Why Iraq's booksellers want the freedom to censor their shelves

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

The Independent

17 July 2004

In Al-Mutanabi Street, the bookseller of Baghdad knows all. He can even explain why Saddam Hussein's bodice-ripper, Zabiba and the King, has sold out yet again. Nabil Hayawi sold 1,500 copies - a real Iraqi bestseller - and is waiting for the third edition of Saddam's tome to be printed in Beirut.

"Educated Iraqis buy this book to read between the lines," he says. "The less educated ones want to know what went on in Saddam's mind. When the black American Caryl Chessman wrote his book on Death Row, that was a bestseller here too." Chessman was executed. And Saddam?

The bookseller of Baghdad has an interest in these things because he is himself a court judge - as well as an author - and had a doubtful privilege of trying Saddam's half-brother, Watban Hassan, over a business dispute. He is now churning out books on Iraq's new constitution, coruscating works on the alleged illegality of the former US proconsul Paul Bremer's Iraqi laws as well as a first-person account of the Anglo-American invasion in 2003, Forty Five Days.

Saddam's trial, he says, was a theatre. "And since Saddam was given PoW status, international law says he must now be returned to this country and given back his previous job. I don't want this to happen but that's what international law says."

But Saddam is not the only author to be sold in Nabil Hayawi's bookshop. There are piles of Korans, science treatises, Arabic poetry and a translation of the entire works of Shakespeare - or "Shaikspir" as it transliterates from the Arabic text. Yesterday morning, book buyers were perusing a new volume called Famous Women, which includes the lives of Queen Shejerat Aldour of Iraq, Queen Zenobia of Syria, Nefertiti and Helen of Troy. Among the most popular books are the works of the late Syrian poet Nizar Kabbani and the young Islamist cleric Amro Khaled. The days of censorship are over, of course. But Mr Hayawi has mixed feelings about this.

"In Saddam's time we had the censor, and the 'mukhabarat' [intelligence] came to the shop regularly to check that we had no illegal books. We had a problem once when a book about the Wahabis was allowed to be sold, but was then banned and we still kept it on sale. But the problem now is that we need a censorship again because of the kind of books going on sale which affect our manners and our morality.

"Even when my children go out to buy DVDs, I have to go with them to make sure they don't accidentally buy bad things. Some of the books coming out now also try to provoke bad feelings between Sunnis and Shias.''

And so here it goes again. Iraqis want security more than democracy, censorship rather than total freedom. You hear this in the shops, in the funeral tents, in the book shops.

The Wahabi book was banned in 1990 at about the time Saddam - and the Americans - realised that its adherents (including Osama bin Laden) opposed the Iraqi regime and the United States. Fortunately for Mr Hayawi his own dealings with Saddam's family ended without harm. "There was not enough evidence against Watban and the case was dismissed," he says. "They transferred me then to the Ministry of Justice where I resigned after they accused me of trying to stage a lawyers' strike."

And so a little freedom now blows through the door of Mr Hayawi's stuffy bookshop. "People come to buy books about human rights and liberty and religion and a lot come to read books about the war," he says. "These freedoms are new to them."

A glance at the shelves also tells you a lot about the Arab world. Children's books come from Syria, romances and novels from Lebanon, science books are published in Iraq. But 80 per cent of the Arabic religious books are printed in Iran where - surprise, surprise - the Iranian government subsidises books about Shia Islam in the Arabic language and thus cuts more expensive Arab-published volumes out of the Iraqi market.

Nabil Hayawi presents me with a frozen bottle of lemonade and a scalding hot glass of tea. "You have to understand us Iraqis," he says. "We like things very hot and very cold at the same time."