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As Iraq's annual book fair opens, the ripples of war still linger

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One of Iraq's biggest cultural events of the year started today - the Iraq International Book Fair. From Baghdad, NPR's Jane Arraf reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Baghdad has always had a love affair with books. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was essentially cut off from the world, and each book was precious, photocopied, shared and treasured. Two decades later, books are still valued, but no longer a rare commodity. At this book fair, there are three pavilions full of tables stacked with thousands of titles.

The lights have gone out again because of the electricity cuts here, but people are just turning on the flashlights on their phones and continuing to browse. This is the Iraqi and Egyptian pavilion. Egypt, of course, is full of voracious readers, and Iraq is full of readers and writers. There are a lot of books of history and politics, and there are lots of other genres. Danya, one of the booksellers, who is 21, tells us what young people are reading.

DANYA: They mostly like novels - maybe fantasy novels, romance, comedy sometimes.

ARRAF: One thing she knows, though, is that romance always sells.

DANYA: I think, in this age, we look for love. Maybe we look to these kind of relationships. We need to read these kind of things.

ARRAF: Nearby, a high-school senior, Danny Haider, is browsing with her cousin.

DANNY HAIDER: I'm really trying to focus on school, but my mom dragged me here today. And I was like, Mom, I have to study. And she was like, no, let's go out, and let's get some books. And I was like, OK.

ARRAF: Danny, who is 18, says she started reading for pleasure just last year. But she's maybe not your typical teenage reader.

HAIDER: I've been reading "The Art Of War," too. I've been - I just started that one, and I've been, like, translating it into Arabic.

ARRAF: Do you mean Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"?

HAIDER: Yes. That one. So far, I'm, like, enjoying it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

ARRAF: Iraq has become so much calmer in the last few years, but Iraqis are never far from thoughts of war. Since October, it's been the war in Gaza. The pavilion walls are decorated with scenes of Jerusalem. Olive trees in pots dot the sidewalks. Some of the booksellers wear Palestinian scarves.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: On opening day, the featured speakers are Palestinian poets. One of them is Fatena Al-Ghorra. She lives in Belgium, but she was in Gaza when the war started in October.

FATENA AL-GHORRA: At that time, I thought, like, poetry is a luxury in these circumstances because I couldn't concentrate. But I thought maybe I could write letters for my niece, who's living in Belgium.

ARRAF: So she started writing about life in the hospital where she was sheltering about the lives she saw lost in the two months she spent there.

AL-GHORRA: I think the most important thing right now is literature - to document what's - what we have, what we live right now and what we witness right now.

ARRAF: Al-Ghorra says, after managing to leave with her ailing 80-year-old parent, she felt reborn.

AL-GHORRA: So I have been sent there also to be the voice of the people who has no voice. I think I have been made for this moment. I've - every decision in my life, I took it to be at this moment in Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARRAF: She realizes, in these times, writing and reading is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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