Iraq’s first woman publisher, bookseller defies prejudices

Sunday 06/08/2017
More than books. A view of bookshelves at Baraa al-Bayati’s bookshop in Baghdad. (Provided by Robert Ewan)

London - It was noon on March 5, 2007, and Mutanabbi Street in Bagh­dad was crowded with pedes­trians. Some huddled around bookstands, others watched poets recite to their friends when a powerful car bomb exploded, kill­ing at least 20 people and wound­ing more than 65. Smoke billowed above the ornate buildings, books burned and the smell of death spread to every corner of the street. It was a cultural massacre.

Ten years later Mutanabbi Street is again full of life. It regained its dazzling glory and became the in­tellectual oasis of Baghdad once more. Its narrow, rutted lane is lined with booksellers stacking vol­umes on the ground and in their stores.

Tucked among the plethora of bookshops is a store run by Baraa al-Bayati, a 28-year-old charismatic Iraqi. She has carved her own place in Iraq’s publishing scene as the first female bookseller and publish­er on Mutanabbi Street.

Bayati struggled to find employ­ment in her field after graduating from university as an engineer. With only a dream and determina­tion, Bayati embarked on her liter­ary journey.

“Since my childhood, the literary scene fascinated me,” she said in interviews conducted via internet-based media, including Skype. “My love for reading and my dream of being a bookseller and a publisher drove me along this path. So I de­cided to try to fulfil my dream to be a bookseller.

“It was a decision that I made by myself and I had the backing of my parents and friends. What surprised me most was the backing and sup­port I had from other booksellers.”

The plight of women in Iraq is largely ignored, both within Iraqi society and by the international community. Many women face multiple challenges: Caring for their families, earning an income, taking part in their communities and forging a professional life.

“Sometimes I hear a lot of hurt­ful and virulent remarks spoken to me that stem from immature atti­tudes and from people who refuse to recognise that a woman is an in­dependent person with the right to work and earn a living,” Bayati said.

“Women always face negative things in their jobs, which demo­tivate them. There is scepticism and more misogynist behaviour to­wards them in their jobs, especial­ly successful and strong women. Despite this, I look at the positive things more than the negative and overcome barriers that can hold back my entrepreneurial growth and progress.”

Bayati said she is determined to make her own contributions to the Iraqi book industry.

“I want to highlight the impor­tance of reading within the Iraqi literary and cultural scene. Iraq’s writers display incredible literary virtuosity and versatility and I want to support them by making their work available to readers in Iraq and globally,” she said.

Managing the day-to-day buying and selling of books is part and par­cel of her operation. She not only chooses books that will be obvi­ous big sellers but also subtle titles that would delight customers when they browse her store.

Bayati’s day starts with the sound of Lebanese diva Fairuz and the smell of coffee. “I organise the bookshop and sort out delivery or­ders, as I offer a delivery service for those with difficulty getting to my bookshop. I also read some manu­scripts submitted to me for publish­ing,” she said.

Bayati also works as a reporter for the online magazine Iraqi Celebri­ties and has a TV programme dedi­cated to highlighting new publica­tions and titles in the book market.

Her customers vary considerably but she said she favours children, whom she sees as the foundation of a new Iraqi society. “I encourage and motivate the children to read and I try to provide them with the appropriate books,” Bayati said. “I believe that they carry the future of Iraq on their shoulders and that they will build a modern and ad­vanced Iraq to compete with the rest of the world.”

Bayati said she appreciates peo­ple coming a long way to buy from her bookshop. “I get a lot of letters of support from all over the Arab world. These things make me hap­py and make me forget the negative things,” she said.

“Despite all the obstacles I have faced and will face, I aspire to be­come known internationally as the first Iraqi woman to own a book­shop and a printing press in Mutan­abbi Street.

“For me, the biggest challenge is proving wrong all those who bet on my failure. The future is unknown but I feel it is connected with my ambitions and there are no limita­tions on my ambitions.”