Monday, March 19, 2007

A Tale of Two Booksellers, Iraqi Edition

Like most literary-minded readers, I spend my share of time bemoaning the closing of small, independent bookstores. I still miss the late, lamented Wordsworth in Harvard Square, and celebrate the continued existence of local indies like the Harvard Book Store, Porter Square Books, and Brookline Booksmith. All three of these stores support local writers, have readings, and stock interesting books. But the truth is that, I don't live in Cambridge or Brookline, and my local bookstore is Borders. Which I have to admit I actually like. They have good selection and excellent service and don't appear to mind browsers. So that's where I do most of my book-buying.

But all that gnashing of teeth over the loss of the indies is put nicely in perspective by an AP article by Hamza Hendawi that appeared in yesterday's Boston Globe on the plight of Iraqi book lovers, book buyers, and two Baghdad booksellers, Atallah Zeidan and Mohammed Hanash Abbas.

A few weeks ago, the news was of a suicide bombing in Baghdad's book market, in which 38 people (and counting) were killed and over 100 wounded.

The bookstore that Zeidan and Abbas had so optimistically dreamed would expand and flower post-Saddam, managed to survive the bombing with the loss of a window.  But "the book market, a favorite haunt of the Baghdad intelligentsia, was wrecked."

Their bookstore, called Iqra'a, the Arabic imperative for "read," is on the second floor of a dusty, garbage-strewn and mostly empty mall. It sells secondhand books and lends poor students volumes in English, French and German for a small fee.

The books survived [the bombing] and Iqra'a remains open for business...

The place still smelled of burned flesh. Books on law, philosophy and religion, some torn or stained by soot, were scattered on the ground. On the walls were black banners announcing victims' names and funeral dates. One listed five members of the same family.

As Zeidan notes in the article, "They can replace the books and rebuild the shops but where are they going to find people who know about books?" Abbas, his partner, is hopeful that the stepped up American security efforts will work out and the book market will survive/revive. But both partners live in fear of being kidnapped, and have lost friends and family.

"We are still staying afloat, barely," Zeidan said in November. "July was not good, August was worse and September was miserable."

Still, Abbas wasn't giving up hope. In a voice barely audible over the clatter of low-flying helicopters, he said: "We may be hurt but we are not defeated."

With all the thousands who have died in the war - our soldiers, their civilians, and, yes, plenty of bad guys - it seems somewhat trivial to focus on the fortunes of a couple of Iraqi booksellers.

But there is something heart-wrenching about their efforts to make a living, to keep alive the opportunity for Iraqis to keep exploring the universe beyond their terror-riddent world, to indulge in the oh-so-peaceful practice of curling up with a good book.

Year ago, I saw a movied called The White Rose, which was based on a true story of some German university students who, during the war, worked in opposition to the Nazi regime - and paid with their lives. One scene I remember most clearly showed heroine Sophie Scholl buying stamps to mail out her group's leaflets. She had to pretend that they were for sending out a death notice about her brother - otherwise, her large stamp purchase would have been noted by the Gestapo. Another scene showed the difficulty in purchasing paper: what possible legitimate need would someone have for a ream of paper. And so terror can grip a society and oppress that society's people down to the most take-for-granted activity: buying stamps, buying paper.

Iraq is not, of course, Nazi Germany. The terror the Iraqis live with it is different, but still oppressive. The thought of losing your life while looking for a good book to read.

Of all sad things I've read about the impact of the war on the Iraqi people, this tale is one of the saddest.


Jill said...

That is sad, Maureen. I was just talking to somebody this morning about how small book shops are being ousted by their bigger counterparts, like B&N and Borders. It got me thinking: Are there even smaller bookshops around me locally that I could go to? I'm going to have to research to find out. There's one up here in Acton called Willow Books... but other than that, I'm not sure where else I could go.

While it is convenient to have one of the bigger bookstores closeby, it's not so great to have to wait in line and not have that 'personal touch' like at a smaller shop. Plus, I like giving my money to a smaller business to keep them afloat!

Praveen said...

Hi Maureen and Jill:

That's a really good post about the sad but heroic story of Iraqi booksellers. You really got me inspired and I am going to see if I can get in touch with Atallah and Mohammed and help them in any way.

By the way, you might want to join our recently launched community of book lovers, authors, and indie bookstores at We are aiming to build a world-wide community focused on celebrating readership, connecting authors with readers, and helping indie bookstores.

Jill: You can find local booksellers in your town on American Booksellers Website at: