A young Iraqi hopes to unite and heal his country — through books

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Aaron Schachter: After a decade of conflict, Iraq is a different place from what it used to be. Bombings are commonplace and many young Iraqis don't see a future for themselves there. But a young man named Ali al-Makhzomy wants to change that. One of the things he's been doing is setting up small libraries in cafes across Baghdad. He hopes people will pick up a book and start reading, something that's increasingly rare in Iraq. Reporter Jane Araf has written about Al-Makhzomy for The Washington Post. I asked her why Iraqis don't read books like they used to. Jane Araf: One of the reasons really is the country is pretty much broken. It was breaking in the 1990's when, under sanctions, you really couldn't important anything. Famously, for awhile you couldn't import pencils because of the components in pencils, so that really took a hit in terms of the culture, in terms of education, it was a huge setback, that entire decade of sanctions after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. And then the war came along and a lot of the institutions that people relied that were barely functioning before really stopped working. The education system is in shambles. Literacy, which was very, very high before, has taken a hit because either students can't afford to stay in school or parents pull their kids out of school. They're either worried about the danger, particularly if they're girls, or they need the money if the kids are working. So literacy has really taken a hit as well. But on top of that, it just has become a culture where, and because of technology as well, young people are playing video games or on the internet when there's an internet signal or there's electricity, so it's really fallen out of favor. Schachter: And yet one of the things that Baghdad is most famous for, which we all reported on right after the war, is Mutanabi Street, nicknamed "Book Street." Araf: Absolutely and it's still there. Even though it was bombed a few years ago and dozens of people were killed, it's been restored. It's been restored a little bit in the way that a theme park would be restored. It's not the original, gritty atmospheric street but it is still quite magical. Schachter: Are there still books sold there? Araf: There are still books sold there and probably still the books that you remember in the same way that they were displayed when you would walk around there and there would be old booksellers with piles of used books, piled up on the sidewalk and people would be crouched down going through them, looking for treasures. Some people looking for first editions, other people looking for medical textbooks, others just looking for the latest novel. It's still like that, it's still a treasure chest. But really the market for books has really faded a little bit. I talked to one bookseller when I was there just a couple of weeks ago. Nice little old man dressed up in the suit and tie the way the older generation still dresses up on the Friday holiday when they go to the book market. He was sitting there surrounded by piles and piles of books and some people stopped and looked but really there were more young men who were trying on sunglasses down the street than there were looking at books. He said young people just don't read anymore. Schachter: Ali al-Makhzomy, who you wrote your article about, works for the Ministry of Culture. Does the government provide any support for him and these cafe libraries that he's setting up? Araf: It doesn't and he deliberately tries to keep those two things separate. One of the things about Iraq is that people rely, for pretty much everything, on the government. It's been that way for decades, really. One of the things that he in particular is trying to do is set up a culture of volunteer work. For instance, recently he tried to organize young people to clean up Al-Mustansiriya, which was one of the earliest universities in the world. It's a historic site that's very often closed to the public and it's covered with trash, really. So he got together a group of young people and he said "We want to come and clean up" and there is a lot of suspicion because they don't really understand, in official Baghdad, that concept of "We want to do something and it's not for money and nobody is getting any benefit out of this except we want to clean up this site and show it to people again." So a lot of the things he does are pure volunteer work. He does them on no money and that's really one of the things that he believes could transform that society. Schachter: I gather he's kind of a middle or upper-middle class kid, but that has not shielded him from some of the nastiness that's going on in Iraq these days? Araf: Absolutely. He is a middle class kid but not what one would consider a spoiled middle class kid by any means. He's worked all his life and he helped support his mother. His father has died so he helped support his mother and his younger sister who's still at home - he lives at home. In the past, he's sold souvenirs in his shop in central Baghdad. His brother disappeared and hasn't been seen. When you ask Ali, he says "We haven't lost hope." That maybe true, that he hasn't lost hope, but he's quite realistic about the circumstances he lives in. He just believes that there is a way to make things better and the way to make things better is to get people together and to do things. Schachter: Reporter Jane Araf, always a pleasure to speak with you. Thanks a lot. Araf: Thanks so much, Aaron.