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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.

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"We opened our eyes in this bookstore," recalled Najah al-Hayawi, 62, the eldest brother.

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So enchanted was Nabil that he attended law school at night rather than miss working at the bookstore. He became one of Iraq's youngest judges. After their father died in 1993, the brothers inherited the shop and later opened their own bookstores.

After the U.S.-led invasion, freedom coursed through Mutanabi Street. Booksellers openly displayed Shiite religious texts, extremist Sunni Wahhabi literature and Western magazines depicting scantily clad women. Once, that would have brought prison sentences. But Iraq's growing chaos spawned disillusionment. The government imposed a Friday curfew. Sales plummeted. Many booksellers fled Iraq.

The Hayawi family dispersed to Beirut, Damascus and Cairo. One brother, Dhafer, moved to Cairo after kidnappers targeted his son. But Nabil and his brothers kept their homes in Baghdad, traveling back and forth to manage the shop.

Mohammad, the youngest, never left. On a sweltering day in September 2006, the bearlike man politely apologized during an interview for the lack of electricity to power the air conditioner.

"When we go home after work, there's no guarantee we'll get home safely," he said. "And when we come to work in the morning, there's no guarantee we'll get here safely."

'Swimming in the Fire'

In Nabil al-Hayawi's house, in the capital's Mansour neighborhood, photos of Nabil's father at the Renaissance with his young children are displayed in a glass case. On a bookshelf are photos of Nabil's son, Yahye, and Mohammad, his brother. When Nabil recalled March 5, 2007, he broke into uncontrollable tears.

At 8:30 a.m. that day, Nabil and two workers were packing books to ship to the northern city of Irbil. Yahye, his 25-year-old-son, was working two doors down in the Legal Bookshop, started by Nabil's father.

A chemical engineer, Yahye had inherited his father's love of books, turning down a scholarship abroad so he could run the shop. The following week, he was to be engaged.

At 11:40 a.m., a car exploded in front of Nabil's shop.

"I thought that I was shot," he recalled. In the darkness, from under the rubble of the shop, he heard Mohammad calling: "People take us out! The fire is coming!"

Riddled with shrapnel, Nabil uttered the shehada, a prayer Muslims say before they die. He felt the heat, smelled the smoke. "I told myself, 'If God wants me to live, I must stand up,' " Nabil recalled. He slowly pushed aside chunks of concrete and toppled bookshelves.


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