BAGHDAD — Bathed in the rainbow-colored light of an old Baghdadi window, Ali al-Makhzomy explained his plan to get technology-obsessed young Iraqis to read books — old-fashioned books, with pages.
Outside the cafe where he sat, concrete blocks protect businesses from car bombs. Eleven years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, young people who despair of a future in Iraq are still trying to emigrate. Many of those who remain hope that their country will someday emerge as a new version of ultra-modern, oil-rich Dubai.
Makhzomy, 26, said he and his friends would prefer to take Baghdad back to a more elegant past.
“We really want Baghdad in the 1930s or ’40s or ’50s to return. It was more civilized,” he said. “How do we know? We read about it.”
In a room on the second floor of the wood-paneled al-Atrakchi House cafe, Makhzomy is starting an informal public library with about 800 books to encourage the clientele to take time to read — and escape the world outside.
Bombings have been common in Baghdad for so long that violence is almost less of a concern to many Iraqis than the sheer difficulty of daily life in a militarized city. Traffic jams due to road closures and checkpoints have turned Makhzomy’s bus ride to work into a 11 / 2-hour ordeal each way. When Makhzomy reads books on his iPad, people ask what he is doing.
“I tell them, ‘I’m reading. You should try it,’ ” he said.
It has not always been this way. Iraq is the land where writing was invented, and Baghdad is famous for its book market. But basic literacy has plummeted, and strict security measures at nearly every establishment mean few people can easily walk off the street into a library.
Baghdad’s famous Mutanabi Street, where merchants set out piles of used books on Fridays, has been mostly rebuilt after a devastating bombing seven years ago. Crowds show up for poetry readings and cultural events on weekends. But on a recent day, there were more young men crowded around a stall selling fake designer sunglasses than there were buying books.
On a nearby street, an elderly bookseller in a suit and tie was surrounded by shelves of books, but no buyers.
“Young people don’t read anymore,” he lamented.
Makhzomy is not among them. He said he inherited his love of books from his mother and his father, a lab technician who died in 2001 and left behind many of the books that now make up his son’s collection.
Makhzomy, who works at the government’s Ministry of Culture, is funding the project on his own. He first tried it in a modern cafe in the glitzy new Mansour Mall, Baghdad’s first large shopping center, but he found patrons there more interested in shopping than in culture. He has since relocated most of the books — some in Arabic, some in English — to al-Atrakchi House, where the owner has re-created the atmosphere of historical Baghdad cafes.
“In Baghdad, we have maybe 1,600 houses from the 18th century, but there is no preservation,” said Abdul Razak al-Atrakchi, whose family has sold antiques and carpets in Iraq for more than a century. “Nobody cares about heritage.”
He opened the cafe six months ago in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour, adorning it with antique windows, doors and tiles he had collected from the market. Wooden benches covered with cushions are arranged around traditional Baghdadi tables inlaid with flowered ceramic tiles.
Upstairs, in a room lined with beveled mirrors, elegantly dressed men and women who remember the old Baghdad — their average age appeared to be about 70 — listened to a lecture on poetry.
Makhzomy and Atrakchi say they believe that if literary culture again became part of everyday life, Iraq’s younger generation could rebuild the country.
The library that Makhzomy is starting includes books from his own collection and dozens from a social media instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University, where Makhzomy went on a U.S. government-sponsored summer exchange program two years ago. The collection includes books on history and politics, poetry and novels.
He said he was given books at the Baghdad International Book Fair but rejected many of them because they were religious texts emphasizing adherence to Islamic law.
“The society we want to support is liberal, where democracy rules and you can say whatever you want,” Makhzomy said. “We are trying to get all kinds of books here, but we want to encourage youth to be open-minded.”
Many of Makhzomy’s friends have immigrated to the West or have applied for refugee status. Makhzomy himself has every reason to leave.
In 2005, his older brother was kidnapped. Makhzomy’s family paid part of the ransom demanded but never heard from the abductors again.
“From that time, we haven’t had any news, but I haven’t lost hope,” Makhzomy said.
In addition to the library, he has formed a group of volunteers to clean up historic places and introduce young Iraqis to museums.
“You find many young people who say, ‘I just want to leave Iraq,’ ” Makhzomy said. “They see violence everywhere, no respect for the law, traffic jams . . . but when we do these cultural activities, we link Iraq’s heritage to their hearts.”
That will, he believes, “give them a reason to stay.”