A bear of a man, with an exuberance that matches his girth, Mohammed Hayawi looked over one shoulder, then the other. He glanced up at shelves eight rows high, and down at dusty stacks spilling across his bookstore, some a dozen deep.
There were books by communist poets and martyred clerics, translations of Shakespeare, a 44-volume tome by a revered ayatollah and tales of Gertrude Bell, a British archaeologist and adventurer. Along the window were books on Iraq's recent past: "What Happened in Baghdad," "The Secret Life of Saddam" and "The American Empire and the Invasion of Iraq."
With security a festering problem, Iraqis this week waited in line to be searched at a checkpoint in central Baghdad.
(Thaier Al-sudani -- Reuters)
Hayawi shook his head. He shrugged his burly shoulders. None of them can describe his country, nor his time.
"Not one book," Hayawi said. He squinted his eyes, a look of suspicion tempered by a mercurial smile.
There's a phrase that Hayawi has uttered often over the past two years. He has said in times that are good and bad, chaotic and, more rarely, subdued: "I challenge anyone to say what has happened, what is happening now and what will happen in the future."
In interviews every few months, beginning before the U.S. invasion in March 2003, Hayawi, now 41, has watched the fate of his country unfold with fear that turned to anger, and resentment that melted into resignation, bound together by a resilience that is perhaps this country's defining trait. Resilience can mean many things -- fatalism, endurance, persistent hope and an ability to make the unusual normal.
Hayawi's story is neither stirring nor tragic, but rather quiet -- the conflicted reflections of one man, a prominent bookseller in Baghdad on a journey through tumult in a country that he, like his fellow citizens, struggles even now to understand.
Hayawi is an Iraqi who resents the U.S. occupation but voted in the election the United States backed. He is a devout Muslim, but fears the rise of religion in politics. He is a Sunni who resists identifying himself as such, even as he is forced to do so more and more. And from behind his desk, over cups of excessively sweet tea, cigarettes that never stop burning and a water pipe that is delivered every day after lunch, he watches the very complexion of his country transform -- in books, conversations and politics, sometimes in the most subtle of ways. Iraq changes even as the rhythm of its life remains the same.
In streets more tattered than ever, there is the inspirational: posters of voters with their ink-stained fingers, a testament to their courage in defying insurgent threats to disrupt the election. And there is the grim: rubble crafted by the bombs of the U.S. invasion that mixes with the birds' nests of steel rods, concrete slabs and twisted girders left by the more recent destructiveness of car bombs.
Outside Hayawi's bookstore are the lasting scars of looting that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Inside, he celebrates an inventory in which "the prohibited has become permitted." He points to celebrated freedoms that Iraqis will probably never surrender. And in the same breath, he glumly asks any customer who will listen, "Can Iraqis live on freedom alone?"
The Renaissance Bookstore is on Mutanabi Street, a stretch of bookstores and stationery shops that is as storied as it is narrow. For a generation or more, the street, named after one of the Arab world's greatest poets, served as the capital's intellectual entrepot. Under international sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, with Hussein still in power, it embodied the capital's plight.
Its stores were lined with textbooks from another generation and dust-covered religious tomes that seemed more for show than for sale. (Displayed outside Hayawi's store was a copy of Business Week from June 29, 1987. "Who's Afraid of IBM?" the cover read.) More often than not, the street was a dreary, depressing flea market for used books. Vendors sold off their private collections in a desperate attempt to get by, as Iraq's already feeble economy descended further into misery.
It was five months before the U.S. invasion. Hayawi smiled, but was tired and unshaven, the hue of the heavy bags under his eyes deepening as the day wore on.