Historic Baghdad Book Market Bulldozed in Late-Night Raid

The book market on Baghdad’s Mutanabi street, one of Iraq’s oldest and most treasured cultural hubs, was razed by Iraqi police on Sept. 17, reports Al-Hayat's Ali al-Saray. The Iraqi government now faces criticism that it's trying to clamp down on cultural activity in the country.

al-monitor Residents walk along Mutanabi Street in Baghdad April 5, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen.

Topics covered

literature, state censorship, culture, baghdad

Sep 21, 2012

Iraqi police raided Mutanabi Street in Baghdad, a vital hub of cultural activity in the country, and destroyed the book-fair stalls on the street.

On September 17, bulldozers guarded by armed soldiers stormed the street late at night and smashed the wooden stalls used by booksellers for displaying and selling their books.

The vendors said they did not receive a warning to evacuate the area. An eyewitness told Al-Hayat that a large bulldozer, alongside other heavy equipment, entered Mutanabi Street after the shops closed and books were returned to the stores.

The Municipality of Baghdad released a statement the following day saying that “the campaign aims to remove violations from Mutanabi Street.”

The statement obligated the vendors “to carry out their activities only on Fridays.” According to the Municipality of Baghdad, the crackdown “included removing the stalls, book exhibits and publications from the sidewalks.”

Al-Hayat has learned that officials in the municipality are planning to turn Mutanabi Street into an animal market like Souk al-Ghazal. Booksellers would only be permitted to work on Fridays, as is the case with vendors of birds and dogs.

The raid came as a great shock to the intellectual circles in the Iraq. It led to a wave of complaints and prompted a flood of disapproving comments on social media websites against the “hostile manner” of the security services on a street that enjoys a high cultural status among Iraqis.

Angry comments referred to “double standards” in the performance of government agencies, which demonstrate violence and hostility in enforcing law and order on Mutanabi Street while vast areas in the capital continue to suffer from the deterioration of municipal services.

A number of booksellers demonstrated the following morning to demand compensation for the damages inflicted by the Municipality of Baghdad. According to bookseller Sattar Mohsen, the raid will likely limit trade in Mutanabi Street, which has picked up in the past two months.

Iraqi activists announced an initiative two months ago called “I read... I am Iraqi,” described as a "youth campaign to achieve reconciliation with books and expand the [Iraqi] reader base to include youth groups outside the elite.”

The Iraqi government has come under wide and harsh criticism by intellectuals as a result of its “attempts to clamp down on cultural activity in the country.”

The government has already taken other measures under the pretext of enforcing law and order which led to the suspension of social and cultural activities in Baghdad and Iraqi governorates. Civic activists believe that the violent implementation of these decisions reveals the discontent of powerful political forces over civic movements in the country.

Since the raid, the street has witnessed a heavy presence of security elements. Some vendors said they saw soldiers place materials for exhibiting books under bulldozers to be crushed. According to Iraqi researcher and journalist Shamkhi Jabr, the Municipality of Baghdad claims that it is removing "violations" from the street. Jabr wrote on Facebook that they are destroying the street and obstructing cultural activity within it.

The parliamentary Culture and Media Committee has asserted its intention to investigate the incident.  Batoul Hisham, an Iraqi Member of Parliament from the State of Law coalition told Al-Hayat that “it is not the right time to raid Mutanabi Street, and the [manner in which it was done] does not befit the street’s history.”

Iraqi intellectuals expect an increase in pressure on civic activities in the country. They believe that under the guise of law and authority, the Iraqi government is trying to control cultural and social sectors and hubs in Baghdad.

Every week, different cultural events not sponsored by the government are held in Mutanabi Street on the sidelines of the market for Iraqi, Arab and foreign books and publications.

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