Book fair helps Iraqis find respite from violence

Visitors at a Book Fair at the headquarters of Mosul university, on Sept 6, 2017.
Visitors at a Book Fair at the headquarters of Mosul university, on Sept 6, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Sitting in the green grass under a bright Baghdad sun, Iraqi men and women bury their heads in romance novels, essay collections and volumes of poetry.

It's far from the image most have of the Iraqi capital- but for one day this weekend on the banks of the Tigris, Iraqi readers were able to find some respite from the country's violence in the simple joy of losing themselves in a book.

Saturday's I'm Iraqi, I Read book fair was the fifth annual edition of the popular festival, which this year saw some 15,000 books collected and distributed, for free, to eager readers.

Around long tables covered in red cloth, volunteers lay out books of fiction, technical manuals, religious tracts and volumes of verse pulled from cardboard boxes.

Hussein Ali, a 23-year-old law student, says it is his second year in a row stocking his library at the festival in Abu Nuwas park, named after the famed eighth-century poet known for his odes to wine and urban life.

"I hope this type of cultural event will continue, especially for young people," says Ali, who like many bemoans the lack of cultural opportunities for youth in Iraq, where some 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25.

Nearby, Raghed Nassir, a 22-year-old finance student, is also enjoying the opportunity to stock up on new reading material.

"Our brains are like boxes that always need to be filled with new things," she says.

Law graduate Tuqa Mohammed, also 23, is browsing books at random, looking for the "adventure" of an unexpected read.

"It's easy to buy a book, but to take a book that you didn't choose... you see it in front of you, you take and read it, this is something nicer and more joyful."

Not far away, dozens of festival-goers are writing messages in felt-tip markers on a huge signboard. One of them reads: "Read more and you will see further." Muntazer Jawad has come some 200 km from his home in Diwaniyah to attend the festival.

A would-be writer himself, Jawad has penned three novels but the 20-year-old with slicked black hair says that for young writers "it's very difficult to get help in being published".

Despite his passion, Jawad gave up his studies of literature to pursue a degree in management and administration "to obey my family and because of the situation in Iraq".

That "situation" - a never-ending cycle of violence that has ravaged the country and seen Baghdad hit by near-daily attacks - could not be entirely left behind at the fair.

Automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, Iraqi police patrolled the park, allowing themselves glimpses of the piles of books or artists who had set up their easels in the grass.

Mohammed, wearing a dark jacket over a red-and-black checked shirt, says he's pleased to see "so many young people brought together by reading, because it's a way to change society." Nassir, her head wrapped in a multi-coloured bandana, says this is even more important "for Iraqi women because their lives are governed by tradition." Nearby stands a testament to the power of storytelling - a statue of Scheherazade, the consort of Shahryar of "A Thousand and One Nights", who weaved a tale for her husband each night to escape execution.