When I asked about where I can find, “the woman who owns a bookshop on the street,” an older man answered, “Are you the searching for el bnaya (Iraqi for the girl)?”
“You will find her at the second or third bookshop on your right after the Al-Shahbendar Teahouse.”
Baghdad’s Al-Mutannabi Street, named after one of the most renowned Arabic language poets, is filled with bookshops and stationary stores. It is a meeting spot for Iraq’s intellectuals, booklovers, poets, activists, artists of all kind and young dreamers.
Every Friday, the streets are packed. Week in and week out, people attend talks and conferences at bookshops or at one of the many cultural venues, recite poetry, sing or play an instrument, and distribute political flyers. Passers-by are serenaded by mostly young men who are either improvising new jams or reinventing traditional songs with their voices, ouds, guitars and trumpets.
The Al-Mutannabi Street, refurbished after it suffered a horrific car bomb explosion in 2007, represents the cultural heart of Baghdad, and stands as an island of intellectual and political richness and diversity in the middle of a capital city fragmented by militarization, sectarian conflicts and disrepair due to lack of public services.
“Nice to meet you ya bnaya,” I started joking when I first met Baraa sitting at the desk in a corner of her bookshop. Her father, who often works with her, went out to buy us a glass of fresh juice. We sat and discussed her life, her experience as the first woman who owns a publishing house and bookshop in Al Mutannabi Street.
Often, while we were conversing, young men would enter to ask for a specific book, almost always a poetry collection. At one point, a young poet came to ask about how to submit a manuscript to her publishing house. Baraa’s father would come and go and sometimes participate in our discussion, and every time he walked in, I could see in the eyes of this very sweet and tender man the love and pride he felt for his brilliant daughter.
Spending a youth in war
Baraa al-Bayati grew up in an upper middle-class neighborhood of Baghdad, in an educated household, where her father was a judge and her mother an engineer. Throughout her childhood, she participated in several cultural events and competitions at school. Her love for poetry, philosophy and literature was very present at a young age.
Born in 1989, she was 14 years old when Iraq was invaded and occupied by a US-led coalition that resulted in the fall of Saddam’s authoritarian regime. The extreme deterioration of the security climate and the rise of sectarian conflict that followed made it extremely difficult for her, or anyone else for that matter, to travel around Baghdad.
For Baraa, this meant that all her cultural activities had to be held indoors and her journeys to and from school had to be carefully planned. Despite that, Baraa stayed active in theatre and was involved in poetry recitals throughout high school.
In university, Baraa wanted to study Media and Cultural Studies. It felt like a natural progression for her. But, her first year at university coincided with the peak of ethno-sectarian and gang violence in Iraq that included the assassination of academics and professionals, kidnappings, and car bombs.
Being from both an upper middle-class neighborhood that was targeted by sectarian and gang violence and a young woman living in a society that was being shaped by social and religious conservatism made it particularly risky for her to live and study normally in post-invasion Iraq.
At a time when all kind of professionals and members of the educated middle class were targeted by violence, when doctors, judges, lawyers, university professors, and pharmacists were shot dead and kidnapped, and when sectarian violence in all its forms was reaching a climax, her family insisted that Baraa pursue an academic track that was more conventional for a woman and that garnered less public attention. In Iraq, this meant studying engineering.
Despite all these precautions, Baraa, like everyone else in Baghdad at the time, still witnessed horror: “In front of me, I saw car bomb explosions, I saw dead corpses lying in the street on my way to university.” The very existence of Baghdad’s inhabitants was at threat in 2006-2007. After graduating, she knew that corruption and sectarian nepotism would mean that she will not be able to find a job.
“I wanted my life to be different, I refused to be confined to domesticity because I am a woman. I wanted to achieve something, leave a message to the world through my life’s choices and actions.”
This led her to go back to her dreams, and she dived into the world of literature and philosophy and got busy writing and painting. To her delight, Baraa also found a job in Al-Stoor Bookshop on Al-Mutannabi Street, which allowed her to gain valuable experience in the world of publishing.
Eventually, in 2015, one of Al-Mutannabi Street’s bookshops became available for rent, and she jumped on the occasion and decided to open her own bookshop and publishing house: “Dar wa Mektaba Baraa.”
“It was a huge project that I undertook myself. From the design and organization of the shop to making the list of books to order, to designing a system for sales and publication commission and of course deciding on which book to publish, I did everything.” Within two years, she managed to sell enough books every month to cover the rent of her shop while also laying the groundwork to publish books of her own.
A young woman in a man’s world.
Since 2003, Baghdad has been transformed into a city of armed men standing at checkpoints surrounded by concrete walls at every intersection. Over the years, sanctions and militarization have changed the notion of public space and have hindered the ability of women to circulate in and occupy such spaces. Despite working in an area of the city where gender and sectarian fragmentation are less significant, Al-Mutannabi Street is not entirely an exception, and mostly males occupy the space while women remain less numerous and visible.
Baraa is very aware of the fact that being the first woman to open a bookshop and publishing house in this street has put her in the spotlight. She accepted the challenge fully knowing the symbolic impact it would have on people’s mentality and the very concrete consequences that it would have on her life.
Baraa’s experience on Al-Mutannabi Street as a young woman is marked by being reminded of her gender in contradicting and dichotomous ways: either through some of the male customers’ demeaning behavior or by being celebrated as a woman in her profession.
The constant presence of her father to secure the shop from potential male harassment embodies the difficulty a woman faces when occupying what is perceived as a male job in a male space. Despite that, Baraa has had mostly good experiences, especially with regular customers and librarians in the street from all ages with whom she has built excellent relations. Since she accepted to appear on local media channels to tell about her experience as the first female bookseller of Al-Mutannabi Street, she is often visited by young women from faraway provinces that come to meet her in person and tell her how much she inspires them.
In our discussion about sexism, Baraa also pointed out that discriminatory and demeaning practices and representations towards women are not limited to conservative or non-educated environments.
“You see some so-called educated man, claiming that they are feminists and open-minded at conferences and talks during the day. But, when you go back home in the evening you realize that they have sent you inappropriate text messages, and you discover that all their discourse about equality and respect for women is just words and lies. They do not respect you as an individual, and in fact, want to take advantage of you as a woman.”
“I don’t want to live in a city where men feel that they have to protect women from other men’s behavior, or feel like they need to be guardians of her reputation. I am fed-up of men walking behind us to protect us in everything we do. I want to see a future in Iraq where women and men walk side by side.”
Baraa’s words reveal how much gender norms and relations in Iraq are defined by a culture of militarization that defines masculinity and femininity according to binary and normative notions of protection associated to manhood and vulnerability as defining women.
Books are the answer.
“For me, books open worlds, I want to sell all kind of books, literature, poetry, philosophy, history essays, and short stories, so that people can develop different visions of the world. Through books it is possible to spread a culture of openness, of acceptance of the other, to promote religious diversity and plurality in our society and to combat violence.”
Baraa’s words resonate among a new generation that grew up in post-invasion Iraq and echo other youth initiatives such as the “I am Iraqi and I Read!” campaign. Her insistence on culture as a tool to spread pluralism and reduce violence reveals the extent to which sectarian violence and conflict has shaped everyday life for her generation.
Like many of the young people I met during my field research, she does not define herself in any conventional political way as a feminist, leftist or secular activist. Most of these classifications are absent from young civil society activists I met in Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala or Nasriyah. Like Baraa, most of them are from a middle-class background, they have never travelled outside Iraq, neither speak English nor have any direct connections with any kind of formal political activism such as Communist or Islamist groups.
All these young activists involved themselves in cultural and social initiatives that promoted freedom of speech, a “culture of peace”, a mentality of “acceptance of the other”, and a narrative of combatting violence and hatred. Their adolescence and young lives have been marked by sectarian and armed violence, as well as a state of political and ideological uncertainty and insecurity, and this was their response to that. In the absence of a strong state capable to assure a state of law and security for its citizens, and with a political culture dominated by social and religious conservative forces, individual initiatives such as the one of Baraa are flourishing and provide a sense of hope in a country with a very uncertain future.
This sense of hope and dynamism reveals itself in Baraa’s final words to me.
“Baghdad is historically an open city, pluralistic in its core, and nobody will change that.”