It was noon on March 5, 2007, and Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad was crowded with pedestrians. Some huddled around bookstands, others watched poets recite to their friends when a powerful car bomb exploded, killing at least 20 people and wounding more than 65.
Smoke billowed above the ornate buildings, books burned and the smell of death spread to every corner of the street. It was a cultural massacre. Ten years later Mutanabbi Street is again full of life. It regained its dazzling glory and became the intellectual oasis of Baghdad once more.
Its narrow, rutted lane is lined with booksellers stacking volumes on the ground and in their stores. Tucked among the plethora of bookshops is a store run by Baraa al-Bayati, a 28-year-old charismatic Iraqi.
She has carved her own place in Iraq’s publishing scene as the first female bookseller and publisher on Mutanabbi Street. Bayati struggled to find employment in her field after graduating from university as an engineer.
With only a dream and determination, Bayati embarked on her literary journey. “Since my childhood, the literary scene fascinated me,” she said in interviews conducted via internet-based media, including Skype.
“My love for reading and my dream of being a bookseller and a publisher drove me along this path. So I decided to try to fulfil my dream to be a bookseller. “It was a decision that I made by myself and I had the backing of my parents and friends. What surprised me most was the backing and support I had from other booksellers.”
The plight of women in Iraq is largely ignored, both within Iraqi society and by the international community. Many women face multiple challenges: Caring for their families, earning an income, taking part in their communities and forging a professional life.
“Sometimes I hear a lot of hurtful and virulent remarks spoken to me that stem from immature attitudes and from people who refuse to recognise that a woman is an independent person with the right to work and earn a living,” Bayati said.
“Women always face negative things in their jobs, which demotivate them. There is scepticism and more misogynist behaviour towards them in their jobs, especially successful and strong women. Despite this, I look at the positive things more than the negative and overcome barriers that can hold back my entrepreneurial growth and progress.”
Bayati said she is determined to make her own contributions to the Iraqi book industry. “I want to highlight the importance of reading within the Iraqi literary and cultural scene. Iraq’s writers display incredible literary virtuosity and versatility and I want to support them by making their work available to readers in Iraq and globally,” she said.
Managing the day-to-day buying and selling of books is part and parcel of her operation. She not only chooses books that will be obvious big sellers but also subtle titles that would delight customers when they browse her store.
Bayati’s day starts with the sound of Lebanese diva Fairuz and the smell of coffee. “I organise the bookshop and sort out delivery orders, as I offer a delivery service for those with difficulty getting to my bookshop. I also read some manuscripts submitted to me for publishing,” she said.
Bayati also works as a reporter for the online magazine Iraqi Celebrities and has a TV programme dedicated to highlighting new publications and titles in the book market. Her customers vary considerably but she said she favours children, whom she sees as the foundation of a new Iraqi society.
“I encourage and motivate the children to read and I try to provide them with the appropriate books,” Bayati said. “I believe that they carry the future of Iraq on their shoulders and that they will build a modern and advanced Iraq to compete with the rest of the world.”
Bayati said she appreciates people coming a long way to buy from her bookshop. “I get a lot of letters of support from all over the Arab world. These things make me happy and make me forget the negative things,” she said.
“Despite all the obstacles I have faced and will face, I aspire to become known internationally as the first Iraqi woman to own a bookshop and a printing press in Mutanabbi Street.
“For me, the biggest challenge is proving wrong all those who bet on my failure.The future is unknown but I feel it is connected with my ambitions and there are no limitations on my ambitions.”
Robert Ewan is a British-Iraqi freelance journalist and author with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs.