The Iraqis guarding Baghdad’s many checkpoints, on the lookout for car bombs and convoys, don’t know what to make of Ali al-Moussawi when he pulls up in a truck displaying shelves of glossy books.
The mobile bookstore is the latest in a series of efforts by the 25-year-old to share his passion for reading and revive a love for books in Baghdad, which was once the literary capital of the Muslim world but is now better known for bombs than poems.
It began with “Iraqi Bookish,” a Facebook group for readers launched in 2015. He eventually started organizing book clubs, contests, signings and writing seminars held at cultural centers and cafes.
“I adore reading,” said al-Moussawi, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English translation. “I have long wanted to meet people like me, so I was thinking of creating something where all readers could gather at any time, regardless of where they are.”
He eventually took to selling books in order to finance the cultural activities, opening a bookstand in a Baghdad mall that offers a delivery service and designing shelves and other book-themed gifts.
Now he finds himself steering a bookstore on wheels through Baghdad’s snarled traffic, past its checkpoints, barbed wire and blast walls. Security forces often insist on searching his truck, fearing it contains explosives, and parking can be subject to prolonged negotiations.
The world’s greatest poets flocked to Baghdad after it was established as the capital of the Abbasid Empire in the 8th century A.D., but its cultural flowering ended with the Mongol conquest of 1258. Iraq’s modern education system, richly financed by oil wealth in the 1970s, was subsequently decimated by years of war and sanctions.
The city still takes pride in its literary heritage. The al-Mutanabbi market in central Baghdad, named for a 10th century poet, hosts a bustling used book fair every Friday. The Shahbandar cafe, in the heart of the bazaar, remains a popular haunt for writers and intellectuals, who gaze upon black and white photos from more peaceful times.
Al-Moussawi has found plenty of customers. He says his business brings in a monthly income of up to $4,000, and that he has hired four paid workers.
But he must swap out his offerings depending on where he goes in the city, which is still deeply divided by the sectarian violence that erupted after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Sunnis and Shiites gravitate toward their own religious texts, and in Sunni areas biographies of Saddam Hussein remain popular.
He recalls a time in the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah when a man in his 50s ran up to the truck and grabbed an Arabic translation of “Saddam: The Secret Life,” by Con Coughlin. The man’s eyes filled with tears as he kissed the cover.
Many Sunnis still revere Saddam – who was executed in 2006 – and blame the violence and chaos of recent years on the American invasion and the Shiite-dominated government established in its wake.
On one recent afternoon, al-Moussawi drove to an upscale neighborhood and parked at a mall near the University of Baghdad. There the clientele was mainly students, so he put out textbooks, novels and poetry in different languages, and celebrity biographies.
Salma Abdul-Karim, a 25-year old student, said her passion for reading came from growing up in a family of poetry lovers, but on that afternoon she opted for a biography of Oprah Winfrey.
“I love biographies because they tell you about the experiences a person went through so you can benefit from it,” she said.