The Demise of Baghdad's Intellectual Street

More pain from Iraq:

Perched on a red chair outside a closet-sized bookshop, the only one open, Naim al-Shatri is nearly in tears. Short, with thin gray hair and dark, brooding eyes, his voice is grim. This is normally his busiest day, but he hasn’t had a single sale. A curfew is approaching.

Soon, his sobs break the stillness. “Is this Iraq?” he asked no one in particular, pointing at the gritty, trash-covered street as the scent of rotting paper and sewage mingled in the air.

It is a question many of the booksellers on Mutanabi Street are asking. Here, in the intellectual ground zero of Baghdad, they are the guardians of a literary tradition that has survived empire and colonialism, monarchy and dictatorship. In the heady days after the U.S.-led invasion, Mutanabi Street pulsed with the promise of freedom.

Now, in the fourth year of war, it is a shadow of its revered past. Many of the original booksellers have been forced to shut down. Others have been arrested, kidnapped or killed, or have fled Iraq. “We are walking with our coffins in our hands,” said Mohammad al-Hayawi, the owner of the Renaissance book store, one of the street’s oldest shops. “Nothing in Iraq is guaranteed anymore.”

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