As Baghdad recovers from years of conflict, so too does its love of literature

Special As Baghdad recovers from years of conflict, so too does its love of literature
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Last year, avid readers flocked to the third annual Iraq International Book Fair. It was the largest and most global version of the event to date, featuring about 800,000 books from 350 Iraqi and international publishers representing 20 countries. (Ziyad Matti)
Special As Baghdad recovers from years of conflict, so too does its love of literature
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Last year, avid readers flocked to the third annual Iraq International Book Fair. It was the largest and most global version of the event to date, featuring about 800,000 books from 350 Iraqi and international publishers representing 20 countries. (Ziyad Matti)
Special As Baghdad recovers from years of conflict, so too does its love of literature
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Books have always been a crucial part of Iraqi heritage. (Photo by Ziyad Matti)
Special As Baghdad recovers from years of conflict, so too does its love of literature
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Books have always been a crucial part of Iraqi heritage. (Photo by Ziyad Matti)
Special As Baghdad recovers from years of conflict, so too does its love of literature
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Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, long renowned for its booksellers, coffee shops and intellectual scene, was restored and reopened in December 2021. (Photo by Ziyad Matti)
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Updated 14 March 2023
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As Baghdad recovers from years of conflict, so too does its love of literature

As Baghdad recovers from years of conflict, so too does its love of literature
  • Books have long been a crucial part of Iraq’s intellectual life that endures to this day, despite ongoing crises
  • The recently restored Al-Mutanabbi Street is renowned for its booksellers, coffee shops and intellectual scene

BAGHDAD: An old adage about Arabic books claims that “Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads.” While this might not entirely be the case today, the last part of the famous phrase still holds true — Iraqis love to read.

Buying, reading and discussing books have long been a crucial part of Iraqi intellectual life that endures to this day, notwithstanding the country’s political ups and downs.

“Books allow us to escape,” Fatimah Jihad, foreign rights manager for Al-Mada Group for Media, Culture and Art, told Arab News. “No matter what happens in the country, there is a great desire to keep the culture of books and literature alive.”




A group of Iraqi children get an early initiation on reading during a book fair in Baghdad. (Supplied)

That is not to say that there have not been great challenges, however.

“Because of the wars, armed militias and the fighting inside Iraq, literature and education have taken a back seat, with people not as keen to educate themselves and to gain knowledge as they used to be,” Aqeel Al-Khrayfawee, an Iraqi archaeological researcher and academic, told Arab News.

“Due to lack of support from the government, the selling, buying and even writing of books has decreased.”




Literature and education have taken a back seat in Iraq as a result of the wars that have visited the country in the past two decades. (Supplied)

However, a number of mostly privately organized initiatives over the past decade across Iraq have been trying to revive this crucial part of Iraqi heritage at a time when traditional bookstores all around the world are increasingly under threat.

At the end of last year, Al-Saqi Books, which was London’s first Arabic bookstore, closed its doors after 44 years of operation.

“It’s been incredible but we have just had to face the facts and realities of the situation: There were just a few too many challenges,” Lynn Gaspard, the daughter of one of Al-Saqi’s two founders, told Arab News in December.




Lynn Gaspard: There were just a few too many challenges. (Supplied)

That same month, thousands of Iraqis and foreigners flocked to the famed Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad. Named after the Abbassid-era poet Abu Al-Tayeb Al-Mutanabbi, the street has long been renowned for its booksellers, coffee shops and intellectual scene.

The street, which still bears the scars of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, and a car bomb attack in 2007 that killed 30 people and wounded 60, reopened in December 2021 after it was renovated by the Iraqi Private Banks League.

A year later, avid book readers flocked there for the third annual Iraq International Book Fair. It was the largest and most global edition of the event to date, featuring about 800,000 books from 350 Iraqi and international publishers representing 20 countries.




Last year, avid readers flocked to the third annual Iraq International Book Fair.  (Ziyad Matti)

The fair was organized by Al-Mada Group, and sponsored by the Association of Iraqi Private Banks and the Iraqi Central Bank. Al-Mada is a media and cultural foundation that was founded in Damascus, Syria, with branches in Beirut and Cairo. In 2003 it moved its headquarters to Baghdad and began publishing Al-Mada newspaper.

The fair was dedicated to the Iraqi philosopher, historian, intellectual and linguist Hadi Al-Alawi (1932-1998), renowned for his studies of Islamic and Arab culture, science, and Chinese and Islamic civilizations. It featured poetry readings, book signings, art exhibitions, and seminars on Iraqi culture and society, and Al-Alawi’s creative journey.

The Iraqis who frequent Al-Mutanabbi Street say that books can safely remain out on display there at night because “the reader does not steal, and the thief does not read.” Despite Iraq’s numerous woes, literature continues to be a mainstay of the nation’s intellectual and cultural life — and one that Iraqis continue to champion through events such as the book fair.

FASTFACTS

Located near the old quarter of Baghdad, Al-Mutanabbi Street was the first book traders’ market in the Iraqi capital.

It is named after 10th-century poet Abu Al-Tayeb Al-Mutanabbi, who was born under the Abbasid dynasty.

It has been a refuge for writers of all faiths and a historic heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community.

Still, the uncertain political situation continues to weigh on not just the book-publishing industry but the small and medium enterprises sector in general.




A view of the Baghdad Culture Center being reconstructed. (Supplied)

Prime Minister Mohammed Al-Sudani, who took office in October last year, has struggled to deliver on his promises concerning the economy, security, human rights and corruption.

At the end of January, the wife of the former head of Iraq’s tax authority and two other people were arrested on corruption-related charges. Poverty, unemployment, a lack of local industry, and climate inaction continue to affect the country.

Compounding these problems, bureaucratic red tape and inefficiency at the central level have contributed to a shortage of even basic necessities such as clean water and electricity in many parts of Iraq.

“Because of the security situation over the years, we haven’t had access to bookstores and publishers from outside of Iraq,” Ali Tariq, executive director of the Iraqi Private Banks League, told Arab News.




Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, long renowned for its booksellers, coffee shops and intellectual scene, was restored and reopened in December 2021. (Photo by Ziyad Matti)

“Iraqis attend (the book fair) from all over Iraq because it allows them to access international books and books from other Arab countries that are not readily available in Iraq.

“A fair like this offers a big opportunity for Iraqis to interact with international publishers, especially (those) from the Arab region.”

Over the past decade, and particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a number of initiatives have been launched across the country encouraging Iraqis, especially the nation’s youth, to develop a love of reading.

In early November, the ninth edition of the “I Am Iraqi, I Read” festival was held on the grassy lawns of Abu Nawas Park in Baghdad. About 35,000 books were distributed free of charge, a massive increase from the 3,000 handed out during the first edition in 2012. The festival is staged each year in different provinces throughout the country.




Books have always been a crucial part of Iraqi heritage. (Photo by Ziyad Matti)

In 2014, a few months after the liberation of the northern city of Mosul from Daesh, the residents there staged their first reading festival. During the occupation of Iraq’s third-largest city, its famous library at Mosul University was bombed and burned down the extremists, an event dubbed “The Book Massacre of Mosul.”

The library, which was established in 1967, was once one of the biggest libraries in Iraq, containing hundreds of thousands of books and manuscripts.

In September 2017, Mosul residents staged a literary festival called “From the Ashes, the Book Was Born.” Attendees were asked to bring one book and donate it to the university’s library. According to the UN, the event collected more than 6,000 books in one day, helping to restock and rebuild the destroyed library.




Despite awareness campaigns, funding to help Iraqi writers get their work in print remains scarce. (Supplied)

Book fairs also take place in other parts of the country, including the southern city of Basra, through the Al-Mada Foundation. In 2021, more than 250 international and Arab publishers took part in the Basra fair, which included a range of cultural activities.

“A love for literature is part of our roots; Iraqis visit Al-Mutanabbi Street on a regular basis now,” said Tariq. “There is a movement now within the population to increase general awareness and emphasize the importance of reading, particularly for the younger population.”

Despite awareness campaigns, however, funding to help Iraqi writers get their work in print remains scarce.

“There are many Iraqi writers but there is no budget to publish their books,” said Al-Khrayfawee, who is also the vice president of the Story Club for the Writers Union of Najaf.

“Iraqis love literature, history and learning about the culture of other people. It’s part of our ancient heritage, like our classical literature and love for poetry.”




Despite awareness campaigns, funding to help Iraqi writers get their work in print remains scarce. (Supplied)

Notwithstanding the many challenges, book fairs and festivals create more opportunities for Iraqi booksellers, writers and publishers, Al-Mada Group’s Jihad said, as well as hope of investment from the private sector in the region and beyond.

“It’s a win-win situation,” she said. “More and more people attend the fairs each year. We have this culture of reading in Iraq, of buying and selling books.

“The Iraqi writers, publishers and book sellers meet vendors from around the region and the world. These exchanges create new business. Our hard work is paying off because each year, more Iraqis and international visitors are attending.”

 


Israel on board with Gaza peace deal, as US airdrops begin

Israel on board with Gaza peace deal, as US airdrops begin
Updated 03 March 2024
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Israel on board with Gaza peace deal, as US airdrops begin

Israel on board with Gaza peace deal, as US airdrops begin
  • International mediators have been working for weeks to broker a deal to pause fighting
  • Ball is in Hamas’ camp now, says senior US administration official on Gaza peace deal

WASHINGTON DC: Israel has broadly accepted a ceasefire deal with Hamas, a senior US official said Saturday, as the first American air drops of humanitarian aid were carried out over war-ravaged Gaza.
The framework agreement envisages a six-week cessation of hostilities, which could begin immediately if the Palestinian militant group signs off on the release of the most vulnerable hostages it holds, the official told reporters on a call.
“The Israelis have more or less accepted it,” the administration official said. “Right now, the ball is in the camp of Hamas.”
The announcement came hours after US military cargo planes began airdropping humanitarian aid into the besieged Gaza Strip.
The United Nations has warned of famine in Gaza, and more than 100 people were left dead earlier this week in a frenzied scramble for food from a truck convoy delivering aid, with Israeli forces opening fire on the crowd.
Saturday’s drop, which included 38,000 meals, was conducted “to provide essential relief to civilians affected by the ongoing conflict,” the US Central Command said.
A CENTCOM official told AFP that the meals were made up of US military rations that did not contain pork, the consumption of which is prohibited by Islam.
Negotiators from regional powers have been working around the clock to secure a Gaza truce by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in about one week.
“It will be a six-week ceasefire in Gaza starting today if Hamas agrees to release the defined category of vulnerable hostages... the sick, the wounded, elderly and women,” the administration official said.
Hamas militants took about 250 hostages during their unprecedented cross-border attack on Israel on October 7, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 that Israel says are presumed dead. It was unclear how many of the remaining hostages are deemed vulnerable.
The United States hopes any truce would create space for a more enduring peace. A Hamas delegation was expected to fly to Cairo on Saturday for talks on a truce, a source close to the group told AFP.
The administration official said a ceasefire would also allow a “significant surge” in humanitarian aid to Gaza, with airdrops not seen as a replacement for full-scale relief convoys.
“None of these — maritime corridors, airdrops — are an alternative to the fundamental need to move assistance through as many land crossings as possible. That’s the most efficient way to get aid in at scale,” a second US official told reporters.
The brutal October 7 attack by Hamas resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, according to official figures.
Israel responded with a relentless assault on Hamas-controlled Gaza that has taken a devastating toll on civilians trapped there, killing more than 30,000 people, according to the territory’s health ministry.
The amount of aid brought into Gaza by truck has plummeted during nearly five months of war, and Gazans are facing dire shortages of food, water and medicines.
Some foreign militaries have airdropped supplies to Gaza, sending long lines of aid pallets floating down into the war-torn territory on parachutes.
Jordan has been conducting many of the operations with the support of countries including Britain, France and the Netherlands, while Egypt sent several military planes on an air drop Thursday together with the United Arab Emirates.
Biden has pushed Israel to reduce civilian casualties and allow aid in, while at the same time he has maintained military assistance for the key US ally.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby described the airdrops as a “tough military operation” that required careful planning by the Pentagon for the safety of both Gazan civilians and US military personnel.


Palestinian Scout Association members volunteer to assist the displaced in war-ravaged Gaza

Palestinian Scout Association members volunteer to assist the displaced in war-ravaged Gaza
Updated 03 March 2024
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Palestinian Scout Association members volunteer to assist the displaced in war-ravaged Gaza

Palestinian Scout Association members volunteer to assist the displaced in war-ravaged Gaza
  • PSA stepped in and commissioned tens of its members as volunteers to support and assist people cope with life in the wild nature and makeshift shelters
  • “We as PSA members have a duty and obligation towards the people of Gaza. We are committed to supporting them as much as possible,” scout leader Sahar Abu-Zaid tells Arab News

BEIRUT: Over 150 scout members of the Palestinian Scout Association have been risking their own lives and volunteering to aid and support children, women and displaced families in war-ravaged Gaza.

Basic life necessities such as food, water, homes, electricity, healthcare, education and others have vanished since Israel launched its unprecedented war against Gaza following the Hamas Oct. 7 attacks.

As nearly 2 million Gazans were displaced and took refuge at shelters and makeshift tents not being able to eat, drink, wash, sleep and live normally, that was when the Palestinian Scout Association stepped in and commissioned tens of its members as volunteers to support and assist people cope with life in the wild nature and makeshift shelters.

One of those PSA members is scout group leader Sahar Jamal Abu-Zaid who along tens of her fellow scout-mates put their own lives at risk and rush to ‘help and support displaced people and traumatized kids because it is our duty and obligation to do so’.

Palestinian Scout Association leader Sahar Abu-Zaid during a group session activity with women of Gaza inside a classroom at one of the shelters. (Supplied)

Describing the situation from Gaza as ‘difficult, disastrous and extremely dangerous’ she told Arab News on Saturday: “We as PSA members have a duty and obligation towards the people of Gaza … our people! We are committed to supporting them as much as possible, despite the deep wounds and scars that the war has inflicted on them.”

A scout is an expert in wildlife and knows, according to Abu-Zaid, how to survive in outside nature while dealing with tents, wood, fireplaces, ropes and cooking.

“We have been helping the displaced people through applying our scouting skills by teaching them how to use ropes to make laundry lines, setting up tents for sleeping, making fireplaces to stay warm and building makeshift ovens to cook as well,” she elaborated.

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They have also been volunteering with Sharek Youth Forum (SYF), an NGO that operates in Gaza and the West Bank, through providing psychological support to disturbed children and troubled adults who were displaced from their homes and took refuge at different shelters.

She also revealed that scout volunteers are managing a major kitchen in cooperation with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit NGO devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters.

“Scout members are cooking huge meals, as they used to do in camps. We package the food meals and distribute them. We also have a bread project, whereby we bake bread on woodfire and distribute them along with the meals. So far we have been able to provide over 10,000 meals,” Abu-Zaid told the newspaper.

As part of the efforts of Qatar’s Education Above All Foundation and the United Nations Population Fund in responding to the Gaza crisis, scout members have also been volunteering in different support activities and programs provided to assist the refugees, especially children.

Palestinian Scout Association volunteers during a clean up campaign in a Gaza makeshift camp for refugees. (Supplied)

There are more than 150 PSA members volunteering, working nonstop and exerting ‘extraordinarily tremendous efforts’ [amid a life-threatening and hazardous situation] to assist refugees, the displaced, women, children and elderlies across all parts of Gaza, she said.

The 31-year-old accounting graduate said she and all her fellow scout-mates participate in a campaign titled ‘Participate with your People’ that was launched by SYF and aims at organising individual and group activities for children and supporting women and parents in how to identify and manage children’s trauma symptoms.

Driven by the curiosity to learn about scouting life and the aim to develop new life-skills and enjoying wildlife and outside activities, Abu-Zaid joined PSA in 2017 at the age of 25.

“Today, we are living minute by minute, and we are at risk of getting killed by an Israeli airstrike at any moment. Yet, we have to keep moving forward … we are committed to drawing smiles on the faces of traumatized children by involving them in different fun activities and games that we learnt at scouts. We are also involving grownups, mainly women, in group discussions and other activities that could help them learn how to survive amid this warzone,” she said.

alestinian Scout Association volunteers teaching refugees how to build up laundry lines at a makeshift camp in Gaza. (Supplied)

An accounting graduate, Abu-Zaid called on for an immediate ceasefire saying: “It is only an immediate ceasefire that would save our lives. We are surrounded by nonstop massacres … the latest was that of Al-Rasheed streets when 10s were killed by Israeli fire while waiting to collect aid materials and food support. People die every minute and this has got to stop instantly with an instant ceasefire.”  

In a news report published in the Guardian earlier this week, Mai al-Afifi, a volunteer herself displaced from Gaza City to Deir al-Balah, was quoted as saying: “We do see the games and singing make a difference … for just a little while, the children can relieve their psychological stress.”

Nader al-Raqab, PSA’s leader in Khan Younis, was apprehended by Israelis a few weeks back and has not been heard from since.


Houthi leader says UK’s Sunak has chance to recover Rubymar by letting aid into Gaza

This satellite image taken by Maxar Technologies shows the Belize-flagged ship Rubymar in the Red Sea on Friday, March 1, 2024.
This satellite image taken by Maxar Technologies shows the Belize-flagged ship Rubymar in the Red Sea on Friday, March 1, 2024.
Updated 03 March 2024
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Houthi leader says UK’s Sunak has chance to recover Rubymar by letting aid into Gaza

This satellite image taken by Maxar Technologies shows the Belize-flagged ship Rubymar in the Red Sea on Friday, March 1, 2024.
  • The Houthis insist their attacks will continue until Israel stops its combat operations in the Gaza Strip, which have enraged the wider Arab world and seen the Houthis gain international recognition

CAIRO: A senior Houthi leader said on Saturday he held British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government responsible for the sinking of the UK-owned Rubymar.
Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, head of Yemen’s Houthi supreme revolutionary committee, also said on X: “Sunak has a chance to recover the Rubymar by allowing aid trucks into Gaza.”
Yemen’s internationally recognized government said earlier on Saturday that the Rubymar, which was attacked by Houthi militants last month, had sunk in the Red Sea and warned of an “environmental catastrophe” from the ship’s cargo of fertilizer.

 


Tunisian authorities investigate a fire at a synagogue, question a suspect in custody

Tunisian forces secure an area near the Ghriba synagogue following a shootout on the resort island of Djerba on May 10, 2023.
Tunisian forces secure an area near the Ghriba synagogue following a shootout on the resort island of Djerba on May 10, 2023.
Updated 03 March 2024
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Tunisian authorities investigate a fire at a synagogue, question a suspect in custody

Tunisian forces secure an area near the Ghriba synagogue following a shootout on the resort island of Djerba on May 10, 2023.
  • In May, five people were killed in a shooting attack on the historic Ghriba synagogue on Tunisia’s island of Djerba

TUNIS, Tunisia: A man believed to have started a fire in a garden at a synagogue in the east of Tunisia is in custody and under investigation for targeting a Jewish house of worship, officials said Saturday.
Hichem ben Ayad, the public prosecutor in the eastern port city of Sfax, told The Associated Press that a garden in the courtyard of the city’s synagogue was set on fire last Sunday. An investigation was opened and a suspect was arrested, he said.
The suspect is a public official his late 40s, ben Ayad said. He is being questioned to establish if the fire — which the prosecutor said was “a criminal act” — was premediated and deliberately targeted the Jewish house of worship.
There were no casualties in the fire that was extinguished the same day, ben Ayad said. He added that the blaze did not cause significant damage to the building. The synagogue appeared to be empty at the time, he said.
In May, five people were killed in a shooting attack on the historic Ghriba synagogue on Tunisia’s island of Djerba. Authorities said a Tunisian national guardsman was behind the attack.
The assailant intentionally targeted the ancient synagogue on the Mediterranean island in a premeditated act, Tunisian officials said.

 


Kuwait calls on voters to elect members of the national assembly on April 4

Kuwait calls on voters to elect members of the national assembly on April 4
Updated 03 March 2024
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Kuwait calls on voters to elect members of the national assembly on April 4

Kuwait calls on voters to elect members of the national assembly on April 4
  • Last month, Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah issued a decree to dissolve parliament

KUWAIT CITY: Kuwait called on Saturday for voters to elect members of the national assembly on April 4, Kuwait News Agency said.

On Wednesday, government spokesman Amer Al-Ajmi said the Kuwaiti Cabinet had approved a draft emiri decree inviting voters to elect the National Assembly and added that registration of candidates would begin on March 4.

Last month, Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah issued a decree to dissolve the parliament.

The decree was based on the national assembly’s “violation of the constitutional principles,” KUNA added.

The assembly was elected in June 2023 following a proposal by the prime minister that was approved by the cabinet.