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The female publisher fighting for free expression
Muna Al Jabri, a female publisher is encouraging a new generation of authors to harness the power of the written word
Muna Al Jabri, the female publisher fighting for the power of the written word
To begin with, Muna Al Jabri ignored the jibes as she walked to work on Al Mutanabbi Street. This was the heart of bookselling in Baghdad, renowned across the Middle East for its literary legacy stretching back almost a century, and she had established a publishing house here. It was the fulfillment of a dream that had long seemed impossible. “No one supported me except my family, I almost lost hope.”
Two years in, her business is flourishing. The premises, halfway along Al Mutanabbi Street, is bright and inviting with books neatly arranged around the room and posters on the walls of American actress Marilyn Monroe, Iraqi singer Kazem El Saher and Lebanese singer Fairuz, as well as the English singer-songwriter Adele. A feathery dream catcher hangs over the glass door, which is stamped with the logo and name of her publishing house, Avitoria.
It’s the name of a fantasy city seized by revolution, where the characters stand up against injustice and corruption. She came across it in a novel by Egyptian author Sarah Johar and found herself drawn to the heroine, who fights to spread culture across her country. “She’s very similar to me,” she says.
Al Jabri’s weapon is literature and to date, she has published 36 titles, all of them written by upcoming writers and college students aspiring to be authors. “We need strong writers, real writers, who can speak freely for the whole of Iraq,” says Al Jabri, who wants to create a group of authors with the strength to speak out against injustice.
“There are a lot of books you can’t publish in Iraq,” she says, pointing to political works and books that shine a light on well-known people or institutions. “This is not healthy. As a writer you have to be free to write everything you want, to solve the problems in society and speak the truth about what happens in Iraq.”
As a novelist with three books under her belt, she knows how hard it is to launch a writing career, which is why she works mainly with young authors. “No one supported me when I started writing and it was really hard. I worry that some of them will give up and that would be so sad. We need writers here in Iraq.
It was Al Jabri’s mother who encouraged her to take out a bank loan and launch a publishing house on Al Mutanabbi Street, which has been the home of bookselling in Baghdad since it was established in 1932 by King Faisal I. Named after the celebrated 10th-century poet Abu Tayeb al-Mutanabbi, the historic street stretches for one kilometer, winding down to the Tigris through the old quarter of Baghdad.
Everyone from students and families to elderly intellectuals frequents the book stalls and cafes along the street, including Shahbandar Café, a famous literary hangout, which is always packed with men sipping coffee, reading newspapers, and discussing the issues of the day. It’s just a few doors down from Avitoria, but Al Jabri rarely goes in.
“I’ve been a few times because it is a wonderful historical café but most of the visitors are men – not all of them good people – and it’s uncomfortable for women,” she says.
In fact, Al Jabri has decided to move away from Al Mutanabbi Street, to new premises elsewhere in Baghdad. “I can’t be here anymore, I have had so much abuse, I can’t be in a place that’s not comfortable for me, or the women writers I publish.” She is tired of the insults and innuendos from male colleagues on the street. “It’s a great place for books and history but there are some unpleasant people,” she says.
Al Jabri is among a handful of women who own businesses on Al Mutanabbi Street and they share the same problems. “They don’t want us here. We don’t know why, we’re just doing our work,” she says.
The prospect of her new premises, which will be supported by an Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders, fills her with excitement and relief. When the news of the grant came through, she celebrated with friends and fellow female authors. “We sat in the street drinking tea, planning, and singing,” she says. “I didn’t think anyone would help us and I’m so grateful IBB did.”
The new Avitoria will be larger, with space for workshops to give young writers the opportunity to improve their skills and network with other authors. She also wants to hold free English classes, so Iraqi authors can connect with other writers abroad, and set aside a coffee space for women to talk and work in peace.
“Muna is a symbol of hope for Iraqi women working in fields traditionally reserved for men,” says Faisal Al Mutar, President of Ideas Beyond Borders. “Her publishing house aims to give young writers an opportunity to write openly and honestly about the issues that matter. We need more enterprises like hers to build a free and fair Iraq.”
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