BAGHDAD — The Iqraa bookstore on Mutanabi street has more than tripled in size in the last two years. Business is up 50 percent since 2003.
But, say the store's two owners, the future is uncertain as long as they can't count on safe streets, stable government and reliable electricity supplies.
Yet Iqraa's growth reflects a tiny step forward in a nation that centuries ago was a beacon of literature and science, and which has suffered sustained and bloody bouts of bloody turmoil over the past 30 years.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Associated Press correspondent Hamza Hendawi reports on his latest visit to a corner of Iraqi cultural life whose fortunes he has tracked since the U.S.-led invasion seven years ago.
Iqraa's owners, Atta Zeidan and Mohammed Hanash Abbas, are close friends. In a series of interviews this summer, they talked about the winding down of the U.S. military mission in Iraq, the political deadlock since the March election, the stillfragile security situation and its impact on their business.
"Our dreams are one thing and the reality is another," Zeidan lamented.
The dreams came with Saddam Hussein's overthrow in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The reality, on one August morning, was a long power outage during a blistering sandstorm, and the nagging unease about violence which, though dramatically down since 2008, still manifests itself in sporadic, almost daily incidents.
"Our future plans depend on electricity, security and the economy," Zeidan said.
The future also depends on how the Iraqi police and military manage without the Americans, all of whom will be gone by the end of next year. Both men said they had welcomed the Americans as liberators but were now glad to see them leaving.
"No one in Iraq likes the idea of a stranger coming into his house," said Zeidan. "This is our homeland."
"A year ago, I used to say the Americans should stay, but not now," said Abbas. "I think it is best if they leave, but without stopping their support for the government and the army."
Zeidan and Abbas are Shiite Muslims, the majority that was long oppressed by Saddam and had the most to gain from his ouster.
The two men, both college graduates, opened their store in 1995, hoping to ease the poverty inflicted by the U.N. sanctions that had followed Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait five years earlier. Today, what began as a secondhand bookstore and a lending library for students has become a major supplier of texts and language-skills books for colleges across the country.
Tucked among many other bookstores on a street named for a 10thcentury Baghdad poet, it is also one of the best sources of used books – some dating back a century – on Iraq, Islam and the Arab world.
In the past two years, Zeidan and Abbas have leased a store next door to expand, plus a storeroom in the dusty two-story mall where Iqraa (an Arabic command meaning "read") is located.
Abbas is getting a passport so he can travel to neighboring Iran to buy books directly from Iranian presses, rather than pay agents to buy and import them overland.
"Iran is closer than India and cheaper than Syria," he said.
They also are slowly building a stock of audio material for language students and contracting a Baghdad press to print pirated English and French classics.
"The world of books will not make us rich and fat," said Zeidan, 45 and a father of three. "But it's not making us poor and skinny either."
"Business has been good the past year," said Abbas, 47. "People's purchasing power is healthy, but every time there is a security situation, business drops."
In 2007, a year before Iraq turned the page on the post-invasion violence, a bombing on Mutanabi street killed nearly 40 people and wrecked scores of bookstores.
But on the day Abbas and Zeidan spoke, things seemed peaceful. An elderly, sweat-soaked man came looking for a Russian-Arabic dictionary to send to his son who is studying medicine in Moscow. A young student returned a borrowed volume of Byron's verse, and three others searched for textbooks that would help them learn English.
Nowadays Iraqis are traveling abroad more and studying for college degrees. They have connected to the outside world through satellite TV, the Internet and cell phones.
"For so long, we were a society governed by a single ruler – an oppressed people," said Zeidan. "We were an isolated society with Saddam's pet issues and slogans nonnegotiable. We have a new life now. Anyone can run for office. Anyone. "
But democracy has also turned out to be messy. Six months after the March 7 election, bickering politicians still haven't formed a new government.
Abbas and Zeidan say that despite their store's success, they have yet to reap the full benefits of a world without Saddam. But they manage to see hope even in the fact that the political deadlock is driven by personal rivalries rather than the sectarianism that spilled so much blood during the post-invasion violence.
"I don't care who is the next prime minister," said Abbas. "All that I care about is that we have a man who can run the country."