Book-selling on Mutanabbi Street: texts from vital sidewalks

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Pedestrians browse titles on al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad's famed cultural hub. AFP

By: Hussam al-Saray

Published Friday, November 14, 2014

Al-Mutanabbi is an open book, bearing symbols that are deeply etched into the body of today’s Baghdad. The street has no endpoint. It does not start from Rasheed Street and end at the statue of Abu Tayeb al-Mutanabbi – after whom the street was named – or at the Tigris River. It is a text that carries names, memories, and accounts scattered along the ground or on the wooden stands that cover the most famous pavements in the Iraqi capital.

Baghdad – As you walk onto the street, you see stacks of books carrying familiar titles, and others with odd titles you would not expect to find every Friday morning. Frequent visitors of the street come from al-Karkh, Rusafa, and other provinces of Iraq to find valuable book editions. They are attracted by the sounds of vendors: a book for 1,000 or 2,000 Iraqi dinars (less than $2). For these sellers, the books are no more than a business deal or transaction. The writings on old cloth banners or empty flour bags they use to separate their goods are of no relevance to them.

Amidst the calls [of booksellers] and the weekly flipping of books, you would find poetry books, such as “Praise of Nature” by Abdelrahman Thmaza (Dar Culture, 1986), “Pity of a Tempest” by Hasab Sheikh Jaafar (Dar Culture, 1988), “We” by Salah Niazi (Ministry of Culture, 1978), and “Ashes of Bereavement” by Sami Mahdi (Al-Basri Publishing House, 1966). These “1,000 dinars per book” sellers do not know any of these authors, and they have probably not read a single line of their books. Their relation to the papers and poems is purely commercial. They would buy them from the family of a reader who passed away, or an immigrant who decided to sell all their belongings, including their books.

The sale of specific books at a higher price is usually not related to value. It depends on the overall “deal” (in reference to deals where a person sells all their belongings).

You would come across books you never imagined to find, such as “Selected Poems of Modern International Poetry,” translated by Badr Shaker Sayyab. Months later, you would find, “Full Poetry Collection of Saint-John Perse” translated by Adonis (Ministry of Culture in Damascus, 1978). You worry that the books of Sayyab would get damaged before those of his Syrian colleague. The two poets met in Beirut during the 1950s, where they worked at the “Poetry” magazine. You would find books translated by them lying side-by-side on a sidewalk in Baghdad, next to other books, while the owners are often unaware of the importance of these authors, dates, and titles.

You would also find “The Time of the Assassins” by Henry Miller, and translated by Saadi Youssef (Arab Institution for Studies and Publishing, 1979). Such rare books are often sold by people who decide to quickly liquidate their personal book collections. You would be surprised to find the signatures of renowned authors on the first pages of these books, signed 20 or 30 years ago, or dedications by writers to colleagues who are today regular visitors of the street.

You wonder: How could they possibly abandon their books, along with the personal dedications in them?

Another type of book-selling at Mutanabbi Street involves obtaining important books from various publishing houses, or displaying the products of certain publishing houses, such as the Dar al-Jamal or Dar Mesopotamia.

A look at the books published by Dar al-Jamal brings to mind translated books by Azar Nafisi, Lautreamont, and Nietzsche; poems by Sarkoun Boulos, Fadel al-Azzawi, and Saadi Youssef; and studies conducted by Said Ghanimi, Salam Abboud, and Jamal Hallaq.

While walking along the street, which has recovered after the explosion that rocked it in 2007, you recall the Sumerian proverb with which Sarkoun opens his book, “Another Bone for the Tribe’s Dog” (Dar Al-Jamal, 2008): “The city that does not have guard dogs is ruled by jackals.”

Each stall carries a story related to the vendor. The section that includes books by the late author Naim Shatri is a pre-launch ahead of the weekly auctions he has held in front of his library since the 1990s, where he used to say: “A house without a library is a barren desert inhabited by ignorant people.”

Previously, these stalls served as platforms to challenge censorship and the authorities under the Saddam regime. At the time, security personnel would monitor vendors who displayed banned books – namely religious and leftist publications – and books by authors who are prohibited from entering Iraq. Book-sellers and street-vendors were frequently dragged to prison by security personnel.

Today, the statue of Saddam Hussein has been destroyed, and the street has become free. Any library or street-vendor can buy any books he wants and display them before the people.

There are two types of book displays: Some offer books at a fixed liquidation price (1,000-2,000 dinars), while others provide new publications at varying prices. However, the vendors differ: While some sell books just to make a living, others are educated and well-read, and their presence in Mutanabbi Street has helped widen their knowledge.

I met Ahmed Abadi, a vendor stationed at the left side of the street. I checked out the books he has on display. A young man asked him about the novel, “Baghdad Mail” by Jose Miguel Paras. He apologized because the book is unavailable. Abadi said he was familiar with the novel, which tells the story of a bunch of papers that were left behind in a drawer at a newspaper editor’s office in Chile. He adds that they are “letters from Baghdad,” and talks about the coup staged by [Augusto] Pinochet against [Salvador] Allende.

Abadi believes that the street-vending phenomenon became popular after the 1991 Gulf War, driven forward by intellectuals who started to sell their books, or engage in the buying and selling of books in the streets and providing banned ones.

“Street-vending underwent two stages after April 2003. First, an initial heightened interest by the people and intellectuals stemming from a desire to know the truth and different opinions, followed by a decline of interest due to instability, such as the economic situation, popular disappointment over what’s happening in the country, and the spread of social media,” he opined.

After a discussion about the Chilean dictatorship and its relation to the current situation in the Arab world, I spotted a group of young men gathered around the vending space of Abu Bilal (Star Mohsen), who offers new books printed by publishing houses such as Dar Al-Saqi and Dar Al-Jadid.

I encountered the poet Nidal Al-Qadi, who describes the relationship between street-vending, and writers and intellectuals as “organic.”

“Many had to stand on the sidewalk and sell their books, and that is why Baghdad was a pioneer and ahead of Arab capitals in the reproduction [of books] due to street-vending and high books prices,” Qadi argued.

She describes the street, its visitors, and books as a “unique cultural phenomenon.”

“[It is] a free space that distracts us from the worries and sorrows at our homes. It is Baghdad’s shelter away from all that which hurts her, and haunts her with murder, looting and pain,” she said.

On the other side of the street, where Adnan, Al-Nahda, and Al-Qamousi libraries are located, you come across Tawfiq al-Tamimi, a writer and journalist. He holds special memories of what he calls, “the plight of the sidewalk memory.”

He recalls his human-cultural ordeal and book-selling days in the street over two decades ago. “The book-selling sidewalk, which appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was a form of cultural innovation to confront crises. Naturally, the sidewalks became a haven for avid readers amid suffocating isolation from the world and modern developments, [it was] a nightmarish atmosphere that poisoned cultural life, imposed by a mad regime that committed a series of never-ending blunders.”

The street tour ends at Caesarea Bank, a sub-entrance to a courtyard where visitors hang out surrounded by a number of libraries and vending spots.

In his book space, Karim Hanash, owner of Al-Hanash library, does not only offer books for sale. He plays songs by Umm Kulthum, Mayada Hinnawi, Yas Khodr, Saadoun Jaber, and Karim Mansour. You will also see a banner carrying a lines from the poetry of Muthafar Nawwab, an obituary for popular artist Fouad Salem, or from the popular poet Kazim Ismail Kati.

Hanash believes that the relationship between intellectuals and street-vending has drastically changed “as many no longer come to Mutanabbi Street as frequently due to preoccupation or a reluctance to visit the street, which has become ostentatious lacking any intellectual depth, and reinforces integration into the dominant political and religious institutions.”

He added that the rare books, which “were very hard to obtain, and were provided by intellectuals living abroad and exchanged secretly out of fear of the security apparatuses, can no longer be found due to the availability of multiple sources.”

“There are a few exceptions where rare philosophy books, or old editions of Iraqi and international poetry books can be accidentally found in some book spaces,” he said.
“The reproduction of books is still common, specifically books on which buyers take commission [from publishers], leading to a price increase. Since a large number of readers would no longer afford these books, we reproduce them, especially if a single book costs over 15,000 Iraqi dinars ($13). After reproduction, the price becomes 7,000 dinars, almost half the price.”

As I spoke with Hanash, young men could be seen in the distance heading toward Shahbandar Café, carrying lutes and guitars.

“The identity of the street has also changed as you can see, from a street that sells books to a weekly festival full of ideas, trends, and commodities, like Souk Okaz where contests used to be held between writers, politicians, and institutions,” he mused.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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