The centre of the book trade in Baghdad is al-Mutanabi Street, which runs between the Tigris and Rashid Street, now shabby and decayed but once the city’s commercial heart. The bookshops are small, and open all the time; on Friday there’s a market, when vendors lay out their books in Arabic and English on mats on the dusty and broken surface of the road. Most are second-hand. In the 1990s, after the first Gulf War, I used to walk around the district looking at books, often English classics once owned by students. Difficult words were underlined and translated into Arabic in the margin. There was plenty of stock as the Iraqi intelligentsia, progressively ruined by sanctions, sold off their libraries.
The market was carefully monitored by a section of al-Amn al-Amm, the General Security Service, led by Major Jammal Askar, a poet who used to write verses in praise of Saddam. He oversaw the banning of books on modern Iraq, mostly histories and memoirs written by exiles, and works by Shiite and Sunni clerics. Even so, books, often printed in Beirut, were smuggled in through Jordan, Syria and Turkey. ‘You could bribe the officials at the border to let in religious books, but not political books,’ one bookseller said. ‘We used to take off the covers and replace them with the covers of Baath Party books which they approved of.’ Often only one copy was brought in, photocopied a hundred or more times and then sold covertly. The Amn al-Amm, its operations on the street led by a certain Captain Khalid, launched repeated raids to find out who was selling them.
In 1999 my brother Andrew and I wrote a history of Iraq after the first Gulf War called Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein. It was later republished in Britain as Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession. I knew the regime wouldn’t like it because of its sympathetic treatment of the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings of 1991 and its account of the feuds within the ruling family, and decided after publication that it would be wise to keep out of Baghdad for a few years. When it became obvious that the White House was determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein, I applied to the Iraqi Information Ministry for a visa, although I was worried about how safe it was to do so. Saddam Hussein wasn’t short of critics, and possibly the regime didn’t know or care what Andrew and I had written about them. On the other hand, Saddam had hanged Farzad Bazoft, an Observer journalist, as a spy in 1990. When the Kurds arranged with Syria to let me cross the Tigris in a tin boat into Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq, the problem resolved itself.
It turned out I was right to be nervous. After the fall of Baghdad, the new deputy mayor, a book collector, gave me a copy of Out of the Ashes in a copperplate long-hand translation into Arabic specially made by the Mukhabarat – Iraqi Intelligence. He said it had been found by looters in the house of Sabawi, Saddam’s half-brother who was once the head of al-Amn al-Amm. It turned out that the book was well known to the booksellers in al-Mutanabi Street and had sold well – mainly, they said, because ‘it gave an account of the uprisings in 1991 and of the relationship between Saddam and the US.’
One Friday, halfway along al-Mutanabi, I met Haidar Mohammed, a man in his mid-thirties with nervous, darting eyes, who had been the main seller of my book. He was known in the street as Haidar Majala, meaning Haidar ‘Magazine’, because he pretended that he was only interested in selling magazines. He said that he found life flat since the fall of Saddam, ‘because in the old days, when I had to take a customer down an alleyway to secretly sell him a book and we both knew we could go to jail, life had a taste to it.’ The first copy of Out of the Ashes he bought was an Arabic translation made in Beirut and smuggled into Iraq by a man called ‘Fadhel’, who other booksellers believed was later hanged. Haidar used a photocopier to make 50 copies and sold them to relatives and close friends for two dollars each. He then made another 200 copies and sold them quickly as well. He said: ‘Once when a man who had bought the book was arrested in Kerbala I disappeared for three weeks, but he didn’t give me away and only told them that he’d bought it on the street from a man he didn’t know.’