The Bookseller of Baghdad (Part One)

In Feature Articles by Chip Rossetti

By Chip Rossetti

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Today Publishing Perspectives offers a rare and exclusive profile of Ibrahim Anas Al-Rajab, director of Baghdad’s legendary Al-Muthanna Library, and one of Iraq’s leading booksellers. Part one, published today, focuses on the history of the store, from the early 20th century to 1999, when it mysteriously burnt down. Tomorrow, we continue with Part 2, picking up from the rebuilding, carrying on through the recent US led invasion and up to the present day.

“I’ve never cried over anything in my life like I did that day,” recalls Ibrahim Anas al-Rajab. “My father, my brothers and I watched the most beautiful thing we had — our memories and life — turn to ashes in hours.” For Ibrahim, the third generation in a legendary family of Baghdad booksellers, August 20, 1999 was a black day.  Early that morning, the family’s Al-Muthanna bookstore, at the time the biggest in Iraq, went up in flames. “It was a beautiful bookshop,” he says. “The building was a traditional Baghdad house built in 1920 with unique architectural features. It was the biggest bookstore in Iraq: three stories with 13 halls packed with books, from the ground to the ceiling, thousands and thousands of books. It had that smell of old books — it was the best.”

For much of the 20th century, Baghdad’s Al-Muthanna Library has been a mainstay of Iraqi bookselling and publishing, although the repression of Saddam Hussein’s regime, followed by years of sanctions, the fire in 1999, and the chaos and violence that have plagued Iraq since 2003 have all taken a toll. Today, the new Al-Muthanna Library has been rebuilt on the same site in the historic Souq al-Saray bookselling district, off Mutanabbi Street. It now does much of its business as a book supplier exporting Iraqi books to foreign universities and libraries, although Ibrahim and his family would one day like to bring back its publishing arm.

Decades ago, however, Al-Muthanna was “like a public place where people who love books and want to get rare books or culture would go. It was more like a national library, if you will. And that’s why my grandfather stuck with the name Library, not Bookshop.” Ibrahim’s grandfather, Qasim al-Rajab (1919-1974), started {his career} in bookselling with a budget of just four dinars, borrowed from his uncle. (With the money, he ordered a book from England, waited a month for it to arrive, and then resold it locally for 8 dinars, demonstrating an early appreciation for bookselling mark-ups.) His first shop, opened in 1936, was a 2-by-2 meter stand.

Soon after that, Qasim Al-Rajab began to specialize in obtaining books for his customers that were unavailable in Iraq. “All the booksellers and publishers in the Arab world have the problem of distribution and importing,” says Ibrahim, so his grandfather’s mission was “a big hit with readers who were looking for manuscripts they had read about, but couldn’t get their hands on.” Qasim Al-Rajab traveled frequently to Egypt, Lebanon, Germany, Iran, Pakistan and India in search of specific titles as well as current magazines and journals from elsewhere in the Arab world.  In the era of Arab nationalism, in the 1950s and 1960s, “there was great interest in what was going on in the rest of the Arab world.”

In a region where import restrictions and government censors made the free flow of books a rarity, and in an era before the internet, Qasim Al-Rajab’s devotion to hunting down books and making them available  earned him the nickname of shaykh al-kutubiyyin (the shaykh of booksellers.) Loyal customers also dubbed him al-Fihrist-“the Index” — partly for his prodigious memory and partly in homage to a famous 10th-century Baghdad bookseller, Ibn Nadim, who wrote a well-known bibliography of the same title. Between 1960 and 1972, he also published a regular journal-cum-catalogue, al-Maktaba (The Library), which featured articles and announcements about major new books published elsewhere in the world.  Qasim Al-Rajab also launched a project of reprinting editions of medieval Arabic texts. That meant getting hold of rare manuscripts in academic libraries in places as far as London, Leipzig and Leiden and then publish modern editions in Beirut, India and Pakistan, where printing costs were cheaper. He would also occasionally print them, as well in Iran, which was known then for its good printing technology and for having state-of-the-art presses. In all, he published around 200 books, including editions of 1001 Nights and medieval works of Arabic travel literature.

In 1970, the new Ba’athist regime, as part of its program of nationalization, began taking over elements of the book industry: importing could be done solely through a government agency.  “That was the biggest hit to the book market.  From that point on, you couldn’t import anything without government approval,” says Ibrahim al-Rajab.

Qasim al-Rajab died in 1974, while on a business trip in Beirut, and the family business passed to Ibrahim’s father and uncle.  At the time of his death, Al-Muthanna had branched out into publishing not only printing classic texts, but general interest titles as well. Its biggest seller was a cookbook of Iraqi cuisine, Dalil al-tabakh (Guide to Cooking) which was originally published in the early 1970s and is now in its 30th printing.

Al-Muthanna had expanded, opening branches in the southern Iraq city of Basra and as well as in Beirut, Lebannon. In 1979, it opened its own printing press in a separate building, using a machine imported from Germany which was “at that time, state of the art.” As Iraq’s long war with Iran continued through the 1980s, the local situation deteriorated: the family was forced to close the branch stores, and the business of exporting Iraqi books to American and European institutions became more difficult. “It was just a matter of survival, as it is now,” says Ibrahim of that period.

About the Author

Chip Rossetti

Chip Rossetti is the managing editor of the Library of Arabic Literature translation series at NYU Press. He is a translator of contemporary Arabic fiction.