Najaf: In Iraq’s city of bookshops, theology and poetry rub spines

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A customer scans a book at the Howeish book market in Najaf. (AFP)
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A religious student looks at a book at the Howeish market in Najaf. (AFP)
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A Muslim religious man walks among books shelves at the Howeish book market in Najaf. (AFP)
Updated 10 October 2018

Najaf: In Iraq’s city of bookshops, theology and poetry rub spines

  • Najaf’s 750-year-old market helps make it a ‘city apart’
  • ‘We want our students to view books as their primary source, ahead of the Internet’ for verified information

NAJAF, Iraq: In the covered alleyways of old Najaf in Iraq, poetry and philosophy books compete on laden shelves with economic treatises, the Qur'an and other theological tomes for students’ attention.
Since leaving his native Bangladesh for the Shiite holy city three years ago, religious student Mohammed Ali Reda has regularly frequented secondhand bookstores.
There are many like him in Najaf.
Some wear turbans — black for descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, and white for religious scholars.
“I am still at the start of my apprenticeship,” said Reda, in one of the dozens of bookshops in the city’s Howeish market.
Wearing a simple white robe and scarf, he speaks in hesitant Arabic, like his Iranian, Pakistani and Turkish student peers.
“For the moment, we have lessons in Arabic, law and Islamic morals,” he added.
The 19-year-old avidly seeks advice on books on Islamic law, religious principles and other lessons of Shiite Islam.
While Iraq is majority Shiite, only a minority follow this strand of Islam in Reda’s homeland, like most of the rest of the Muslim world.
Several decades Reda’s senior, Mohannad Mustapha Jamal El-Din — a religious student turned teacher — also feels at home among the bookstalls.
Najaf’s 750-year-old market helps make it a “city apart,” he enthused.
Located 150 kilometers south of Baghdad, the city welcomes millions of Shiite pilgrims every year.
They come to visit the tomb of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and a founding figure of Shiite Islam.
Najaf “is like no other city in Iraq — (it’s) steeped in religion and literature,” said Jamal El-Din, sporting the black turban.
Among the crowds of religious students, there are also poetry lovers.
Some, like Jamal El-Din, have a foot in both camps.
“One can be versed in both fields — (knowledge of) one does not preclude the other.”
Iraqi poet Mohammed Mahdi Al-Jawahiri could be found in Najaf’s alleyways and bookstores in the 1920s, as he progressed from strict religious instruction to militant journalism in Baghdad.
Twenty-one years after his death, his collections sit on shelves that heave with a splendid array of titles, stretching to the arcane such as “Islamic economy — Marxist or Capitalist?”
Other one-time students have found their calling in the maze of Najaf’s old city, and become famous in their own right.
Examples include the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite majority, and Mohammed Bakr Sadr, a great Shiite thinker.
Sadr was killed by former dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, and was an uncle of political heavyweight Moqtada Sadr, whose electoral list won the largest number of seats in Iraq’s legislative elections in May.
Until the 1950s, secondhand bookstores held weekly meetings for students in Najaf, according to Hassan Al-Hakim, an expert in history and Islamic civilization.
They “gathered near Imam Ali’s tomb and every Friday they sold works at auction, including many original editions,” said the professor of Kufa University, who has set up a heritage association for Najaf.
Famed British archaeologist Gertrude Bell “visited the Najaf book market” in the early 20th century, Hakim added proudly.
The academic contends that the city’s special status should not be threatened by the shift of much academic literature online.
“We want our students to view books as their primary source, ahead of the Internet” for verified information, Hakim said.
And “by looking for a book, we can find others that interest us,” he noted.


Alaska man discovers 50-year-old message in bottle from Russian Navy

Updated 19 August 2019

Alaska man discovers 50-year-old message in bottle from Russian Navy

  • Then Russian Navy Capt. Anatolii Prokofievich Botsanenko wrote the letter when he was a 36-year-old aboard the Sulak
ANCHORAGE, Alaska: A man discovered a 50-year-old letter in a bottle from the Russian Navy on the shores of western Alaska.
Tyler Ivanoff found the handwritten Russian letter early this month while gathering firewood near Shishmaref about 600 miles (966 kilometers) northwest of Anchorage, television station KTUU reported.
“I was just looking for firewood when I found the bottle,” Tyler Ivanoff said. “When I found the bottle, I had to use a screwdriver to get the message out.”
Ivanoff shared his discovery on Facebook where Russian speakers translated the message to be a greeting from a Cold War Russian sailor dated June 20, 1969. The message included an address and a request for a response from the person who finds it.
Reporters from the state-owned Russian media network, Russia-1, tracked down the original writer, Capt. Anatolii Prokofievich Botsanenko, KTUU reported.
He was skeptical he wrote the note until he saw his signature on the bottom.
“There — exactly!” he exclaimed.
The message was sent while the then 36-year-old was aboard the Sulak, Botsanenko said. Botsanenko shed tears when the Russian television reporter told him the Sulak was sold for scrap in the 1990s.
Botsanenko also showed the reporter some souvenirs from his time on the ship, including the autograph of the wife of a famous Russian spy and Japanese liquor bottles, the latter kept over his wife’s protests.
Ivanoff’s discovery of the bottle was first reported by Nome radio station KNOM.