," said Mohammed Jassim, who runs one of the market's shops. "The market has been getting stronger in recent years and even though it is not physically the biggest book market, it has always had a reputation as being unique in the types of book you can get here." This openness is supported by some local leaders, who said they considered it a critical part of the country's educational development. They spoke of their pride at seeing Iraqi women out buying books, even if they were romantic potboilers.

"There has been great interest among women recently to purchase historical, religious and romantic books," said Sheikh Ali al Saadi, a local tribal leader. "This makes us happy. We want to encourage Iraqi women to evolve not only in the field of religion but in other areas. Islam gives Muslim women the right to self-development and education, and it gives us the right to look to foreign cultures which is something that happens through books.

"What is happening in the market is certainly a positive change, it is a quantum leap for the people of Najaf." Sheikh Mazhar al Awadi, another tribal leader, said the increased sales of science texts and novels alongside religious books undermined stereotypes that presented Islam as an intolerant religion. "The ancient market here is well known for the sale of religious books, and sells to all students of religion in Iraq and the Islamic states," he said. "But recently, the market has turned towards the sale of romance books, Arabic translations of western novels, poetry, love stories and Arabic novels.

"This indicates a major development has taken place among readers, not only in Najaf, but in all Iraqi cities and I am happy for this because the Iraqi people are heading towards openness and the Islamic religion does not prevent or restrict the books that they would like to read." According to market traders, religious books formed the bulk of sales during the years under Saddam Hussein's rule, a pattern that has been heavily reversed.

"During Saddam's regime, religious books made up 98 per cent of books in the shops, but now the proportion of non-religious books has exceeded 80 per cent," said Mr Jassim, the bookstore owner. "The fall of the former regime and its restrictions has contributed to the changing trends of readers and reading patterns." Under the former regime there were also hundreds of blacklisted books that it was illegal to own or sell in Iraq. Despite the ban and the threat of severe punishment if caught with prohibited texts, some booksellers and collectors in Huwaish used to keep secret libraries rather than destroy books.

"In the past, we focused on religious and historical books and some of the academic texts," Mr Zyadi said. "Security agents were preventing the sale of some books, and at one point, there were more than 850 forbidden texts. Some owners of private libraries buried the books in graves or vaults under the ground, to escape the eyes of the secret police. Many books were damaged in this way, others were thrown away."

nlatif@thenational.ae