BAGHDAD, Iraq—For decades, this city's writers and readers have spent Friday mornings meandering down Mutanabi Street, a weekly open-air book market in one of the city's oldest quarters.
An Iraqi proverb has it that in Cairo they write books, in Beirut they print them, and in Baghdad they read them. Since the turn of the century Mutanabi Street was the place to buy them—a center of knowledge in a secular Arab country where the vibrancy of intellectual life was legendary. Under Saddam Hussein, the stout of heart could find forbidden materials there.
Mutanabi Street is still thriving, but with an important difference in character from the prosperous 1970s.
The vast majority of the books sold—upwards of 80 percent, according to some vendors—are religious literature. Beaten down by years of war, repression and deprivation, many once-cosmopolitan Baghdadis have lost their appetite for history, fiction and poetry, and are turning to religion at a time when the country is debating the role of Islam in the new government.
This palpable hunger for religious materials—among Sunnis and Shiites alike—calls into question the oft-repeated notion that Iraq is a secular country.
"Under 13 years of sanctions, the middle class eroded," said Najah Hayawi, owner of the Al-Nahdha bookshop. "The proverb about Iraqi reading habits is not valid any more. Very few people are interested in novels these days. ... It makes me sad."
Some of the best selling books are collections of speeches and proverbs by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979. His works have particular appeal for Shiites, who are 60 percent of Iraq's population. The writings of prominent Shiite clerics were banned under Saddam, which is one explanation people give when asked why they are gobbling them up now.
For that reason, some observers caution not to read too much into the upsurge of interest in religious texts. It is human nature, they note, for people to desire what has been kept from them for so long.
"Some people are interested in these books purely because they were banned," said Abdul Kareem al Asadi, a sculpture who was browsing religious books on Friday.
Last week, an Iranian cultural organization sponsored a book fair at a Baghdad university designed to commemorate 25 years of clerical rule in Iran.
Huge pictures of Khomeini and other Iranian clerics adorned the walls. Large crowds that included physicians, teachers and white-collar workers either didn't know or didn't care that Khomeini liquidated his political opponents in much the same way Saddam did.
The fair drew upwards of 3,000 people a day, one of its organizers said, and was so popular among Baghdad's Shiite population that it was extended from 10 days to 15.
"What distinguishes Ayatollah Khomeini from other scholars is that he has a special theory of rule, and he is the only scholar who embodied that theory into a state," said Ali al Kaabi, who came to buy books for a Shiite cultural center in Sadr City, the predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad.
An influential cleric in Sadr City, Muqtada al Sadr, favors an Iranian-style theocracy. But Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, the Iranian-born cleric who has become perhaps the most influential political voice in Iraq at the moment, has made it clear he does not.
Al Kaabi said he believes a majority of Iraqis would prefer a clerical government, but he said he didn't think the Americas would allow it.
"The desire is one thing, the reality is something else," he said.
On Mutanabi Street, Haider Ibrahim, who works as an English translator for the Iraqi police academy, is explaining why he thinks so many of his countrymen are thirsting for Islam.
"When a society collapses, people turn to religion," he said. "They are looking for answers."
He enjoys Dickens and Shakespeare, as well as Time and Newsweek. All of that and plenty of other English books are still available in the market, snapped up by Iraqis trying to improve language skills.
There are Tom Clancy novels and old issues of Maxim magazine, with its scantily clad cover models. There are also lots of Arabic books of science, politics, law and nearly every other field of human endeavor. They just don't sell nearly as well as the ones on religion.
The Mutanabi Street market, two football fields long, is in the shadow of the now-empty Qoushle, which was the official seat of the Ottoman Turkish government that controlled Iraq a century ago. On one corner is Shahbandar cafe, Baghdad's oldest literary coffee house, where writers and poets still congregate on Fridays.
Sitting in the cafe, Iraqi Poet Hussein al Husseini, an elderly, elegant man in a dapper blazer, says he has no patience for the new religious fervor.
"When men lose hope and trust in ideologies, when they tire of facing reality, they look for alternatives," he says. "These men are more comfortable than you or me, because they believe that all catastrophes and disasters are motivated by God."
The Americans have a foot in Iraq's literary marketplace, though not on Mutanabi Street. The U.S. Agency for International Development has funded a program called Just Read, under which thousands of copies of two State Department books explaining democracy are being distributed to young people through schools and universities.
"The people here are reading too many religious books," said Mohammed Zaal, a university student who is supervising the program. "We are working on motivating them to learn about democracy."
Whether American-style democracy can trump Iranian-style theocracy—or whether Iraqis will find a third way—may depend in part on how Iraqis sift through the many new ideas they find on Mutanabi Street.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BOOKS