April 9, 2014
Can books and libraries help restore Baghdad’s cultural heritage?
by Nick Davies
A young government employee in Iraq has set out to bring the city of Baghdad back to its past, using books and a makeshift library to establish it once again as a cultural hub, particularly in the eyes of its citizens, many of whom have emigrated as the city has dealt with war and violence.
Jane Arraf writes for the Washington Post that 26-year-old Ali Makhzomy, who works for Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, wants to restore the capital city to a “more civilized” existence, hearkening back to the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Arraf points out that writing was invented in Iraq, and Baghdad’s book market is famous; but in the militarized zone that the city has become, literacy has plummeted, and booksellers struggle to find customers:
Baghdad’s famous Mutanabi street, where merchants set out piles of used books on Fridays, has been mostly rebuilt after a devastating bombing seven years ago. Crowds show up for poetry readings and cultural events on weekends. But on a recent day, more young men were crowded around a stall selling fake designer sunglasses than there were buying books.
On a nearby street, an elderly bookseller in a suit and tie was surrounded by shelves of books, but no buyers.
Many of Makhzomy’s close friends have chosen to leave Iraq to seek more comfortable lives in the West, but—despite the fact that his brother was kidnapped and never returned—he remains committed to fostering a cultural resurgence for Baghdad. He tells the Post, “You find many young people who say, ‘I just want to leave Iraq.’ They see violence everywhere, no respect for the law, traffic jams…but when we do these cultural activities, we link Iraq’s heritage to their hearts.”
To that end, he’s started an informal library on the second floor of the al-Atrakchi House, a café whose owner has tried to capture the atmosphere of historic Baghdad. Café customers are encouraged to spend some time reading any of the 800 books that form Makhzomy’s collection, which includes his own books as well as dozens donated by a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he participated in a summer exchange program. By getting more young Iraqis to read—in addition to his efforts to clean up historic sites and introduce young people to museums—Makhzomy believes he can give them a reason to stay.
Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.