Iraq: Baghdad’s century-old bookstores survive wars, conflicts

Besides providing Iraqi intellectuals, writers and thinkers with valuable books and historical documents, those bookstores also tell people about the ups and downs of the fate of Iraq, Jamal al-Bazzaz, a retired professor from Baghdad University, told Xinhua.

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An Iraqi student reads a book on the Belt and Road Initiative, at a bookstore in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 21, 2022. (Xinhua/Khalil Dawood)

On the eastern side of the Tigris River in downtown Baghdad, many bookstores open every morning, some of which have survived for decades despite wars, conflicts, insecurity and sectarian strife, especially after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The book market was set up as early as the end of the Ottoman era in the al-Saray market and then moved to the nearby al-Mutanabi Street.

During the early decades of the 20th century, the book market gradually flourished and gained the attention of many Arab and foreign publishing houses.

One of the oldest bookstores is the al-Assriyah bookstore, which was established in 1914. It was the first bookstore to move from al-Saray market to al-Mutanabi Street in 1948.

The bookstore’s owner Ayad al-Qamousi, who is 60 years old, has a Ph.D. in Islamic history and Islamic civilization. He told Xinhua that the founder of his bookstore was Mahmoud Helmi, who was a poet.

“My father bought the bookstore from its founder in 1964 after the man became too old, and later I inherited it from my father,” al-Qamousi said.

He said that “the bookstore contains many old books, some dating back to the 19th century, mostly lithographs. There are also many rare and valuable books that are first editions.”

Al-Assri bookbindery, which was established in 1920, is another century-old business in the book market on al-Mutanabi Street. It also sells books.

Abboud Mohammed al-Falluji, 80, inherited the business from his father and bequeathed it to his sons and grandsons, who are working in the bookbindery.

Jamal al-Bazzaz, a retired professor from Baghdad University, said many Iraqi families were fond of owning private libraries in their houses, as their book collections reflect the cultural level of the family.

Iraqis have suffered many difficulties due to international sanctions after the Gulf War, and the years of chaos and bloodshed that followed the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003. They had to look for various means to ensure the livelihood of their families, including selling their cherished books at low prices.

“In the 1990s, unfortunately, I used to see respected writers, thinkers, and university professors put their books on the side of the street to sell so that they could feed their families,” al-Qamousi said.

The entry of new “sellers” promoted the prosperity of the book market, yet it also made the market more competitive at that time.

The disasters the local book market suffered are far from over, especially after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which brought the country endless conflicts and violence.

On March 5, 2007, the book market in al-Mutanabi Street was struck by a suicide bomber, leaving at least 26 people killed and more than 50 others injured.

“A large part of my bookstore (al-Assriyah bookstore) was burned,” al-Qamousi said, adding that the upper floors, especially the third story where many of the rare books were stored, were all burned.

While strolling through the roofed al-Saray market, regular market-goers usually stop at a small bookstore, which is loaded with memories of Baghdad and its history.

Akram al-Filfily, in his 60s, sits at its forefront, waiting for professional readers to ask him about the oldest books and rare historical reference sources.

He said that the al-Filfily bookstore was founded in 1930 and is the only bookstore that has remained in the al-Saray market since its establishment.

Al-Filfily said that one of the painful incidents that affected those old bookstores was the 2007 suicide bombing, which led to the burning of many bookstores and bookstalls.

The huge blast prompted “some bookstore owners to leave the profession, and some turned to the stationery business after their property was damaged,” he said.

Besides providing Iraqi intellectuals, writers and thinkers with valuable books and historical documents, those bookstores also tell people about the ups and downs of the fate of Iraq, al-Bazzaz told Xinhua.

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

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