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Iraq: Years Of Ba'athist Rule Leave Legacy Of Indifference To Books

The Ba'athist regime that ruled Iraq for decades discouraged people from reading books. Iraqis were once known as voracious readers, but today interest in literature is at an all-time low. RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite reports from Baghdad that Iraq's culture minister has warned the indifference to books may have dire social consequences.

Baghdad, 12 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ali has one book at home -- the Koran. And he doesn't plan to buy more.

"I don't read books because they can't give me anything," he says. "I prefer to communicate with people and listen to what they say, because people know more than what is written in any book."

Ali is not alone. The majority of Iraqis have no interest in reading.
Bookshops do not exist in Baghdad. Many of the city's libraries were looted and set on fire during the first days of the U.S. occupation.

Mufeed al-Gazari is culture minister of Iraq's interim administration. He says the indifference toward reading is largely a legacy of the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

"The authorities at that time, and for a long time, did their best to keep people far from culture, from sources of culture. They did everything they could do to create a kind of gap between people and culture -- including books, of course, mainly books."

Al-Gazari says the situation was radically different in the years before the Hussein regime. At one time, he says, Iraqis were known throughout the Arab world as voracious readers.

Al-Gazari notes a popular saying from the 1940s: "Cairo is writing, Beirut is printing, and Baghdad is reading."

But now, he says, the Ba'athist regime has created a "new generation" of Iraqis who have no yearning for the written word.

The culture minister says he is deeply concerned about this generation, which he says can be considered only semiliterate.

"The majority of the [graduates] of universities, [who graduated during] the time of Saddam Hussein, are not cultured. Even their reading is very bad, even their writing is very bad. You can't imagine."

It's a potentially dangerous situation, the minister says. This undereducated segment of population is young and active. They are looking for purpose in life, but with few cultural interests or diversions, they are increasingly drawn to religious extremism and militancy.

"This is one of the dangerous aspects of the situation in our country," he said. "Those people who don't read, they are a [source] for all kinds of extremism, of antidemocratic movements. Because it's very easy for those terrorists to manipulate them, to attract them."

Al-Gazari says the former regime not only showed contempt for culture but creating living conditions that virtually forced Iraqis to abandon books and reading.

Wars and international sanctions made everyday needs more important than reading or going to the theater. People sold their personal libraries when they had no money for bread, al-Gazari says. It is a trend that continues.

The minister describes the situation of a close friend who he said had decided to sell his personal collection of books. The man had no money and said his children would never need the literature.

"[He] came and said he wanted to sell his books, maybe about 400 books. I said: 'Why?' He said: 'Well, now I can't see, I can't read [because I have problems with my eyes].' I said: 'Well, but you have your daughters, they will have their sons.' He said: 'Well, they are so busy that they don't read.'"

The minister says life is difficult for those who still have the urge to read. Bookshops do not exist in Baghdad. Many of the city's libraries were looted and set on fire during the first days of the U.S. occupation.

Mosques, religious organizations and political parties offer some books, but only on a narrow range of topics.

Downtown Baghdad has one option for book lovers: a weekly bazaar, open every Friday. But al-Gazari says a majority of the books on sale are stolen -- many from the National Library, which stands nearby.

The culture minister says there are currently no laws with which to prosecute vendors dealing in stolen books.

So where to go for new books? Al-Gazari says he is working for the creation of new publishing houses, which were all nationalized under the former regime.

"Now one of our main aims in this field is to encourage the private sector to start again with establishing publishing houses. Slowly, slowly, slowly. They are afraid that the situation is not okay. They have no money, the security is not okay. Everything is not stable and so on. But we are trying to attract them and support them."

Al-Gazari says this month he will meet with people looking to start publishing houses and will try to provide encouragement.

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