BAGHDAD, Jan 31 (AFP) - Book-starved Baghdadis flock to Al-Mutannabi Street in the Iraqi capital's old downtown for sales each weekend that have become a way of life under a decade of embargo.
"This shows the impact the embargo still has on intellectual life in Iraq," said a regular customer at the sales on Friday, the Muslim weekend.
Naim al-Shatri, a bookshop owner, said most of his customers were "the nouveau rich looking for rare works to boost their private libraries," while real book addicts were often the reluctant sellers.
Historical and scientific works, a speciality of his business, are the most sought after, the 65-year-old said.
Another shop owner, Mahdi Shadher, said his suppliers were mostly "people who inherited family libraries which they dust off and sacrifice either for the money or due to ignorance of their real value".
One good thing, at least, is that "such books are passed on from one family to another, which keeps them intact," he said.
But more and more intellectuals are having to part with their treasures "just to make ends meet for their families, who have been impoverished by the embargo," explained salesman Qais Sami.
Literary works are in demand on Al-Mutannabi, a street named after Iraq's most famous poet, whereas students from faculties with sadly outdated library books are keen buyers of academic works.
The prices are often exorbitant, sometimes as much as 30,000 dinars (19 dollars) or four times the average monthly wage of a civil servant since the erosion of the currency under sanctions imposed on Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Abdul Mutaleb Mahmud, secretary general of the Iraqi writers' union, said the embargo had "wreaked havoc on learning in Iraq, a country which has been cut off for more than 10 years from new developments".
Iraqi universities and research centres are the worst hit.
"But the situation is finally starting to improve," he said, referring to book fairs which have been held with the help of fellow Arab countries, as the isolation of Baghdad eases.
Writers' unions in Jordan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian territories have agreed to publish the works of Iraqi authors and to provide their own new works to Iraq, he said.
During an annual congress of the Arab writers' union held in Baghdad, 6,000 books were on exhibition, and the Iraqi government has launched a bid to restock university libraries with scientific works.