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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)

The sectarian violence is also blemishing a place where Shiite and Sunni Muslims have always worked side by side. "I am Shiite," Ogaeli said. "All my daughters are married to Sunnis. And my son is married to a Sunni woman. No one used to mention Sunni and Shiite. This is all new to us."

When he thinks of the few lasting friendships he has left on Mutanabi Street, "I feel sad. I feel uncomfortable," said Ogaeli, his voice disappearing in the noise of the street outside.

On a recent Saturday, Hayawi and his older brother Nabil, both Sunni Muslims, sat at a neatly kept desk inside their store. On an iron staircase, next to a sign that read "40 to 50% off on all books," hung a portrait of their late father.

They were once five brothers. Four, including Nabil, left Iraq after the February bombing of a Shiite holy shrine in Samarra, which triggered an avalanche of reprisal killings. Nabil, who now lives in Cairo, travels back and forth to Baghdad. They said the family business was suffering. It took the first half of this year, Mohammad lamented, to earn what they did in one month after the invasion.

"We asked the new government to improve the street, like providing services and cleaning it," said Mohammad, puffing a cigarette. "What happened was the opposite. The street was neglected."

"It was better under Saddam," said Nabil, who is balding and has a sharp nose and a white beard. "On Fridays, even when we had electricity problems, they didn't switch the electricity off. There was a system and order."

He has always resented the U.S. occupation. But now he outright blames the Americans for the violence that is tearing apart their lives. "The Americans are the reasons for it. This is the truth. You must hear it. Sectarian strife is like a fire. When the fire starts, it eats everything."

A year ago, the store imported 1,000 boxes of books from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, said Nabil. Then he pointed at some boxes in a corner of the store. "Now, in August, we imported 20 boxes."

After the invasion, the family paid 6,000 Iraqi dinars for 20 liters of gasoline to use for their generator. Now, it costs 30,000 dinars. The government gives them electricity for one hour a day, Mohammad said. Now, it's not certain if they can get to work or return home safely, Mohammad said. He knew 25 merchants on the street who were either arrested for unknown reasons, kidnapped or killed.

"Yesterday, we were expecting today will be better. But today is worse than yesterday," Mohammad said. "Now, if you ask me, 'Are you optimistic?' I would say, 'No'. I don't have a single ounce of optimism."

A Dying Street

Across the street on a recent Wednesday, the century-old Shahbandar cafe, its walls covered with black-and-white photos of Baghdad, is empty, save for two men. They silently smoke their water pipes. It is 1:30 p.m.

"At this time, you could not find a place to sit down," said Fahim al-Khakshali, whose father owns this legendary cafe.


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