The Southern Iraqi Book Market Creating A New Culture
Ahmad Thamer Jihad
Until recently Somar Street in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah was just a place for off-duty taxis to park. Now it hosts a thriving book market that organisers hope will become an oasis for local culture.
Every Friday, Nasiriyah local, Mohammed, carries his heavy load of books to Somar Street in the central city. The 26-year-old and his friends try to get there early so they can secure a good spot and arrange the books before the street gest too crowded.
The work is hard – especially carrying the books – and the rewards are not great but Mohammed, who has a degree in Arabic literature, would rather be doing this for a living than waiting for an almost-impossible-to-get government job at home. This business is far closer to his heart than anything else, anyway.
“This city is poor and getting poorer,” Mohammed, who wished to be known only by his first name, told NIQASH. “My only consolation is my hope that this kind of thing inspires the young people of the city.”
This street of culture has improved the city. But it has also exposed some of the city’s flaws.
Somar Street, which faces the local council buildings, is not only a spot for the sale of Arabic and English books, it also plays host to visiting and local writers and other intellectuals. They come here to buy books, sign books and meet readers.
“This street makes me happy,” says Asma al-Zuhairi, who is studying English at Dhi Qar University and comes here with her father to purchase the texts she needs for school. “It helps me build a stronger relationship with cultural activities, outside of academia. And I like seeing the children coming here with their parents.”
Among the 20 or so book stalls here is one that specializes in children’s books, staffed by a minor. There is a spot where children can sit and read.
Apart from the booksellers, local artists and musicians have been drawn to this roadside cultural centre. Young people come here with their paintings and some have started art workshops for local children; musicians have also gathered here to play. Every week there are special events – for example, recently there was a pop quiz organized by a local culture group that rewarded winners with a book.
Now Nasiriyah’s new event even has a Facebook page of its own, called Book Street, and a weekly magazine devoted to the book market and surrounding events.
Of course, the group who organised this street fair say that not everyone has the same motives as they do. Some come here to make a profit.
Book buyers: Happy shoppers leaving the book fair in Nasiriyah.
“As bookshop owners we should come here,” says Ali Kathem, who owns a Nasiriyah bookstore called Ali. “It’s important for the continued success of this place. We are making direct contacts with readers and we have a responsibility to the local culture. Young people are really reluctant to read, because of various factors, and we should encourage them to do so.”
“We get customers here from different cities in the province and we are also getting new customers, people who never came to the shop but who do come here,” adds Uday Shabib, owner of the Marifah bookshop, one of the biggest in the Nasiriyah.
Not all the booksellers are happy of course. Ghassan al-Barhan, the owner of the Amarji bookshop, says that although he really supports the idea, he gets annoyed by some of the vendors, who sell their books for very low prices.
“Some people do not respect the ethics of the profession,” al-Barhan says, noting that it’s tough to make a profit selling literature anyway because so many locals are on low incomes here.
Still, Kathem, al-Barhan, young bookseller Mohammed and their friends are hoping that their street will one day be able to compete with Baghdad’s famous Mutanabi Street, a road well-known for its book sales and intellectual chat, and Basra’s version, Farahidi Street.
And it seems the success of the booksellers in Nasiriyah is already being emulated closer to home with book streets starting up in Diwaniyah, Wasit and Babel too.
The council in Nasiriyah has tried to help out by providing street lighting and closing off the road while books are being sold.
The council’s committee on culture has met with the Somar Street organisers and say they want to help. But, as Hassan al-Waeli, who chairs the culture committee, says, “most of the cultural projects here are underfunded, so that hampers things a little bit.”
Somar Street regulars remain critical of the council’s attempts at cooperation.
“This street of culture has improved the city,” Anwar Fadel, one of the book market organisers, told NIQASH. “But it has also exposed some of the city’s flaws. Compared to this road, street vendors in the city cause a lot of chaos. That’s due to poor planning and a failure to invest in infrastructure.”
Fadel notes that he is worried that without sufficient support, the book market may fade away. “Given that sites in the province were recently included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, it wold be useful for the council to develop this side of life here,” he argues.