BAGHDAD, Iraq — Thousands of people here are flocking to the 46th Baghdad International Book Fair, which began Feb. 7, seeking out Iraqi and world literature, and books on everything from science and technology, languages and art, to religion, history, philosophy and politics. For years book fair organizers have fought to maintain the event in face of political repression, regional conflicts and U.S. imperialist intervention.
These clashes include the 1980-88 war against neighboring Iran launched by Iraq’s tyrannical Saddam Hussein regime, with the combined aims of crushing the 1979 revolution by Iranian workers, farmers, and youth, as well as occupying and annexing rich oil fields and strategic waterways and port facilities there. The war coincided with murderous assaults against the oppressed Kurdish people in Iraq.
On top of that devastating war, which took hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides, there have been the 1990-91 and 2003 invasions by U.S. imperialist-led coalitions; repeated attacks on Kurdish uprisings for national rights; a 15-year-long terror campaign by al-Qaeda in Iraq and others, culminating in the 2014 collapse of the Iraqi army and seizure of large parts of the country by the reactionary Islamic State sect; and ongoing thuggish militia activity and attacks on Sunni and Kurdish areas by Iranian government-sponsored armed groups, above all Hashd al-Shaabi.
Mohammed Zaki Ahmed, one of the fair organizers and co-owner of Al-Aref publishing house, told the Militant that the company took over organizing the fair in 2012, together with the Iraqi Publishers Association. “In 2015 publishers were scared of coming and shipping was hard because of the war with Daesh. We couldn’t do it,” said Zaki. “But in 2016 we insisted on holding it. It was small, but we sent a message that we wouldn’t be stopped by terrorism.”
Fair has expanded since 2016
Since then, the fair has blossomed, he said. “The book fair in 2018 was the biggest in modern Iraqi history, and this year is one-third bigger. There are 15 Arab and 10 other foreign countries represented. Over 300 publishers are participating directly, with books from 700 publishers altogether.”
In opening the book fair, Iraqi President Barham Salih condemned the assassination days earlier of prominent novelist and writer Alaa Mashzoub. The fair itself has become a tribute to Mashzoub, whose portrait appears prominently in the hall’s central square (see accompanying article).
Pathfinder Books in London is participating in the book fair for the first time. Volunteers staffing the booth from the U.K. and the U.S. have been received with appreciation by the many people, young and old, who are seeking lessons from working-class struggles around the world and from history, as they look for a way to rebuild their country and put an end to the devastating economic and social conditions faced by Iraqi working people.
As of Feb. 12, 798 Pathfinder books have been sold, including 200 of the six Pathfinder titles in Arabic translation. Books on working-class struggles and politics in the United States are in high demand. These include Are They Rich Because They’re Smart? Class, Privilege, and Learning under Capitalism and Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, both by Socialist Workers Party National Secretary Jack Barnes, as well as Pathfinder’s most recent title, In Defense of the US Working Class by SWP leader Mary-Alice Waters.
Many head straight for titles on roots of women’s oppression and the fight to end it, with Is Biology Woman’s Destiny? by Evelyn Reed topping the list.
Issue no. 7 of New International magazine has generated a lot of interest. Its lead article, “Washington’s Assault on Iraq: Opening Guns of World War III,” by Jack Barnes, describes the SWP’s working-class campaign opposing the 1990-91 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It also describes the growing instability and conflicts between and within capitalist countries across the Middle East and worldwide coming out of the war.
Former soldiers visit booth
Former rank-and-file soldiers visiting the booth have been surprised and pleased to find that there are people in the U.S. and U.K. who get out the truth about the brutal slaughter organized by the U.S. rulers. Several said they or their fathers had been on the road from Kuwait to Basra in southern Iraq in February 1991 when tens of thousands fleeing soldiers and civilians were massacred in what Washington called a “turkey shoot.” The Saddam Hussein dictatorship had invaded Kuwait and sent troops into battle with no preparation to confront the U.S. rulers’ military onslaught.
Another popular title is The Jewish Question by Abram Leon, which explains how anti-Semitism is bred by crisis-ridden capitalism. Leon puts forward a class-struggle road to end scapegoating and repeated persecution of Jews. There is also keen interest in a December 2017 statement circulated by the SWP, “For Recognition of a Palestinian State and of Israel.”
For centuries, Iraq was home to a thriving Jewish community, but the majority left in 1948-52, when persecution organized by the Iraqi rulers was stepped up following the establishment of the state of Israel. All but a handful of Jews who had remained ended up leaving the country following the 1963 coup by Saddam’s Baath Party, whose anti-working class “Arab socialism” included virulent Jew-hatred.
Like many others at the fair, Dina Al-Aoube, from Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, was pleased to discuss the fight against anti-Semitism and the political course laid out in the SWP statement. “The Jews are very welcome to come back to Iraq,” she told volunteers at the Pathfinder stand.
Others have said it was refreshing to hear a “different view,” opposed to the anti-Jewish demagogy peddled for decades by bourgeois governments and political forces in the Middle East. A handful of people at the fair have echoed those reactionary views.
The fair ends Feb. 18.