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Violence Changes Fortunes Of Storied Baghdad Street

Naim al-Shatri, a bookseller on Baghdad's Mutanabi Street since 1963, said the violence plaguing the city
Naim al-Shatri, a bookseller on Baghdad's Mutanabi Street since 1963, said the violence plaguing the city "means the death of education, the death of the history of the street, the death of the culture of Baghdad." (By Naseer Nouri For The Washington Post)

Then, in a reverent tone, he uttered a proverb known across the Arab world: "Cairo writes. Beirut publishes. And Baghdad reads."

A Futile Protest

Since 1963, Shatri has peddled books on Mutanabi Street, like a faithful friend, through military rule and political oppression, wars and embargo. Of all the eras he has watched ebb and flow, it is today's Iraq, with its violent nature, that most mocks the proud legacy of Mutanabi Street, he said.

"It means the death of education, the death of the history of the street, the death of the culture of Baghdad," Shatri said.

Two Fridays ago, Shatri took action. He and other members of his writers union gathered in front of his shop. They sipped breakfast tea. Then, at around 9:30 a.m., they poured kerosene over a pile of books and set them aflame.

"I cried when I was burning the books," Shatri said.

"It's a message to the government," said Nakshabandi, who also took part. "It's an S.O.S. Help us. An important part of Baghdad is dying. And it is on its last breath."

"But no one got the message. There was no action."

'Better Under Saddam'

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, once-banned Western magazines were displayed openly. Religious books, especially those catering to Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite Muslims, flourished. Hayawi, a burly man with intense, honey-colored eyes, said what the booksellers earned on Fridays was double all the other days combined. Back then, he was optimistic about his future.

Now, the street is still a hive of activity on every other day. But poor security has altered its character, said many of its old booksellers. Before the invasion, they used to stay open till evening. No longer.

"By 2 p.m., we close our shops and run away fast," said Abdullah Gumar al-Ogaeli, 85, who opened a stationery shop in 1947. Thin and frail with a gray mustache, Ogaeli said he knew about 200 merchants in the months after the invasion. Now, he knows three. Some died of natural causes, others lost their lives to the violence.

Several booksellers, he said, were kidnapped by gunmen, but were later released. In Baghdad, the elite and the educated are often targets of criminals, who seek ransom, and of extremists, who seek to shred the city's cultural and intellectual fabric. "Many of our merchants have left Iraq and opened shops in Egypt, Syria and Jordan," said Ogaeli. "The business is weak now."

Today, a new generation of merchants sells paper and other supplies. Several original booksellers said the newcomers were looters who thrived during the chaos of the invasion. Now, they have tarnished the legacy of Mutanabi Street, they said. "At work, I am always honest," said Ogaeli, who calls Mutanabi Street "a holy name."


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