Written by Geoff Hann, Karen Dabrowska and Tina Townsend-Greaves
Bathed in the rainbow-coloured light of an old Baghdadi window, Ali al Makhzomy explains his plan to get technology-obsessed young Iraqis to read books; old-fashioned books with pages. Eleven years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, young people who despair of a future in Iraq are still trying to emigrate. Many of those who remain hope that their country will someday emerge as a new version of ultra-modern, oil-rich Dubai. Makhzomy, 26, and his friends would prefer to take Baghdad back to a more elegant past. ‘We really want the Baghdad of the 1930s or 40s or 50s to return. It was more civilised,’ he says. ‘How do we know? We read about it.’
Baghdad book market © NewsHour, Flickr
In a room on the second floor of the wood-panelled Al-Atrakchi House café, Makhzomy is starting an informal public library with about 800 books to encourage the clientele to take time to read – and to escape the world outside. Bombings have been common in Baghdad for so long that violence is almost less of a concern to many Iraqis than the sheer difficulty of daily life. Traffic jams due to road closures and checkpoints have turned his bus ride to work into an ordeal.
When Makhzomy reads books on his iPad, people ask what he is doing. ‘I tell them, I’m reading. You should try it,’ he says. It has not always been this way. Iraq is the land where writing was invented and Baghdad was famous for its book market. But basic literacy has plummeted and strict security measures mean few people can just walk off the street into a library. 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, there were more young men 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 is surrounded by shelves of books but no buyers. ‘Young people don’t read any more,’ he laments.
Crowds show up for poetry readings and cultural events on weekends. But on a recent day, there were more young men crowded around a stall selling fake designer sunglasses than there were buying books.
Makhzomy is not among them. He inherited his love of books from his mother and his father, a lab technician who died in 2001 and from whom he inherited many of the books that now make up his collection. Makhzomy, who works at the Ministry of Culture, is funding the project on his own. He first tried it in a modern café in the glitzy new Mansour Mall, Baghdad’s first large shopping centre, but he found patrons there more interested in shopping than in culture. He has since relocated most of his books to Al-Atrakchi House, where the owner has re-created the atmosphere of historical Baghdad cafés. ‘In Baghdad, we have maybe 1,600 houses from the 18th century, but there is no preservation,’ says Abdul Razak al Atrakchi, whose family has sold antiques and carpets in Iraq for more than a century. ‘Nobody cares about heritage.’
Atrakchi opened the café six months ago in the upmarket neighbourhood of Mansour, adorning it with antique windows, doors and tiles he had collected from the market. Wooden benches covered with cushions are arranged around traditional Baghdadi tables inlaid with flowered ceramic tiles. Upstairs in a room lined with bevelled mirrors, elegantly dressed men and women who rememberthe old Baghdad (and whose average age appears to be about 70) listen to a lecture on poetry. Makhzomy and Atrakchi say they believe that if literary culture again became part of everyday life, Iraq’s younger generation could rebuild the country. The library that Makhzomy is starting includes books from his own collection on history and politics, poetry and novels. He was given books at the Baghdad International Book Fair but rejected many of them because they were religious texts emphasising adherence to Islamic law. ‘The society we want to support is liberal, where democracy rules and you can say whatever you want,’Makhzomy says. ‘We are trying to get all kinds of books, but we want to encourage youth to be open-minded.’
In addition to the library he has formed a group of volunteers to clean up historic places and introduce young Iraqis to museums. ‘You find many young people who say, “I just want to leave Iraq,” Makhzomy says. ‘They see violence everywhere, no respect for the law, traffic jams… but with these cultural activities, we link Iraq’s heritage to their hearts.’ That will, he believes, ‘give them a reason to stay.’