Iraqi women read books at Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, Iraq. Reuters
There is no friend as loyal as a book. Ernest Hemingway's quote seems to have struck a chord with booksellers in Iraq, who have not given up their passion for books, the coronavirus notwithstanding. They survived the harsh rule under Saddam Hussein which clamped censorship on the people – and the years of violence that followed his downfall. They are surviving the coronavirus too.
Despite the vexation over the virus, they have maintained their calm – and continue plying their trade, though the Iraqi authorities have put a ban on certain activities. They have said no to public gatherings and ordered cafes to close as virus cases have hit 67, mainly blamed on travellers from Iran.
Yet the booksellers of Mutanabbi Street on the banks of the River Tigris are still meeting their customers to do business and discuss politics in the usual way.
Some cultural events have been cancelled but writers, musicians and painters still flock there on Fridays, gathering near the imposing statue of Mutanabbi, the 10th-century poet after whom the street is named.
Numbers are down due to the virus and months of violent anti-government street protests, but staying at home is not an option for hard-core book lovers, even if it does mean wearing a face mask.
"I have been coming here every Friday since the 80s when I was a student," said Jawad al Bidhani, a university professor, who bought four academic books.
"The disease is dangerous and fatal. But this won't prevent us coming to Mutanabbi Street. So we take the opportunity to sit here with our friends for an hour or two," he said.
The market, where books are brought on trolleys from store-rooms in nearby buildings to be displayed on tables in the street, is a barometer of intellectual life.
The city's literary tradition is summed up in the saying: "Cairo writes. Beirut prints. Baghdad reads."
"There is little demand for political books, also not religious books," said Hamza Abu Sara, a bookseller. "People buy more self-help books ... to be positive, or fiction," he said.
An economic crisis has hit sales, but Saraa al-Bayati, the book market's only female trader, is not thinking of closing.
"We are doing kind of okay," she said in the one-room shop where she sells her own publications and works in translation.
Her bookshop is her dream. Her family would not let her study journalism at university, deeming the job too dangerous in turbulent Iraq.
She graduated in engineering but decided to found a publishing house. "I simply love books," she said.
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