A Baghdad Bookseller, Bound to His Country

Tragedy hit one of Baghdad's literary centers last year when a bomb exploded on Mutanabi Street, destroying shops and lives. One year later, the city's bookstores are opening once again.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 12, 2008

BAGHDAD Upstairs, the blue bedroom door of Nabil al-Hayawi's only son was locked, sealing in the artifacts of his short life. Downstairs, the frail bookseller's voice quivered as he recalled the car bombing that killed his son and his brother and razed his family's bookshop on Baghdad's storied Mutanabi Street. More than a year later, Hayawi has not entered the bedroom.

He, too, almost died that day. After five operations, he has trouble standing up. His left arm hangs limp. He takes seven pills a day to cope with aches and depression. Shrapnel is still lodged in his body, posing new threats.

But decades of dictatorship, war and international sanctions, followed by five years of occupation, insurgency and sectarian strife, have not defeated the Hayawis. "If you live with fears, how can you live?" said Hayawi, 60, seated at his desk in his spacious, book-lined home on a recent sun-dappled day.

In the long anthology of Iraq's tragedies, the Hayawis represent the promise of the country's future. Despite their grief, they tenaciously refuse to surrender to the current turmoil. They belong to the fading but still influential group of middle-class Iraqis who are alarmed by their society's sectarian fissures and emerging Islamic identity and determined to preserve its cosmopolitan, secular nature.

In a country hobbled by a lack of basic services, high unemployment and scarce foreign investment, the family stands for a vibrant alternative. Violence has driven out more than 2 million people, draining Iraq of skilled professionals, but the rebuilt bookshop remains, an engine for fresh ideas and intellectual growth. Every day on Mutanabi Street, a Hayawi sells books, educating a new contingent of lawyers, doctors and computer programmers.

The Hayawis stay in Iraq out of nostalgia, nationalism and a sense of tradition, as well as economic necessity. When U.S. troops withdraw someday, Iraq will depend on families like theirs to rebuild itself, physically and psychologically.

"Iraq is my soul," the bald, silver-bearded Hayawi said. "I go and come back. But I will never leave."

Steward of Culture

In the soft morning light, the Muslim call to prayer rises from a mosque as old as Mutanabi Street itself. It floats across the warren of crumbling Ottoman-era buildings and dark alleys, past the green shutters of the Renaissance Bookshop.

Founded in 1957 by Abdul Rahman al-Hayawi, a mild-mannered Sunni Muslim with an appreciation for Arabic calligraphy, the Renaissance is the oldest bookshop on a street that has preserved a literary tradition through empire, colonialism and monarchy.

Most of the 1,246-year-old city of Baghdad was destroyed over the centuries, battered by nature and war, leaving its past glories known only to memory. Since the looting of the city's museums after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, one of the few remaining stewards of the capital's culture and history is Mutanabi Street, named for a 10th-century poet whose verses Iraqis still quote from memory.

Every weekend, starting on Fridays, thousands of Baghdadis used to descend on Mutanabi Street to buy from booksellers of every sect and religion, fulfilling a popular Arab saying: "Cairo writes. Beirut publishes. Baghdad reads."

Here, Abdul Rahman imparted his love of books to his five sons and four daughters, bringing them to the street when they were infants.

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