- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

BAGHDAD — Deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would be grumbling in his prison cell if he knew.

Al-Mutanabi Street, the book-lined alley whose spirit he tried for decades to crush, again is filled with customers, from communists to clerics, who once would have faced jail for reading some of the material for sale.

One man browsing the stalls was Sami al-Mutairy, a one-eyed poet and playwright who wrote “The Tribes of Fear,” a thinly veiled attack on Saddam’s attempts to sow ethnic disunity. He was imprisoned and tortured by the Ba’ath Party’s secret police.

“They used a ring to grind out my eye,” he said. “They said I was a communist. Well, that was true enough — I am a Trotskyite. But I don’t think the punishment fit the crime.”

Many of those around him, vendors and customers alike, also were jailed.

Abdul Rasool Ali, a member of the once-persecuted Shi’ite religious majority, was arrested three times, accused of selling texts espousing his creed. After a confession obtained under torture, he was jailed for eight years.

But he considers that he escaped lightly in comparison with his brothers. One was executed; the other disappeared.

“Before, we had to be very careful what we sold,” Mr. Ali said. “But now look. I have everything in open view.”

The atmosphere of repression may have vanished, but Al-Mutanabi Street is in dire need of new material if it hopes to return to its heyday of the mid-20th century.

Most of the books for sale were published no later than the 1960s, donated to the vendors by rich Iraqis who emptied their libraries before fleeing the country.

Perhaps the most unsuccessful book on display was “Konec Dobrodruzstvi,” a Czech translation of Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair.”

“I’ve been trying to get rid of that for 14 years,” said vendor George Sabah. “No one seems to want it.”

Iraq’s intellectuals are starting to write again, but they face a new threat from extremists fighting U.S. troops and Iraq’s interim government. These insurgents also are targeting academics and, according to the Iraqi Union of University Lecturers, have killed more than 250 since Saddam’s fall.

In the Shahbander Cafe, frequented by Iraq’s intellectual classes since 1917, the collapse of society dominated the conversation.

“If only more Americans had read more Hobbes, maybe we would not be in the mess we are today,” said Muhammad Mubarak, a philosopher who has written biographies of Francis Bacon and David Hume. “His predictions of the collapse of society are very apt.”

Haji Mohammad al-Kheishaly, Shahbander’s proprietor for 30 years, said: “Things have gone back to the way they used to be. Whether that is because Saddam has gone or because I have banned dominoes to improve the standard of conversation, I don’t know.”


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