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Baraa Al Bayati… the First Female Bookseller in Baghdad’s Al Mutanabbi Street
Highlighting her experience and the difficult circumstances and challenges surrounding her, Nasher interviewed Baraa Al Bayati to find out more about her life and her ambitions.
*The ‘first woman bookseller’- what does this mean to you and what are the obstacles and the messages that you would like to convey with regards to the Iraqi and Arab cultural scene?
I am both happy and proud to be the first female bookseller in Al Mutanabbi Street and to be able to add something new to the public life in Baghdad, despite the conflict and terrorist attacks taking place in the country. I am fortunate enough to have been able to fulfill my ambition of being part of the creative book industry but I am aware that obstacles and challenges usually emerge with any new step. Because of this, I always try to look at things from the bright side and to ignore negativity, as I believe that negativity hinders our dreams and stops us from moving forward.
My message is that anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to work after graduation can still realise their ambitions and move forward in their lives. If I had been talented in handicrafts or art, for example, I would have started my own business in these fields. However, my love for reading and my dream of being a librarian in Al Mutanabbi Street propelled me along this particular path.
* What are you dreaming of, and how did your family and friends react to your career as a bookseller?
My dream is to become the owner of a publishing house and a bookstore on Al Mutanabbi Street. Ultimately, I aspire to become a famous publisher in the Arab region and the greater world. My family and friends have always been supportive of my dreams. They encourage me and provide me with positive feedback. I am truly grateful for their stance, which every day inspires me to continue with what I am doing.
* How do you view people’s demand for Iraqi books compared to Arab and international books and what are the titles most in demand?
When we compare the status of Al Mutanabbi Street in earlier years to that of today, we can see the qualitative leap achieved by this important area, which has been known for decades as the historic centre of Baghdad bookselling. Previously, only a few books in terms of quantity and quality were available. Today, the street is full of vendors selling all kinds of books to suit the tastes of Iraqi readers and to fulfill their passionate desire for Arab and global creativity.
As for the popularity of books in terms of their sales, the most in-demand titles cover a spectrum of topics that include philosophy, history, politics, poetry, fiction and other genres. This year novels are the blockbusters, with readers choosing the format in general, irrespective of whether they are written by Iraqi, Arab or international authors.
*Can you please brief us about your experience in Sotour Publishing House and would we see you soon as the first young Iraqi woman to open a new publishing house?
My experience in Sotour Publishing House taught me about book marketing techniques through book photography sessions. I learned how to design quotations and how to effectively communicate with Arab publishers, readers, writers, poets, storytellers, researcher and intellectuals. I also came to understand that it is imperative for anyone working in this field to be a good reader and to be well informed and up-to-date with Iraqi, Arab and globally released books. I hope to be the first young woman to open a library and publishing house in Iraq which will be dedicated to publishing all creative Iraqi and Arab works in various genres of literature. I want my library and publishing house to be located on Al Mutanabbi Street specifically.
*What about used books and readers’ response to such kind of books?
The participation of Iraqi publishers, such as Camel, Adnan, Mozibtania, Al Mada and Al Hikma publishing houses and the Scientific House of Books in Arab and GCC book fairs, has contributed to extending bridges with Iraqi readers and ensuring that the street has all the latest publications and titles.
With regards to used books, there are many pre-read titles on display at bookstores and outdoor book stalls on Al Mutanabbi Street. They cover a range of topics, including heritage, poetry, criticism and other creative titles. They receive a very good response depending on the historical and aesthetic value of books.
Also with regard to used books, Sotour Publishing House has participated in ‘I am an Iraqi, I read’ – an annual literary initiative that takes place on Abu Nawas Street in central Baghdad. It involves placing donated books in the Abu Nawas gardens overlooking the Tigris River to encourage people to read for free.