Established about 1912, the suq (market) is located in an area steeped in Iraq's cultural and social life. Around it, intellectuals gather in coffee shops for heated discussions over nargilahs or water pipes.

In the suq, books on history, religion and politics jostle for shelf space with John Grisham novels and former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's autobiography.

On Fridays the suq is particularly vibrant, as the holiday crowd rummages through books in English, French and Arabic. Competing cries of children hawking books and promising the best bargains fill the crowded, narrow street. Prices range from 25 US cents to $100.

Groups of dapper old men stand in knots, discussing jobs, their work-week and the rise and fall of the dinar.  

Iraq book culture

Iyad Nawfal has been selling books in the suq for the past 14 years. He said sales did not drop dramatically between 1991 and 2003 when the United Nations slapped a crippling blanket embargo on the country, because "people have always bought books in Iraq". 

"You know what they say, 'It is written in Cairo, published in Lebanon and read in Iraq'," he said proudly.

"This suq … is the source of culture for Iraq," he said, as browsers nod in agreement. "Here you find the roots of our culture," chimed one customer.  

However, the area, like the rest of Baghdad, bears the scars of the instability brought on by the US-led occupation.

Last November an explosion destroyed a storage building in the street where 20 vendors kept their stocks. Up to 40,000 books - in literature, medicine and politics - were destroyed, said Nawfal. The cause of the explosion is still unclear. 

"Burning the country's books was a deliberate attack on the local culture" he said bitterly, adding the destruction of the National Library was also a blow to the country's heritage. 

Cultural influx

Abd al-Hadi's stand boasts a
variety  of texts

Sales have dropped over the past year because of a sudden influx of books in the suq, forcing Nawfal to slash prices.

While seeing the flood of texts as a blow, Abd Allah Abd Al-Hadi says it has given his stand more variety and is attracting more customers.

He proudly shows off the latest English additions to his stand, including JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. "My friend got that for me from the American soldiers," he said. It is being sold for 5000 Iraqi dinars or about $4, a small fortune to most Iraqis.

While some of the books may indeed be "borrowed" from occupation troops, it is highly unlikely US-led forces brought in the shiny new copies of The Life and Values of Iranian leader Ayat Allah Khomeini.

The suq has also become a place for Iraq's neighbours to flex their muscles.

"Wahhabi Islamist books hot off the press are being sold way below their cover price," said Dr Saad Bashir Iskandar, the National Library's General Manager. New copies of the biography of missing Shia leader Imam Musa al-Sadr are also popping up.

Under Saddam Hussein such books were banned.

Cultural vacuum?

The National Library was burnt
twice last April within three days

"We have a cultural vacuum," said Iskandar. "The Iranians are trying to influence our cultural life." The library general manager has just bought a book on how the cold war was played out in the Middle East which he says was banned until recently.  

"The Saudis, Syrians and Turks are all active. They are trying to fill this vacuum by sending books and inviting Iraqis to their country," he alleged. But from the copious amounts of Shia literature and posters, it is evident Iran is in the forefront of this exercise. The sellers confirmed they were receiving them from Iran and Lebanon.

Not wanting to appear as if Iraq's rich past is dead, Iskandar is quick to recall  the country's history. "We were always the ones in the Arab world to take the initiative in the cultural and political arena," he said defensively.  

A customer, carrying Practical English Use and Memoirs of an Iraqi Poet, said he has been coming to the suq for 30 years. He agrees that there is a greater variety of books.

"Iraq's doors have been opened and they will not close again," he said.

Looted goods 

"We have a cultural vacuum.The Iranians are trying to influence our cultural life. The Saudis, Syrians and Turks are all active. They are trying to fill this vacuum by sending books and inviting Iraqis to their country."

Dr Saad Bashir Iskandar,  General Manager,
Iraq National Library

Not all of the suq's latest stocks are from neighbouring countries.  
Texts and documents, some of them hundreds of years old, were stolen when Baghdad plunged into chaos immediately after US tanks rolled into the capital last April, said Iskandar.

Many historic books missing from the National Library and other smaller libraries  are turning up at Suq al-Mutanabi, he said. 

"It is good and bad because there are thieves selling our documents and books and we just do not have the budget to buy them all back," he said. But in an ironic twist, "Iraqis are hungrily buying up books at the suq," said Iskandar slightly amused at the situation. 

Rising from the ashes

The National Library had more than one million books, but it will take at least another year to assess the losses, said Iskandar. It was burnt twice within three days last April.

In the archives section, where the majority of damage occurred, about 20 people, wearing masks to protect them from the thick dust, are sorting through historic classified documents. Iskandar says they will be de-classified when the work is complete.

The pungent smell of smoke still hangs in an adjacent building where 32 employees are re-writing card catalogues for the remaining books before the information is processed into computers.

They have been performing the delicate task of cleaning dust and smoke from the books to keep them intact since July, says manager Husayn Salah Jamil. Many of the employees are suffering from hand rashes and constant runny eyes.

"It does not  matter. We will bring back our national library."