In a region where import restrictions and government censors made the free flow of books a rarity, and in an era before the internet, Qasim Al-Rajab’s devotion to hunting down books and making them available earned him the nickname of shaykh al-kutubiyyin (the shaykh of booksellers.) Loyal customers also dubbed him al-Fihrist-”the Index” — partly for his prodigious memory and partly in homage to a famous 10th-century Baghdad bookseller, Ibn Nadim, who wrote a well-known bibliography of the same title. Between 1960 and 1972, he also published a regular journal-cum-catalogue, al-Maktaba (The Library), which featured articles and announcements about major new books published elsewhere in the world. Qasim Al-Rajab also launched a project of reprinting editions of medieval Arabic texts. That meant getting hold of rare manuscripts in academic libraries in places as far as London, Leipzig and Leiden and then publish modern editions in Beirut, India and Pakistan, where printing costs were cheaper. He would also occasionally print them, as well in Iran, which was known then for its good printing technology and for having state-of-the-art presses. In all, he published around 200 books, including editions of 1001 Nights and medieval works of Arabic travel literature.This is part two, on the current situation:
Then came the American invasion in 2003. With the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, books began to be imported into Iraq again, but that new freedom came with a price: “People were importing certain types of books and getting killed for it. At the time, mainly in 2004 and 2005, people were eager to get books that had been banned in the time of Saddam Hussein.” The rising sectarian violence was reflected in the importation of inflammatory literature — both Shi’ite and Sunni — into Iraq. “Some dealers approached importers from Iran, and they introduced to the market very extreme kinds of books. On the other hand, other booksellers were bringing in books from Saudi Arabia — extremist literature on the other side.” The violence and sectarianism were a far cry from the bookselling environment Qasim Al-Rajab had once known: “In his time, my grandfather would sell books by Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Shia. Bookselling then was very different from the sectarian situation post-war,” said Ibrahim.