Iraq, once a country of fervent readers, now starves for books

BAGHDAD — When Maysoon Kadhim began working on her master's thesis at Baghdad University two years ago, she braced for the challenge. After all, her paper's subject is Shakespeare, whose prose can perplex even native English speakers.

Kadhim, of course, grew up with Arabic.

As she proofread her final draft days before it was due, however, she said her biggest frustrations have had nothing to do with language.

Instead, they've come from trying to get her hands on the right books.

"You would expect that my studies and the analysis would be the hardest things," Kadhim lamented. "Getting the books should be simple."

But in Iraq, a country where so much has been leveled by decades of dictatorship, international embargoes and war, few things are easy. Here, students often can't find the books they need. Libraries and schools are understocked, and many bookstores are closed. At those that are open, academic selections are usually limited.

College-level texts, books on specialized subjects and recent editions are the hardest to come by. Most elementary and high school students use decades-old materials.

"You could say we are starving for textbooks," said May Youssef Saour, a microbiology professor at Baghdad University's al Kindy College of Medicine. "It is a little better lately, but still it's hard to find books on many subjects. The shops and the libraries just don't have them."

Kadhim, who's 34 and has a bright smile, spent more than a year gathering the dozen or so books she used for her thesis. The lengths to which she went are impressive.

She identified what she needed by searching for books online, but credit cards and mail delivery hardly exist in Iraq. So Kadhim asked a friend in Britain to buy the books for her, then electronically scan their pages and e-mail them to her.

To get her hands on an especially important Shakespeare analysis, Kadhim asked her British friend to mail the book to another friend in Syria who was planning a visit to Iraq. The Syrian friend then hand-delivered the text Kadhim needed.

"It is terrible that this is what we must do to learn and earn our degrees, but this is the situation in Iraq," Kadhim said. "Everything is a struggle."

Other college students said that borrowing textbooks from teachers and photocopying relevant chapters is common.

"If I could find my own, I would just buy the books," said Raghad Jameel, a first-year Arabic student. "But most of the time I have to make copies. It is expensive and takes so much time."

Iraq once was widely regarded as country of fervent readers, as reflected by an adage on books well known in the Arab world: Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Iraq reads.

That began to change after Saddam Hussein took power. Education was free to all Iraqis under Saddam, and early on, his regime kept schools well stocked with current materials. However, he also banned certain titles. The sanctions that followed his 1990 invasion of Kuwait kept new books from entering Iraq.

As the country slipped deeper into poverty in the 1990s, families and book collectors alike sold off their libraries to pay for basic necessities. Government funding for education dropped, leaving schools and universities with fewer books.

The censorship and the sanctions disappeared after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, but new impediments replaced them.

The widespread looting that followed the invasion destroyed library collections across Iraq. Booksellers and publishing housing closed as violence spread, and the priorities of many Iraqis shifted from reading and learning to staying alive and finding ways out of the country.

In 2007, a series of explosions ripped through Baghdad's Mutanabi Street, shutting down the book market known for decades as Iraq's most popular gathering place for intellectuals and bibliophiles. Many of its shops and cafes have only recently reopened.

Today, with violence down, Iraq is struggling to rebuild its cultural and educational institutions. Art, music and theater are only beginning to rebound. Schools are open and roads are safe enough for students to reach them, but classrooms and teachers are in short supply.

Like so much else here, access to textbooks is improving. Progress is slow, however, in a country with almost daily bombings, rampant government corruption and scarce electricity and clean water.

"Some say books are a small matter compared to many of Iraq's issues, but I say this is not true," said Alaa Makki, a Sunni Muslim lawmaker who heads the Iraqi parliament's education committee. "Without knowledge and educated people, who will solve these things? I believe education is the path to solve all (Iraq's) problems, even the political problems and the security issues."

A few grassroots book drives by teachers and students in the U.S. and other countries have helped put textbooks in a few more hands, but their contributions have amounted to a drop in the bucket relative to the wider problem.

So far, Makki acknowledged, efforts by Iraq's own fledgling government haven't gone much further. He said his committee has asked for more funding for education from domestic coffers and foreign aid organizations.

Real progress, however, probably won't come until booksellers, publishers and distributors — here and abroad — are convinced that Iraq is safe enough for business.

"Some of the shops and companies have come back," Makki said. "But not enough."

In the meantime, the government has begun sponsoring book fairs. So far there have been two, one at Baghdad University that ended last week and another in northern Iraq. Makki hopes for more.

So many people turned out for the Baghdad fair that its organizers extended the event from nine days to 15.

With 60,000 titles spread across dozens of folding tables in the university's gymnasium, the fair's selection included books in Arabic and English, on subjects ranging from medicine and engineering to acting and safe driving.

About 40 publishers participated, almost all of them foreign.

"It is so unexpected to see so many books on so many subjects in one place," said Lava Hawizi, a college student who perused dentistry and literature books. "I'm taken completely by surprise."

Ahmed Basim, a local bookshop owner who organized the fair, said it was the first of its kind in Iraq in years. "For so long an event like this was impossible here," he said.

Basim's shop, Al Thakera Books, bills itself as the largest academic and scientific bookseller in Iraq, though it has just two locations, one in Baghdad and one in Erbil in Iraq's Kurdish region in the north.

"It's true it may be hard to find academic books in Iraq, but the Iraqi reader is still an educated reader," Basim said. "So they appreciate this fair. They long for these books."

(Reilly reports for the Merced Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this article.)


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