Tuesday, June 8, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Clandestine meetings with smugglers. Merchandise delivered in cemeteries by night. Officials bribed to look the other way.

To Saad Fakhr al-Deen and Amar al-Dijili, Shi’ite Muslim bookstore owners, it was all in a day’s work under Saddam Hussein.

Now that the dictator is gone, bookstores in this holy city south of Baghdad are busy again. For the first time in decades, Shi’ite religious books are being sold over the counter — an act that previously could have landed bookstore owners and readers in jail.

Islam split into Sunni and Shi’ite sects in the seventh century over a succession dispute after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The schism has endured to this day and was particularly acute in Iraq, where a Sunni minority ruled and suppressed a Shi’ite majority thought to be 60 percent of the population.

“Being in the book business is not just a way to make money,” said Saheb Jawad, whose shop is on al-Howeish alley near the shrine of Imam Ali, the founder of the Shi’ite sect.

“It is the virtue of spreading the faith that makes it worthwhile,” Mr. Jawad said.

The Shi’ite revival in Iraq is demonstrated by the large turnout for religious pilgrimages and theatrical productions recounting historical events associated with the faith.

But it is books that are likely to have the most impact on Shi’ites trying to compensate for years of intellectual deprivation and reacquaint themselves with the teachings of their faith.

Under Saddam, religious Shi’ite books were smuggled into Iraq from Syria, Iran or Lebanon. Photocopiers and offset machines concealed in basements and underground rooms in Najaf’s cemetery operated through the night to make cheaper copies. Security workers often raided bookstores in search of contraband.

“It was very profitable, but it was also an honest way to feed my family,” Mr. al-Dijili said.

Mr. al-Deen, whose tiny bookstore is one of several on Najaf’s fabled Prophet Street, proudly shows visitors caches behind the display shelves and under a staircase where he used to hide banned books. He tells of the days when he bribed security officials to ignore his trade in contraband books.

“Books and Najaf were never separated,” he said. “After all, this is a city of learning.”

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