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Baghdad Bookstore Clings to Classics Amid Chaos

The volumes are tattered with age, testimony to years of sanctions and isolation. But the owners are hopeful of a better future.

June 29, 2003|Hamza Hendawi | Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iqra'a bookstore in Baghdad's old quarter says much about Iraq today.

William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot -- the secondhand volumes that fill the shelves of Iqra'a reveal the worldly, literate side of an ancient society. Many of the books are falling apart and are bound with Scotch tape -- testimony to nearly 13 years of sanctions and isolation from the outside world.

For the two men who own the store, these classics in English, French and German represent one of the few certainties in a world turned upside down. With the ouster of Saddam Hussein, their most basic freedoms -- to expand their business, have a child, see the world -- all hinge on how the U.S. occupation unfolds.

Even as U.S. troops skirmish daily with resisters of occupation, Attallah Zeidan and Mohammed Hanash Abbas speak of the Americans' arrival as a blessing -- for now.

"America has shown us compassion we never had from Saddam or fellow Arabs," says Zeidan.

"Why call us occupied?" Abbas chimes in. "We are liberated."

But they caution that things may change. "We must give the Americans time, but it will be a different story if they decide to stay on indefinitely," Abbas warns.

"Look at me -- I am already an American," says Zeidan, cynicism evident in his voice. "And Iraq will be too."

"We would have fought the Americans if we had our freedom, rights and dignity under Saddam, but we didn't," he says.

For the great mass of Iraqis who are neither Hussein loyalists nor religious hard-liners, these are times of ambivalence -- relief that the regime is gone, misgivings about American rule, a world where assumptions are no longer assumed and the unthinkable is readily accepted.

"I am 40 and I never flew in a plane -- not even once," said Abbas. "What sort of life has this been? Ridiculous, right?"

"I dream of visiting Paris," he says. "I want to be part of this big world. No more isolation."

The new reality has encouraged many to challenge nationalist and anti-Western doctrines hammered into Iraqi minds for decades by Hussein's propaganda machine. It's indicative that the owners of Iqra'a can now display books that give a non-Hussein view of Iraqi history. Both Abbas and Zeidan belong to Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite Muslim majority -- a moderate faction of it. Both see a U.S.-occupied Iraq as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make up for lost time. Because of that, attacks on U.S. troops distress them.

"They delay the process of rebuilding Iraq," explains Zeidan. "They're like someone trying to pull me away from my dreams."

Those dreams have repeatedly been dashed. The two were in their teens in 1980 when Iraq and Iran plunged into a ruinous eight-year war. Then, in 1990, Hussein invaded Kuwait. The U.S. military drove him out and sanctions were imposed.

Zeidan, a factory foreman's son, was doing his 18-month military service when Iraq invaded Kuwait. His eldest brother, Khalifa, had set aside 6,000 dinars, then worth nearly $19,000, to send Zeidan to London to study for a master's degree in history. But sanctions sent the dinar's value into a free fall.

"By the end of the war, my 6,000 dinars were barely enough to buy a bag of wheat flour," he recalled. The college plans were canceled.

Zeidan then met Abbas. They went to neighboring Jordan, where they camped outside the Libyan Embassy, hoping Moammar Kadafi's government would hire them as schoolteachers. Unsuccessful, they returned to Baghdad and opened their bookstore. The name they chose, Iqra'a, is Arabic for "read."

For impoverished students and academics who earn no more than $10 a month in sanctions-battered dinars, buying books is a luxury beyond reach. So Iqra'a has become a library, lending reference books and literature for the equivalent of 15 cents a book. Their shop, on the second floor of a no-frills, two-story mall, has no air conditioning, and on a recent day Zeidan was stripped to his undershirt to beat the stifling heat.

The war dealt him a personal tragedy. Zeidan's wife of 18 months miscarried during the final weeks of her pregnancy. He blames the trauma she suffered during the bombing of Baghdad.

"I knew he would be a boy, and it was a boy," he said, staring at the floor.

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