Demand for books is growing in the city, so is the need for good coffee as Iraq steps out of the shadow of war and discovers a love of reading.
BAGHDAD –– It is a Friday morning in Al Reef Cafe in central Baghdad, and alongside smart black and tan leather sofas and the smell of strong black coffee, crisp new books line the walls from floor to ceiling. An Arabic translation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis sits aside a thick tome on Iraqi Jews. The display is attractively presented, and the urge to pick up a book and while away the hours lost in its pages is almost overwhelming.
The literature on sale at Al Reef Cafe is there thanks to Layan Alqudsi. The 31-year-old began her book concession start-up Daraj - meaning ‘steps’ or ‘stairs’ in Arabic - in February 2018, with the idea of selling novels and non-fiction in locations frequented by young people. Unable to afford to rent a shop space in the Iraqi capital, she approached cafes and restaurants to open concessions, and Daraj now has six locations in Baghdad, including in Al Reef Cafe, and one in Qantara cultural cafe in east Mosul, in northern Iraq.
Layan’s start-up is part of a new generation of book merchants and literature enthusiasts that is emerging in Iraq, partly as a way of redefining the country as it recovers from years of conflict. Amid the onslaught of online social media and ubiquitous television watching, some Iraqis are insisting on returning to reading from the pages of printed books instead.
Another sign of optimism around the books market in Iraq is the annual Baghdad International Book Fair, which takes place over 12 days in February and will include publishing houses from Iraq, the Arab world, the UK, Turkey and the US. Some of them are attending for the first time.
Hashem al Zaki, a member of the fair’s organising committee, said this year’s event was much bigger than in previous years, with around 700 publishing houses and agents participating.
“Demand for books is growing in Iraq, despite the abundance of social media channels,” he told TRT World. “Iraqis remain lovers of culture, and are readers. That’s a reflection of the culture of this wounded people, who suffered many wars and terrorism. We hope that this year's exhibition will be unique and diverse.”
Baghdad has long been famous for its book market on Mutanabbi Street, which throngs with people on Fridays thanks to relative improvements in security. Elderly gentlemen in ties and tailored jackets peer over second-hand books laid out on the pavement; stationery shops proffer everything from fridge magnets in the shape of Arabic letters to student textbooks and the miniature Iraqi flags seen on officials’ desks countrywide.
But as much of an institution as it is, this area of old Baghdad is a male-dominated space, and the Friday crowds on the narrow pedestrian street are such that leisurely browsing is nearly impossible. With Daraj, Layan hopes to attract a wider audience and revive reading among younger generations.
“We don’t have a centre for books except for Mutanabbi Street,” she said over espressos in Al Reef Cafe. “I’m targeting gatherings of young people and women - not all women consider Mutanabbi Street safe.”
Her bestsellers vary between concessions, but Richard Dawkins is popular with young people keen to find out more about atheism. The Toilet Book - an attractive hardback costing 7,000 Iraqi dinars ($6), by writer Luay Hamza Abbas, tells the story of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Layan sells 40 to 50 books a week across Daraj’s locations. Among the buyers is Manar Haddad. “The first book I bought from Daraj was about Mosul, specifically about the old city,” he told TRT World from the UK, where he is currently studying for an MA in geopolitics. “It talks about the old city during different times and under ISIS, to see how much people suffered during that bad time. Later, I bought books on politics, which is my field, and my field of study now.”
The 28-year-old, originally from Baghdad, believes in supporting a reading culture in Iraq. He explains: “[It is] so that we can return to the world that we left since the 1970s, when Baghdad used to read what was written in Cairo, and printed in Beirut.”
Other Iraqis are updating the country’s book business too. The Kahwet wa Kitab bookstore and coffee shop opened in 2016 on Karrada Street, and has grown to host popular readings and oud concerts alongside well-stocked bookshelves and tables where customers sip on lattes, espresso and fruit juice. It’s become another hub and proof that all generations of Baghdadis are interested in reading and books, defining themselves by something other than the violence that has too long gripped their city.
Iraq’s traditional booksellers on Mutanabbi Street say they support efforts to advance the country’s publishing industry away from the hub.
“I support what they’re doing, but the economic conditions in Iraq make things really tough,” said one poet and bookseller.
There are challenges, no doubt, exacerbated by a sagging economy and an unhealthy job market. According to the World Bank, almost a quarter of Iraq’s working-age population is either unemployed or underemployed.
With low profit margins and a lack of awareness about copyright laws, the book business in Iraq is difficult.
“People don’t realise that [illegally copied] texts are stolen, so they find my books expensive in comparison,” said Layan Alqudsi. She would like to see the state police illegal printing more effectively, support book clubs and reading societies, and revive the national library, housed in a 1920s building near Baghdad’s historical Al Rasheed Street.
Still, she is optimistic about the future of Iraq’s book industry, and aims for Daraj to turn a profit within the next two years. She wants to develop the start-up to become a bookshop, a cultural institution and publishing house, and already leads workshops on the arts of novel and letter writing, for which participants pay a fee of 50,000 ($42).
“There is a lack of knowledge about books and we need to redirect large numbers of young people to reading,” she said.
“I see this as part of peacebuilding. Even if you can’t travel, you can see so many different worlds through books.”