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Between the Bookshelves
Meet the writers, vendors and publishers celebrating literature and spreading knowledge across the Middle East, regardless of the risks.
In societies where freedom of expression remains out of reach, reading, writing or even touching the ‘wrong’ book carries dangerous consequences. This is particularly true in Iraq, where militias pay unexpected visits along Al Mutanabbi Street, reminding publishers in Baghdad’s famous book market that people have disappeared after flouting their rules. Similar threats hang over booksellers in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have imposed strict restrictions on what can and can’t be sold. The story changes across the Middle East, but the underlying theme is the same - certain books are considered dangerous, and those who buy, read or sell them are violating a social code.
Yet wherever authoritarian regimes or extremist groups ban books and hinder access to knowledge, brave individuals fight back. Ideas Beyond Borders supports many of these people, from publishers printing copies of prohibited volumes and booksellers sourcing works rarely seen in the region, to the Iraqi woman opening a bookstore in the country's conservative south and the social worker bringing books to orphans in Afghanistan. Their methods vary, but they have one thing in common - a determination to stare down censorship and give people access to books, whatever the consequences.
After growing up with no bookstores in the impoverished Iraqi province of Al-Muthanna, Nashwa Naim Naser is determined to give others the access she lacked. “I have always loved reading, but whenever I wanted to buy a book it was a struggle. I either had to go to Baghdad or ask someone coming from a big city to bring it for me,” the 27-year-old recalls. Her ambition to open a bookshop has been beset by challenges - first from her family, who were reluctant to allow a female member of the household to launch her own business, and then financially as she struggled to raise the funds. With help from Ideas Beyond Borders, she opened Ishtar Bookshop last September and is now paving the way for female entrepreneurs in conservative Al-Muthanna. “The thing that excites me most, aside from fulfilling a dream to have my own bookstore, is to provide access to books for people who love reading… Now I have the chance to meet face to face with the readers who are becoming more like friends rather than just customers,” she says.
As Afghans struggle under rising social and economic pressure, children are paying a particularly high price. “A lot of children are at risk in Afghanistan at the moment, but those living out on the streets day and night with no one to take care of them are especially vulnerable,” says Diana, a child psychologist, citing forced labor, sexual abuse and drug trafficking among the threats they face. After seeing the impact on children she works with, Diana approached Ideas Beyond Borders for funding to build and stock a library at a local orphanage, aiming to provide more support for young people facing a deeply uncertain future under Taliban rule. “The children are stressed. There are so many issues affecting this generation,” she says. “A child with access to books and education is less likely to be exploited or brainwashed and will more likely become a useful addition to the country.”
Safaa Dhiab, Shahrayar, Iraq
The final decades of Ottoman rule marked the end of an important era in Iraqi history and paved the way for the period of British rule and eventually independence that followed in the twentieth century. Yet few books written by contemporaries of this period are available in Arabic - a vacuum Dhiab is addressing through a project supported by Ideas Beyond Borders to translate seven volumes recounting events between 1850 and 1922, when the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed. “Understanding this era is very important to understand the new Iraq and how we got to where we are today,” says Dhiab, who has been a publisher for 28 years, working out of his shop on Al Mutanabbi Street. The volumes include War in the garden of Eden by Kermit Roosevelt, The Monuments of Nineveh, by Austen Henry Layard and To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in Disguise by Ely Bannister Soane. It’s the first time many of these books will be published in Arabic and Dhiab is confident there will be strong demand. “A lot of Iraqis and other Arabs are interested in this time because it was significant for the whole region,” he says.
Bilal Mohsen, Dar Sutoor, Erbil
Prior to 2003, few books were allowed in Iraq. “Only those that served the purpose of the dictatorship,” says Mohsen. But that changed after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime following the US-led invasion 20 years ago. “People became thirsty for new knowledge, especially philosophy, so we are trying to invest in this interest and get more young people reading, adds Mohsen,” who is opening a second branch of his bookshop Dar Sutoor with support from Ideas Beyond Borders to cater to a growing readership in Erbil. In the two decades that followed the invasion, the Kurdish capital has become a hub for the international community in Iraq, with Arabic as the lingua franca. “Erbil became a center for many people from all over the world speaking in Arabic, and locals speaking Kurdish couldn’t communicate or work with them,” says Mohsen. To address this, he has opened a new branch of his Al Mutanabbi street bookstore, Dar Sutoor, in Erbil, catering to a diverse community of readers seeking books translated from English, French, German and other European languages into Arabic. “Many of our customers are students and young people that want to work in Kurdistan, they want to learn,” Mohsen says. “People are thirsty for new kinds of knowledge as a reaction to the ignorance that is spreading in Iraq.”
Until recently, access to books was extremely limited in rural Ghorband, a district of Parwan Province in eastern Afghanistan. College students traveled to Kabul for many of their course materials, while younger readers had little opportunity to cultivate an interest in literature. Now, a new library has opened its doors to fill the void and provide the region with access to books for all age groups. “We plan to have reading programs for children and a lending system for girls who aren’t allowed outside the house,” says Ahmad Jawid Karimyan, who opened Ghorband Library in November 2022. He believes the library will create opportunities for youngsters growing up in Ghorband and act as a deterrent to some of the challenges the district shares with other parts of Afghanistan. “Books are the way to a brighter future,” he says, adding that reading and knowledge are the paths to tackling the radical ideologies and oppressive social structures that curtail people’s freedom in Afghanistan. “I want to serve humanity and create a brighter future for all,” says Karimyan, who secured an Innovation Hub grant to build the library and plans to build others across Afghanistan when the project is complete.
Mustafa Waleed, Dar Alhadbaa, Iraq
There have always been books in Mustafa Waleed’s house in Mosul, hundreds of them, crowding the shelves of his father’s library. When Isis gangs stole them during their occupation of the city in 2014, the family had to start from scratch. Living in Bagdad, Waleed made daily trips to Al Mutanabbi Street, the capital’s famous bookselling quarter, forging friendships with like-minded book lovers he met there. Since returning to Mosul, he has played an active role in the cultural rehabilitation of the city, organizing festivals and founding the Bytna Foundation for Culture, Arts, and Heritage, much of which was destroyed in the battle to expel Isis. Now he wants to establish a library to restore some of the titles that were stolen, burnt and destroyed under Isis rule. “The residents of this region desperately need a space for reading and enlightenment,” says Waleed, who is transforming a bombed-out site into the new library with help from an Ideas Beyond Borders Innovation Hub grant.
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