The Bookseller of Baghdad (Part Two)

In Feature Articles by Chip Rossetti

By Chip Rossetti


Today Publishing Perspectives concludes its profile of Ibrahim Anas Al-Rajab, director of Baghdad’s legendary Al-Muthanna Library, and one of Iraq’s leading booksellers. Yesterday, Part One focused on the history of the store, from the early 20th century to 1999. Today, we pick up the story at the start of the first Gulf War in 1990 and carry on up to the present day.

With Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the imposition of international sanctions following the Gulf War, Al-Muthanna’s export business ground to a halt. It was around this time that Ibrahim Anas al-Rajab followed in his father and grandfathers footsteps and began to get involved in the family business, working at the bookstore during school vacations.  During the time of sanctions, “we were trapped — not allowed to export or import any books,” he says. “People’s incomes were very low and they couldn’t afford to buy books.”

Following the fire in 1999, the family used its own money to rebuild the store on the same site. With Ibrahim’s architectural training — he holds a degree in architectural engineering from Baghdad University, where he graduated in 1996 — he contributed to the plans and ensured  that the new building replicated some of the features of the old. Unfortunately, due to construction costs, not much money remained to stock it with new books, so the initial selection was limited.

anasqal-rajabThen came the American invasion in 2003. With the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, books began to be imported into Iraq again, but that new freedom came with a price: “People were importing certain types of books and getting killed for it.  At the time, mainly in 2004 and 2005, people were eager to get books that had been banned in the time of Saddam Hussein.” The rising sectarian violence was reflected in the importation of inflammatory literature — both Shi’ite and Sunni — into Iraq. “Some dealers approached importers from Iran, and they introduced to the market very extreme kinds of books.  On the other hand, other booksellers were bringing in books from Saudi Arabia — extremist literature on the other side.”  The violence and sectarianism were a far cry from the bookselling environment Qasim Al-Rajab had once known: “In his time, my grandfather would sell books by Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Shia.  Bookselling then was very different from the sectarian situation post-war,” said Ibrahim.

As a result, Ibrahim’s father decided the time was not yet right to get back into the publishing business.  The family moved their offices closer to their homes, because security made it difficult to get around Baghdad. Al-Muthanna began replenishing their warehouse, and got into the business of supplying MARC [Machine-Readable Cataloging] records for other local publishers. Nevertheless, as time passed, Ibrahim thought the company should try its hand at publishing again, and inspired by his attendance at the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair, where the Arab World was the official guest of honor: “I told my father we should publish:  the world is reading, it’s not too late. So we tried publishing two books. My father told me that publishing in Iraq these days is like throwing your money away. But, he said, since it’s your first attempt, go ahead and we’ll see the results.  Well, now I’ve seen the results.”

The two books were a local history of Baghdad’s historic neighborhoods and a book on gemstones. Even at a cover price of around $1, Al-Muthanna still has hundreds of the books in stock, which, for Ibrahim, speaks to the greater problems of distribution and publishing in the Arab world, which were confirmed to him by his recent attendance at a publishers’ training seminar in Abu Dhabi (see our coverage here).

“Now that I’ve taken this seminar, I’ve come to realize that our main problem in the Arab world is that book dealers always have to keep two jobs in hand: publisher and bookseller. You have to be either one or the other. This is the main problem, as well as the lack of copyright control.  Moreover, in Iraq or other countries, we don’t have appropriate strategies for distribution and marketing. We don’t have target readers: we just publish what we like, not what people would like. Here, the publisher always starts out as a bookseller:  he starts publishing because he realizes it’s not difficult to publish. But we have to separate the two businesses.”

Unfortunately, publishing situation today, in Ibrahim’s estimate, is not much improved: “There are no serious publishers in Iraq, only government ones. They have the new printing presses, manpower, and resources. My observation is that Iraq is publishing only about 300 titles a year, and half of those are published in Kurdistan. There are serious publishers in Kurdistan that publish a lot.”

Ibrahim points out that Kurdistan publishers (which publish in both Kurdish and Arabic) publish not just Kurdish writers, but authors from all over Iraq. Many of those presses, however, are owned by political parties, and are specifically aimed at promoting the Kurdish independence movement.

Nevertheless, Ibrahim has hope for the future of Al-Muthanna:  “In recent years, we’ve resumed our contact with the old libraries and universities we  had done business with. It was good that they remembered us, and wanted to do business with us again.” Widespread corruption has made it difficult to do business locally, which is why the company focuses on selling books abroad.

And there are benefits to working in a family firm: his father, Anas Al-Rajab, is still the owner and manager, and Ibrahim’s younger brother works there as well. Ibrahim is a vice president and describes himself as the projects manager. “It is nice to have this feeling of a family-owned business, and to do things the way your father and grandfather used to. In that sense, it’s not always a business. My grandfather’s first priority was to make a book available for the person who needed it, not just to sell it.”

Despite daily frustrations that may make reading seem like an unnecessary luxury (“We are getting something like six hours of electricity per day.  It’s horrible: 18 hours of no electricity per day in Baghdad in August. Checkpoints all over the city, the heat, the lack of services…), Ibrahim is confident that Al-Muthanna Library will return to book publishing, and hopes to create a separate publishing subsidiary. The possibilities afforded by print-on-demand and other printing technologies would be the ultimate tribute to his late grandfather: “I still believe we can publish books. We have good authors and good materials. Iraq has some of the best authors in the Arab world. I just hope we will survive for the next generation.”

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.